When Allison Josephs, founder and director of the organization Jew in the City, set out to rebrand the world’s view of Orthodox Jews, she didn’t realize that she would also have to target specific groups of Jewish people, too. While many of her educational videos and articles can provide a wealth of information to those who are extremely liberal or unaffiliated, Allison was being contacted by Jewish people on the opposite spectrum—from the extreme right, and they were angry at the content on her website. They made claims like, “Nobody religious can dress like this,” and they found it difficult to believe that a woman could have a career and still be frum.
It really hit home for Josephs two years ago, when she was giving a religiously inspiring lecture in Monsey, NY. After she finished with her presentation, an Orthodox-looking couple approached her and engaged in a conversation. Their history seemed unique; they were formerly Hasidic, and were looking to integrate into a more modern, but religious, community, and they weren’t sure how. Josephs graciously invited them to come spend a weekend with her and her family, but when another guest interrupted the conversation, the couple slipped away. Josephs was disappointed that she had missed the opportunity to exchange contact information with the couple in order to help them, and immediately, she realized she needed to do something.
That’s when the seeds for Project Makom were sewn. Many have contemplated creating such an organization in the past, but faced too many obstacles. Josephs wrote a post expressing her ideas on the Jew in the City website, without even knowing where the project was headed, and it garnered much interest and support. Over 200 people wrote in that they wanted to be involved on some level, either to host families for weekends, to donate money, to help get these children into more modern schools. Two women were really serious about participating—Mindy Schaper and Gavriella Lerner, and they came on board as co-directors. Together, these women interviewed and screened 100 volunteers around the world, and immediately, partners were matched up to kick off a learning program to teach these former Hasidim the ways of the secular world, how we approach Torah and Kashrut, our ways of dressing and interacting and keeping Shabbat. Although we are all keeping the same Torah, there is a gap in the way laws are taught. For example, they believe that going to a movie is on the same level of the Torah prohibition of eating pig. This learning will set out to rectify these beliefs.
One participant mentioned that she grew up viewing God as waiting to catch her doing something wrong, like a big brother who just lurks around to punish. She did not feel that her relationship with Hashem had any father-like tones to it, and this was a direct result of her upbringing. Another participant revealed that she knew nothing about mitzvot that pertain to man versus man, but she was only taught (in Yiddish) about laws that were between man and God.
Project Makom had an inaugural shabbaton a few months ago in Airmont, NY, the community where Lipa Schmeltzer established a non-judgemental shul that welcomes all types of Jews. With around 20 couples attending, the goal of the weekend was to help the attendees find a place where they feel they belong, so they can connect to a community of people that already exists and continue in their traditional ways. Josephs hoped to to teach them that life should become more about what mitzvot they embrace, and less about what they reject.
The success of the shabbaton birthed a second shabbaton, which is slated to happen on the weekend of June 12–13 in the Five Towns. This event aims to attract Jews from all over, not just the Long Island communities, with the goal of introducing families or individuals to non-Hasidic ways of Jewish life. The shabbaton will include private time with the host families at their respective synagogues for prayers, group meals at a local yeshiva’s hall and an afternoon panel with a Yoetzet Halacha, former Hasidim and rabbis, to take place at the Aish Kodesh shul.
A few months ago, the couple Josephs had originally met after her lecture in Monsey contacted her. She was thrilled, and finally had the opportunity to have them over for a Shabbat experience. On Friday night, when her husband bent over to bless their children as was his routine, the couple stood still, and glanced at her questioningly. It was something they had never seen before in their Hasidic backgrounds, something that intrigued them, and Josephs and her husband were able to teach them about this custom of a blessing of love and protection that many Orthodox people have adopted.
There is a similar organization called Footsteps, which has been around since 2003; however, they do not aim at integrating former Hasidim into Orthodoxy, but are open to all and any paths. They have served over 800 people, teaching English, helping them get educations, jobs, building a community. But there is nobody redirecting them towards observance, and that is the difference with Project Makom. Makom teaches that they can still keep the Torah and be observant, but in different, acceptable ways. One well-known former Hasid (who has left Judaism) said, “If Project Makom had been around when I was leaving the community, perhaps I’d still be frum today.”
It seems difficult to understand how interested parties would even hear about Project Makom, as many Hasidic communities are insular and do not have access to social media. Which is why Josephs was surprised at how many Hasidic women she has met over time have come over and whispered to her that they know who she is and admire her work. There is power in social media spreading her message, in that it is able to reach those she intends to target.
As Project Makom continues to grow through Jew in the City, Josephs instills a lot of passion in her work. “I hope to continue to positively rebrand Orthodox Judaism, which is what I set out to do when I began Jew in the City, on both the right and left extremes, and to everyone in between.” May she be the catalyst that helps each individual find the right Makom, or place, in Torah observance.
For more information, or to volunteer or donate, please visit www.jewinthecity.com/project-makom.
By Sarah Abenaim