Suzanne Esterman of Belle Mead is a fan of JewBelong, a website created about a year ago by Archie Gottesman of Summit. Esterman, a member of the Jewish Center, stumbled onto the site and was “skeptical” about the content at first, she told NJJN.
But the more Esterman read, the more the content — written in a casual tone about a weighty topic, Judaism — made sense to her.
“It could talk to my boys and people who were disenfranchised and don’t want to be card-carrying tribe members,” Esterman said. “This could, at some point, either give them tools for a road back if they are interested or tools to know that it doesn’t matter what level you are — you’re accepted.”
Gottesman will speak about “How to Lead a Kick-Ass Seder” at The Jewish Center, Princeton, on April 7.
“I love being Jewish; it’s hardwired in me,” said Gottesman, who grew up in a Conservative home in Montclair and Morristown.
She told NJJN in a phone interview that her first inkling that her strong Jewish identity was not widely shared came when she tried, unsuccessfully, to get a Jewish fraternity to donate to United Jewish Appeal.
“They wouldn’t give money [to UJA], yet they were giving plenty to multiple sclerosis,” Gottesman said, lamenting that “there are so few Jews to give to Jewish causes yet so many people … who can give to multiple sclerosis.” It made her fear “a world where Judaism assimilates itself out of existence.”
To engage more Jews in Jewish life, she launched JewBelong, with the tagline “JewBelong: for when you feel you don’t.” Lighthearted and humorous, the site teaches users about holidays, lifecycle events, and Jewish concepts, in a way intended “to be welcoming to people wherever they are on the Jewish journey,” she said.
The JewBelong audience includes non-Jewish spouses and Jews who feel alienated. Gottesman said she never wants anyone to feel “Jewbarrassed,” a word she coined to express what someone may feel in a Jewish context when they are unsure of what’s going on and the service or ritual is not explained.
Take the Passover seder. “The ones with the most Jewish knowledge are singing, and the rest of us are participating in the chorus,” Gottesman said, which she said creates a strata of those in-the-know and those on the periphery.
But it could be so much more if people are comfortable, she said.
“Someone may come to that table and think, ‘That was a great, inspiring communal experience that I never had — maybe I’ll do something else.’”
For Gottesman, the journey that culminated in JewBelong started after college when dating her non-Jewish boyfriend, and eventual husband, Gary DeBode.
“I immediately told him it was very important to me that I marry someone who was Jewish,” she said. But after his conversion she realized that wasn’t quite enough for her.
“I wanted him to really feel the joy in being Jewish the way I did,” she said.
Thinking that Jewish experiences would make the difference, she took him to Israel for a month, and they also started attending synagogue together.
“Although I had been going to synagogue my whole life, I was able to see for the first time what Judaism might look like to someone who is an outsider, just someone who wasn’t brought up with a Jewish background,” she said.
For such outsiders, JewBelong removes potential barriers to meaningful Jewish experiences, such as the Hebrew language or a hard-to-follow prayer service.
“Every time there is a Jewish experience that doesn’t invite people in, I feel like it is a wasted moment,” Gottesman said. “If at a shiva minyan, people felt really inspired, you could have changed their life a little bit by inspiring them with something Jewish. Every time a Jewish experience misses that, it is a shanda, a shame.”
“I do believe that most people in this world look for meaning. They may find it in organized religion; otherwise, they look in other places,” she said.
The JewBelong seder, with a free downloadable Haggadah, lasts about 90 minutes and promotes active involvement for everyone seated around the table.
Her audience is largely people who don’t see a seder as “a huge, major tradition in their life, may not go every single year, and are not up to sitting five hours at a seder.”
Her Haggadah, like the website, is designed with humor, meaning, and inclusiveness. For example, in place of the traditional “Maggid” section that tells the Exodus story via a collection of texts, the JewBelong Haggadah includes a skit with 14 parts, including Moses, Aaron, Pharaoh, and Miriam, who cautions her brother against fleeing Egypt because “the bread won’t have time to rise.”
In turn he responds, “F-f-f-forget the bread, let’s go!”
“What I would love to see is that JewBelong becomes a conduit for people who maybe have been disengaged to find other Jewish experiences that they can actually go to,” Gottesman said. “If JewBelong can help bring people to other institutions, that would be great.”
If you go
Who: Archie Gottesman
What: How to Lead a Kick-Ass Seder
Where: The Jewish Center, Princeton
When: Sunday, April 7, 4 p.m.
Cost: Free. To reserve a printed copy of the JewBelong Haggadah,
call 609-921-0100, ext. 200, or firstname.lastname@example.org.