After a few-thousand-year run, maybe Judaism needs to rebrand. At least that’s what New York brand marketer Margery Sue – better known as Archie — Gottesman thinks.
With her longtime business partner, Stacy Stuart, Gottesman started jewbelong.com, a resource for secular Jews, disengaged Jews, non-Jews, or anyone else looking to navigate the venerable and often inscrutable Jewish customs and holidays.
And along the way, Gottesman, who will speak at George Mason University Nov. 5 for the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington’s Routes event, is trying to give the old religion a new look.
She and Stuart are putting their marketing experience to work for Judaism, designing campaigns that are for the website, but could just as easily serve as an invitation to the faith broadly.
“Joan Rivers is gone. We have a vacancy,” reads one. “At least you can wear your skinny jeans on Thursday,” deadpans another for Yom Kippur.
“We want Judaism to get noticed. We have so much content being thrown at us all the time, but Judaism doesn’t usually lead with humor or pop culture,” Gottesman said in an interview. “Jewbelong does.”
New Yorkers may recognize the dry wit from the once-ubiquitous Manhattan Mini Storage advertisements the duo wrote. Sometimes, the billboards had nothing to do with storage. “If you don’t like gay marriage, don’t get gay married” might ring a bell.
But Gottesman’s aim is to make those who’ve grown disengaged from or intimidated by the religion comfortable coming back. And with free guides on the website for things like Passover skits and creative, engaging Shabbat readings, she wants to make the faith fun enough to keep people coming back.
“So many people have tried to wipe us out and we’re still here,” Gottesman, 56, said. “I feel like, for this generation, it’d be so heartbreaking if we just sort of opted out because there was nothing compelling and people were just disinterested.”
Her philosophy doesn’t necessarily adhere to strictly traditional Jewish practices or beliefs.
It’s about “doing Jewish the way you want,” she says. If your child has a soccer game on a Friday night, the website says, it’s not the end of the world — just observe the Sabbath a different way. Even belief in God is negotiable, according to the site’s “New Ten Commandments.”
“You don’t need to believe in God to be a good Jew,” it reads. “Meaningful Judaism can be about values, tradition, culture and community.”
Gottesman grew up Conservative in New Jersey, but wound up marrying a non-Jew who ultimately converted. She says it was after her husband’s conversion that she started thinking about ways to make Judaism more alluring. The couple would visit congregations and sometimes find themselves bored by the rabbi delivering a less-than-spirited sermon or alienated by a high knowledge barrier to entry.
“I wanted him to love the religion the way I do,” she said.
Today, Gottesman and her husband have three daughters in their 20s and attend a Reconstructionist synagogue in New Jersey, where they live.
They’d find themselves facing what she now calls “Jewbarrassment,” the feeling of being exposed for your ignorance of a certain tradition or ritual. The couple once left a wedding because they didn’t know a traditional dance.
Ending “Jewbarrassment” is the core mission of Jewbelong.com, and with interfaith marriage being more prevalent than ever, Gottesman says there’s a real market for the website’s layman’s voice.
She said she would host Shabbat dinners or Passover seders, and would find herself receiving emails from guests who attended asking her to send them more information about the rituals, prayers, poetry readings from the evening. One day about two years ago, she decided to put everything on a website. She and Stuart now work on it full time
Ultimately, though, Gottesman’s philosophy stems from a deep-seated love of her faith.
“Judaism’s brand can be intimidating and confusing. It can make you feel like ‘I’m not doing this right,’” she said. We want the brand to be welcoming, loving and about really important values and things that are relevant in our lives. … I hope this doesn’t sound corny, but the values and history of Judaism, and the contributions that Jews have given to the world is really something special.”