Orthodox stars shining bright in the secular world were honored on Sunday night at the Fifth Annual Jew in the City All Star Awards Show & Premiere Party.
The event, held in Midtown Manhattan, highlighted individuals from across a range of fields who have distinguished themselves and honored the Jewish community through their distinguished careers. Nearly 500 guests attended.
Presenting the awards was Allison Josephs, the organization’s founder. The roots of the movement, she said, began in her childhood.
Allison grew up in the suburbs of New Jersey, in a Conservative family that valued Judaism but preferred assimilation into the secular world. Her father, a neurologist, was openly critical of Orthodox Jews, taking issue with their reliance on “the Rebbe” to make decisions. When Allison’s mother wanted to give the children Jewish names, he insisted that all three of his daughters have secular names. “If we lived in Israel, fine, but we don’t; they have to have Anglo names.” Allison and her sisters were sent to public school “to learn how to live with non-Jews.” Here she encountered a number of anti-Semitic misconceptions from her classmates, including the accusation that “if you don’t believe in [who we believe in], you don’t believe in G-d.”
As a result of the anti-religious bias of her parents and the anti-Semitism she experienced in school, Allison grew up thinking, “I can’t be like one of them [Orthodox Jews].” But this biased impression gave way when she began learning at 16 years of age. Though her parents first bristled at her shift to Orthodoxy, they soon saw the blessing that they had been missing. “It was under my nose all along,” said her father. According to her mother, Allison led her father and her to adopt the religious lifestyle as well. Soon her father was the one consulting rabbis – and now rabbis are some of his best friends. “Because of Allison, her two sisters and her father and I are observant. Her two sisters live in Israel, they’re married, and each has five children. We have 13 grandchildren – because of her.”
Still, despite being able to bring herself and her family into Orthodoxy, Allison continued to encounter a number of negative reactions to religious Judaism. In 2005, after being interviewed by a journalist about her community, she realized that Orthodox Judaism is widely misunderstood. Many people, including Jews themselves, were judging the religious community based on a combination of centuries-old misconceptions, stereotypes, and caricatures of Jews and a handful of negative headlines on scandals involving members of the community. “I realized that the crooks, creeps, and extremists of our community had taken over the brand, and it was time for us to reclaim it.” Allison decided that the best way to combat these false perceptions was to take charge and show the world the truth about the Orthodox Jewish Community. “What if we could do something proactive? What if we could tell the story in our own words? What if we could show the world what Orthodoxy looks like to us?” Thus the idea was born.
Today, Jew in the City aims to challenge the often-negative public perceptions of Orthodox Jews and promote understanding of religious Judaism. The organization uses eight social media platforms to deliver persuasive original content aimed at debunking stereotypes about Orthodox Jews. The annual “All Stars Awards” is a way to publicize just a few of the countess contributions Orthodox Jews have made to the world at large.
This year’s class of honorees included David A. Adler, author of the bestselling Cam Jansen children’s mystery series; Samuel Rascoff, former head of the NYPD Intelligence Analysis Unit; the Honorable Ruchie Freier, first chasidic female judge; David Mazouz, teen star of Fox’s hit TV show Gotham; Ahmed “Ephraim” Zayat, businessman and owner of Triple-Crown-winning racehorse American Pharoah; Neil Schloss, VP and CFO of Mobility for the Ford Motor Company; Frayda Ginsburg, the former Director of Legal – Americas, for the Burberry Group; and Chaim Lebovits, the president and CEO of Brainstorm Cell Therapeutics.
Though the “All Stars” came from a range of personal backgrounds, professional fields, and paths to Judaism, the message was common: Stay true to your faith.
Mr. Adler grew up Modern Orthodox and fell into writing by chance. Over the decades, he developed a devoted following for his best-selling Cam Jansen mystery series; he has also published a series of biographies and Holocaust texts for young readers, among other works. Throughout his career, Mr. Adler always worked to promote Jewish values in his works, even going so far as to change the story line of one of his Cam Jansen mysteries so that the protagonist would not be working on Shabbos, and making sure that the lunches she packed were always kosher. Adler himself also holds Shabbos in the highest esteem; he will soon be honored with the prestigious Regina Medal, one of the most respected honors in children’s literature – but before accepting, he made sure that the ceremony would not be held on a Friday night. “Being an observant Jew has given me Shabbos, and it has given me community.”
Neil Schloss echoed the love of Shabbos and stressed the importance of sticking to religious values despite the professional challenges that can come with it. “‘24/6’ is real,” he said. “It’s so important to educate Jews that they don’t have to make the tradeoff between being successful and being religious.”
According to Mr. Zayat, Judaism has been central to his success. “Faith is very important to us, from the moment we open our eyes to the moment we close them.” He credited his father with teaching him to stay true to his Judaism despite the fact that they were the only observant Jewish family in Egypt. When it came to Judaism, he said, “He taught us never to compromise.”
In addition to the All Star honorees, Jew in the City hosted two American Jewish service members, West Point Chaplain Capt. David Ruderman and US Army Chaplain Tzvi Teitelbaum. Both led Orthodox-style services among troops with minimal religious affiliation during their tours in Afghanistan. Kosher Troops, a sponsor of the event, arranged the chaplains’ appearance. The organization was founded to boost the morale and welfare of Armed Forces members by sending care packages to Jewish service members (over 1,000) on every Jewish holiday. Like Jew in the City, Kosher Troops works both to gain recognition for Jewish contributions to American life and to show Jews how much can be achieved even when they embrace religious observance. “Many people are not aware that there are Jews – even Orthodox Jews – making such amazing contributions to the military,” said co-founder Amy Hamburger. “They make these contributions but they don’t have to sacrifice their ideals. They’re holding tight to being kosher and keeping Shabbos.”
Between the servicemen and the honorees, the event succeeded in presenting the shining stars of the Jewish community. These men and women distinguished themselves not in spite of their religious devotion but because of it: It was their Jewish values that propelled them to positions of leadership and prominence in their fields. That success would not have been possible without their Judaism.
Mrs. Freier echoed this spirit in her acceptance speech. “Whatever your standards are, stick with them. Don’t feel for one second that you have to compromise any of your religious standards to be successful in the secular professional world, because you really don’t. Stick to your values and they will give you the strength to succeed.”
By Emily Cohen