January 14, 2020 In The News

Jewish Insider: The woman behind Manhattan’s boldest billboards is now boosting Judaism

If you’ve spent any time in New York City over the past 20 years, you’ve probably enjoyed Archie Gottesman’s handiwork. For decades, Gottesman was the genius behind the viral billboards for Manhattan Mini Storage, including memorable gems like “Why leave a city that has six professional sports teams, and also the Mets?” and “NYC: Tolerant of your beliefs, judgmental of your shoes.”

Today, Gottesman has turned her knack for witty one-liners toward marketing something else entirely: Judaism. Together with Stacy Stuart, her longtime advertising partner, Gottesman launched JewBelong, an organization working to reach out to Jews who are disconnected, disengaged and sometimes intimidated by participating in Jewish events or rituals.

“I think everyone wants meaning, and if Judaism doesn’t give it to them then they’re going to find it somewhere else,” Gottesman told Jewish Insider in a recent interview. “Judaism is so chock-full of meaning… there seemed to be a yearning for the kind of content that JewBelong provides.”

The advertising veteran, activist and philanthropist thinks that Judaism often gets a bad rep, and that a little marketing and outreach can do a world of good. “I don’t necessarily need to be like the Mormons, going and knocking on people’s doors,” she said, “but I also feel like — showing real love and compassion and welcome to people who think, ‘I love your values, I love what Judaism is about’ — I just feel like, why wouldn’t I want to say, ‘Absolutely, come on in.’”

Gottesman has been active for years in the nonprofit and philanthropic worlds, serving on the boards of the Israel on Campus Coalition, the Foundation for Jewish Camp and several other organizations. Today she is a board member of Democratic Majority for Israel, as well as vice president of the board at Zioness — two liberal political groups which embrace Zionism and support for Israel. 

“I’m Jewish and I’m a Democrat… and when I saw anti-Israel sentiment within the Democratic party, and this high criticism of Israel, I was just like, what?” Gottesman recalled. “I’m so supportive of the Democratic party, I’ve supported Democratic candidates and Israel is becoming weaponized by people within the Democratic Party.”

Gottesman has been a longtime supporter of liberal values and of the Democratic party — which also sometimes featured in her work at Manhattan Mini Storage. Some of the company’s more memorable ads included “If you don’t like gay marriage, don’t get gay married” and “Michelle Bachmann says God told her to run for president. How come God never talks to smart people anymore?”

In today’s climate, she said, “I feel very strongly that people need to speak up for Israel. They need to be talking to everybody who is running for president, everybody who’s running for elected office and say, ‘by the way, I’m pro-Israel.’”

And that strong pro-Israel sentiment also comes across in JewBelong’s content and message. In the site’s “New Ten Commandments,” the third commandment is “Belief in God is not required,” while the fourth is: “Get to Israel” — and preferably on a family trip, not Birthright.

“Israel is the Jewish homeland, with all of her bruises and mistakes,” Gottesman said. “Israel is necessary for the Jewish people.” While she doesn’t reject healthy criticism of the Jewish state, “if you criticize the country enough, and you lose support, there’s not going to be an Israel. Why do you think that you can just criticize it and criticize it and criticize it and she’s still going to be there?”

When JewBelong first launched, Gottesman said, it didn’t even have an Israel section on its website. But “what’s happening in America right now,” she noted, is that the small minority of Jews who don’t support the state of Israel — Gallup put the percentage of anti-Zionist American Jews at 5% — “have a really outsized voice” on the national stage. And that tiny minority “is doing way more damage” relative to its size.

Gottesman and Stuart launched JewBelong several years ago, with a dynamic and interactive website that seeks to demystify many Jewish practices with guides, cheat sheets and activity suggestions for Jewish holidays and lifecycle events.

In October, JewBelong splashed onto the scene in a big way, with its first ad buy in New York City. The organization poured between $15,000 and $20,000 into advertising on kiosks around New York and New Jersey, with two eye-catching and unforgettable taglines: “Even if you think kugel is an exercise you do for your vagina… JewBelong” and “So you eat bacon. God has other things to worry about.”

Until very recently, “the lion’s share” of JewBelong’s spending has come from Gottesman herself, she said, “because I just really believe in it.” More recently, she added, the organization has received funding from the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation and the Crown Family Philanthropies, and it hopes to launch a bigger advertising campaign — this time both within and outside the New York area — before Passover.

While many of her ads — for both JewBelong and Manhattan Mini Storage — have been edgy and controversial, only one garnered a call from the Anti-Defamation League. That was a 2004 billboard featuring a statue of a Buddha in storage with the tagline: “My owner’s a Jew… again.” While they ended up pulling the 2004 ad, Gottesman said she wouldn’t have made the same decision today, and now prefers to let criticism roll off her back.

“The world would be perfect if no one was negative about it, but I don’t think that’s the world we live in,” she said. “People were all over the board [in response to the JewBelong ads], but there was a lot more positive than negative.”

While JewBelong has only been around for a few years, the idea for the organization has been germinating in Gottesman’s mind for more than 25. For decades, she collected and filed away ideas, texts and activities that held meaning for her family — and she hoped would bring meaning to others.

Gottesman, 56, grew up in New Jersey in a Conservative Jewish family, where she kept kosher and Shabbat and attended Hebrew school three times a week. When she met and began dating her now-husband, Gary DeBode, Gottesman made it clear that he would have to convert to Judaism. He was completely on board, but Gottesman still had a few more concerns.

“I said, ‘What happens if we have children, and there’s some tragic accident and I die?’” Gottesman said, recalling a conversation the couple had while driving from Boston to Maine while they were still dating. “And I said: ‘That means you’re going to have to meet someone else who’s Jewish if you remarry. Or if you meet someone who’s not Jewish, she’s going to have to convert, because it’s really not about you and me. It’s really about the kids.’”

DeBode promised that he was committed to raising a Jewish family and living a Jewish life, and the rest, as they say, is history. The couple have been married for almost 27 years and have three adult daughters. And their journey is one that inspired Gottesman to try to break down Judaism for those who may feel intimidated.

“I think that, in a way, Gary converting to be Jewish made me really own my Judaism in a way that I don’t think I felt like I had to before,” Gottesman said. “I think maybe if it wasn’t for Gary, I may never have started JewBelong. Because all of a sudden I started to look at being Jewish the way he might.”

And while converts to Judaism can gain a lot from JewBelong, Gottesman is casting a wide net, aiming to reach disengaged Jews, those with only one Jewish parent, people married to Jews and any Jew-curious information seekers.

“If we can touch people’s hearts with Judaism, they are more willing than one might think to be like, ‘Okay, fine, I’m in,’” Gottesman said. “I want to be the gateway drug for Judaism.”