“Jew in the City” was always a bit of a misnomer. The organization founded by Allison Josephs has worked to improve the perception of Orthodox Jews and Orthodox Judaism since 2007. But it mostly operates in suburbia (its headquarters is in Teaneck) and cyberspace, with the exception of its annual all-star awards for accomplished observant Jews, which it holds at Lincoln Center in Manhattan.
But on a Monday afternoon two weeks ago, Ms. Josephs set up shop in the heart of the city. She and her colleagues pitched a tent at the corner of Third Avenue and East 106th Street in East Harlem with signs proclaiming: “Meet a Jew. Make a friend.”
The problem of Orthodox Jews being misunderstood and stereotyped, Ms. Josephs and her colleagues decided, had gotten too serious for business as usual. Attacks on Orthodox Jews in Brooklyn, Jersey City, and Monsey were becoming too regular and too deadly to ignore.
“It seemed like a whole new level,” Ms. Josephs said. “People were going into people’s houses with weapons, with a machete. We started talking about what our response should be.”
An old idea bubbled to the surface.
“In 2013, there was an exhibit in a German museum: A Jew in a box.” Yes, a real live Jew on display, answering the questions of curious Germans.
“I thought it was super weird but kind of cool. What if we could put a Jew in the streets of New York? It went on the back burner for a number of years.”
So how do you set up a tent on a street corner?
You get city permits. You speak to the local police. (They offered advice on which corner to set up shop.) And you buy rugelach and coffee.
And you go up to people as they pass by and say, “Would you like a free coffee? We’re here to meet people.”
How many people did Ms. Josephs and the half dozen volunteers who were with her meet?
“We ordered a little more than 60 rugelach,” Ms. Josephs said. Judging by how many were eaten, “We probably had around 50 people pass through.
“We got a lot of positive feedback. People said ‘We’re praying for you’ and ‘America is supposed to be a safe place for everyone.’ People understood that this is in reference to this uptick in violence. Many wanted to be ambassadors for their community.
“One gentleman said he’s visiting Israel next month with his church. ‘It’s great that you’re here,’ he told us.
“Another said, ‘You should know my church is praying for you. We want you to be safe.’”
“Another said, ‘It’s a free country. We should all be able to be free.’”
Other encounters were simply a handshake and an exchange of names.
“We weren’t expecting to change the world that day. We were expecting to change a few people. The most virulent anti-Semites are sick people. It will take a lot to get through to them. We’re hoping to reach people who are more neutral, where maybe they might hear a bad story about an Orthodox Jew and they can say they had coffee with an Orthodox Jew and they were quite lovely. That’s where actual experiences can replace the rumors, the negative stories that swirl around.
“You can be living or working in New York City every day and you might pass Jews on the street but never have a chance to interact personally. Either they blend in and you don’t know they’re a Jew, or the ones who dress more ‘Jewish’ may not be working with you. There’s a lot of bias and sort of negative feelings toward Jews who are more outwardly Jewish looking. Since most people don’t have the personal interactions, their knowledge is based on headlines — almost always negative — or movies and TV shows, or based on the experiences of growing up in a crazy household and leaving Orthodox Judaism.”
Ms. Josephs said Jew in the City plans to return to New York soon. She’s lining up a date and a location and permits to pitch the tent in Crown Heights. And she’s fielding requests to help arrange “Meet a Jew in the City” sessions from around the world, from Philadelphia and North Carolina to London and Melbourne.
“We thought it would be a one-time thing but it seems to be bigger than that,” Ms. Josephs said. “It seems like we accidentally started something.”
“We need to develop organizational resources to develop this. We’re trying to figure out how to scale. We’re developing a form for people to sign up and working to make it turnkey. We want to be able to say, ‘Here’s the signs to print, here’s how to contact local municipalities for permits, here’s the tent we recommend getting.’ We’ll have to try a few more on our own, and then try a few outside our own.”
Noting her organization’s 80,000 social media followers, Ms. Josephs said that online activism “is a lot more cost effective, but there’s something about being on the street and engaging with someone face to face that people understand better. It feels like we’re taking Jew in the City and putting it into real life, like one of those spoof videos where they take hashtags and act them out.”