Project Makom, an initiative of Jew in the City, helps former and questioning Charedi Jews find their place in Orthodoxy. While we believe that there are numerous valid paths within Orthodox Judaism, not all observant Jews are born into a community that fits them. There are some Modern Orthodox Jews who choose to move to the right, but Charedi Jews who want to transition to less insular observant communities often face hurdles that prevent them from doing so (whether cultural, educational, or simply feeling unwelcomed). Some of these people end up leaving religious life altogether. Project Makom strives to give these individuals another option.
We believe that every Jew should get the chance to find his or her Makom. As a new ba’alas teshuva, Project Makom founder, Allison Josephs struggled to find where she belonged. It was a pursuit to live a life imbued with meaning and a connection to Hashem that brought her to Torah observance, but once she arrived, she had no idea which community to join. She’d meet modern Orthodox Jews who would tell her to be “modern” because “charedim are crazy,” then she’d meet charedi Jews who’d tell her to become charedi because Modern Orthodox Jews are lazy. Then she’d meet Lubavitchers who would tell her Chabad was the way to go.
Feeling lost and confused, Allison thought maybe she would just trust no one, as every person she spoke to seemed to have an agenda. But then at the end of a summer of studying in Israel, she met a wise woman who did not try to persuade Allison to become like her. Instead she told her: “There were twelve shvatim, they each had their own way, go find yours.” Armed with the permission to trust in herself, Allison felt empowered to explore many communities and choose one where she felt most comfortable. Attending the seminary Midreshet Rachel (a division of Darche Noam) soon aftwards, where the hashkafa was to expose the new ba’al teshuva to a range of communities, teachers and rebbeim, Allison found her way and uses this approach in guiding Makom’s programming and philosophy.
Project Makom is committed to presenting a range of communities and teachers to its members who share these values (which can be found across the spectrum of Orthodoxy):
- open-mindedness and non-judgmentalism
- derech eretz kadma l’Torah
- commitment to halacha in order to build a sincere relationship with Hashem
- not afraid of tough questions, and knowing sometimes the question is better than the answer
- belief that faith is not provable, but that there are compelling reasons to choose faith
- ahavas Yisrael, but also not being afraid to speak out against problems
- belief that science, secular media, and higher education can have a place within Orthodoxy
In February 2013, Allison Josephs founder and director of Jew in the City, a social media organization whose mission is to break down stereotypes about religious Jews and offer a humorous, meaningful look into Orthodox Judaism had a speaking engagement in Monsey geared towards a non-observant crowd. After the talk, a couple approached her. They had been raised, as they described it “ultra-Chasidish,” but did not feel that they could live such a strict life any more. Unfortunately, their families had rejected them when they expressed their desire to lead a more moderate observant Jewish life. “We still want to be frum,” they told her, “we just don’t know who to follow.”
Allison was troubled by how lost they were and told them she wanted to help them. “You’ll come for Shabbos,” she said. “I’ll introduce you to our Rav.” But then someone interrupted them, and when she looked up, they were gone. She tried to find them after the talk, to no avail. Allison started reaching out to people at major Jewish organizations, asking if anyone wanted to help create a program to help people in this situation. Nobody was ready to do anything about it.
As the months passed, every so often Allison would remember that this couple was still out there and feel guilty, but it wasn’t until May of 2014 that something finally pushed her to act. She read an account online of an ex-Satmar woman who wanted to stay observant after she left her Satmar community, but every non-Chasidic school she checked out didn’t want her kid. Her new non-Chasidic neighbors never really welcomed her and her son had no one to play with on Shabbos until she started paying a neighbor to do so. After enough rejections, she got fed up and just left altogether. Today she is no longer observant.
The moment Allison read this, she knew that something had to be done even if she didn’t know what that thing was. And so the next day Allison posted an article on JewintheCity.com asking our readers to speak up if they were willing to help people in this situation. She heard from 200 people from around the world (including the couple who she had lost! And she did have them for Shabbos and introduced them to her rav!) Apparently many people had been wanting to help but didn’t know how to.
Two women, Mindy Schaper and Gavriella Lerner, volunteered to spearhead this effort, which was named Project Makom. A quick Project Makom Shabbaton was hosted in Airmont in July 2014, and the following year was spent recruiting, interviewing, and connecting with volunteers, educators, mental health professionals, and community leaders to coordinate services. A Shabbaton in June 2015 hosted in the Five Towns, launched the first year of full programming, and Project Makom continues to develop, expand services, grow, and improve.
Why the name?
We named this initiative “Makom” because this word has several meanings which fit our goals. “Makom” means “place” – as in “every Jew should be able to find his place in our community.” It means “space” as in “we will make space for you if you want to join us here.” And lastly, “Makom” is one of the names of God. We refer to God as “HaMakom” when we’re comforting a mourner. The Maharal says that “Makom” is connected to the word“mekayem,” something that sustains and provides existence. Many of the people making this transition need both comfort and sustenance as they find their way in a community which is unfamiliar to them.
Zeldy grew up in a very close and tight-knit chasidish community in Brooklyn. While there was a tremendous amount of warmth and chesed exemplified by her community, she yearned to find her spiritual individuality and gain a deeper emotional and intellectual understanding of G-d. With a background in sales and a passion for dance, Zeldy now teaches English at a large Yeshiva. She lives in North Jersey with her husband and three beautiful children.
Debbie Akerman, LCSW
Director of Social Services
Debbie Akerman, LCSW is a social worker with years of experience in addiction, recovery and trauma, both in the clinical and administrative spheres. A wife and mother to 11 biological and 8 chosen children, Debbie is currently a PhD student working on her dissertation in Social Welfare, studying addiction and the Orthodox Jewish Community. Passionate regarding educating the community about trauma and addiction, Debbie speaks to groups, students and community leaders helping to break down the walls of shame and stigma that surround this very real and social disease.
Gavriella Lerner studied at Midreshet HaRova in the Old City for two years after high school. She graduated from Stern College in 2009 with a BA in Journalism and a minor in Jewish Studies, and completed her MA in English literature at Queens College in 2013. Her first job out of college was teaching English as a Second Language in a Chasidish girls’ school in Williamsburg. She has since alternated between teaching Tanach and English Language Arts and is currently teaching ELA at Shalhevet High School for Girls in North Woodmere, NY. Gavriella is passionate about Jewish education and instilling a love of both Jewish and secular learning no matter the age group. She lives in Woodmere, New York with her husband and two children.
Director of Networking
Shterna Sofer was raised Chassidish in Monsey, NY. Following her graduation from high school she moved to Baltimore, MD. After receiving a BS in Biology from Towson University, Shterna obtained a Master of Health Science in Molecular Microbiology and Immunology from Johns Hopkins University. She is currently a medical student at the University of Maryland School of Medicine. Shterna has been a member of Project Makom since its inception, and is excited to be joining the management team.
Allison Josephs is the founder and director of Jew in the City (of which Project Makom is an initative of) whose mission is to break down stereotypes about religious Jews and offer a humorous, meaningful look into Orthodox Judaism. Allison has been involved in the field of Jewish Outreach for over fifteen years, working at Partners in Torah, Sinai Retreats, and NCSY, and is the Partner in Torah mentor to actress Mayim Bialik. She was named one of NJOP’s Top Ten Jewish Influencers in 2012 and was one of the Jewish Week’s 36 under 36 in 2013. Allison has been quoted or written about in numerous publications, including The Wall Street Journal, CNN, The Daily Beast, Huffington Post, and Yahoo News.
Allison has appeared on numerous television and radio networks including CBS, TLC, The Hallmark Channel, HuffPost Live, Associate Press TV, and NPR; her articles have appeared in numerous publications including the anthology Like Water on a Rock, The Washington Times, Kveller, and The Forward. She is a sought-after international lecturer whose corporate clients include Con-Edison and NYU Langone and hosts a weekly radio show on the Nachum Segal Network. She received her Bachelor in Arts from Columbia University in Philosophy and lives with her husband and four children minutes from the George Washington Bridge.
The food, the decor, the program, the speeches, the everything.... seriously beyond words... had an amazing life changing weekend.
Project Makom is a division of Jew in the City. If you’d like to help us offer more classes, shabbatons, online content, social service referrals, and more, please support Project Makom today
Jew in the City is a 501(c)(3) non-profit educational organization. Contributions to Jew in the City are tax-deductible to the extent permitted by law. Our EIN is 47-1404218.