A nonprofit organization is tackling growing attacks on the Jewish community in a splashy way – by installing bright pink billboards across the country that denounce antisemitism.
The New Jersey-based organization, JewBelong, launched the #EndJewHate campaign last June with billboards in New York, Boston, San Francisco, Washington D.C., Las Vegas and now, Miami, after flyers blaming Jews for Covid-19 were found distributed in two South Florida cities last month.
With messages like “I promise to love being Jewish 10x more than anyone hates me for it," “3,500 years of antisemitism doesn’t make it right," and “Does your church need armed guards? ‘Cause our synagogue does,” the organization hopes to spread awareness of antisemitism around the country.
Archie Gottesman and Stacy Stuart worked in branding and marketing for over 20 years before co-founding JewBelong. Now the self-proclaimed ‘Co-Chief-Rebrander-of-Judaism’ and ‘Chief Branding Badass’ are taking notes from their previous experience designing witty billboards to draw attention to antisemitism.
JewBelong started with the intention to make Judaism more approachable to who the organization refers to as “Disengaged Jews”—a group of Jews who may not feel connected to their Jewish-ness for one reason or another—with relatable affirming messages like, “We don’t care which half of you is Jewish” and “So you eat bacon. God has other things to worry about.”
Stuart told ABC News that a rise in antisemitism following the 2021 Israel-Palestine crisis last May was a turning point.
“You know, there was so much hatred on social media and in the street and we just felt like it was necessary to do something, not just because of our Judaism and our passion for the religion, but because we felt like the Disengaged Jews are our target market. They already have hurdles to their Judaism,” she said.“And now you throw antisemitism into it and we were afraid we were really going to lose a large chunk of them.”
Stuart says they wanted JewBelong to be “not just a voice talking to the community, but talking to the world at large.”
“Jews belong in the conversation. Hate is painful. Hate is scary. It's painful. It doesn't allow us to become who we are,” said Gottesman. “It just makes us feel less than like all of those terrible things about marginalized groups, which again, this country is trying to work on and should be working on.”
According to a 2020 Pew Research Center report, there are 5.8 million Jewish adults in the United States, accounting for 2.4% of the United States’ adult population.
“One of the reasons that JewBelong is doing the campaign is not everybody realizes this, Jews are only 2% of the population in the United States,” said Gottesman. “We're so tiny that it's like, we need some help in terms of being able to get the message out there.”
According to the NYPD Hate Crimes Dashboard, there were 198 confirmed hate crime incidents against Jewish people in 2021, up from a still-alarming 121 incidents in 2020. The Anti-Defamation League’s Center on Extremism recorded 2,024 antisemitic incidents in their 2020 annual audit, making it the third-highest year on record since 1979.
Incidents like the recent hostage situation at Congregation Beth Israel in Colleyville, Texas, have prompted the Department of Homeland Security to address the “continuing threat of violence based upon racial or religious motivations, as well as threats against faith-based organizations.”
British national Malik Faisal Akram took a rabbi and other congregants at the Texas synagogue hostage on Jan. 15 for several hours before he was killed by police, authorities said. The incident prompted American Jewish organizations to offer solidarity and calls to action across the country.
Organizations like the American Jewish Committee and the Anti-Defamation League have since urged the confirmation of President Biden’s Special Envoy nominee Deborah Lipstadt, who called the rise in antisemitism “staggering” in her confirmation hearing on Tuesday.
Lipstadt, who is currently the Dorot Professor of Modern Jewish and Holocaust Studies at Emory University, previously served on the United States Holocaust Memorial Council.
“Dr. Deborah Lipstadt’s confirmation as the U.S. Special Envoy to Monitor and Combat Anti-Semitism would send a powerful signal to governments around the world that the U.S. takes combating antisemitism seriously and calls on them to do the same,” the ADL stated on their website.
The Vice President of the ADL’s Center on Extremism, Oren Segal, told ABC News about the importance of taking this data seriously and recognizing antisemitism and hate.
“And I should note that in the fight against antisemitism, ADL’s mission recognizes that you have to stand up and combat all forms of hatred, right, that you know, where racism or misogyny and Islamophobia grow so does antisemitism, and vice versa," Segal said.
"The other thing that is important is to, you know, have leaders, policymakers, elected officials, reject antisemitism wherever and whenever it arises," he continued. "Right? So, one of the problems that we're seeing today is the normalization of antisemitism. I would even argue inability to recognize it. And that's why it's really important that people speak out against that wherever it happens."
Lipstadt declined ABC News' request for comment.
JewBelong is focused on raising awareness with their campaign that has garnered appreciation from the Jewish community and allies alike.
“The appreciation of the Jewish community has been beautiful and important and growing,” Stuart said. “It’s helping create conversations which ultimately leads to safety. You know, we're such a marginalized group, and we really felt like someone needed to stand up and start the momentum to having these conversations and it's working.”
“I think allyship is very, very important. And I think that we're hearing a lot from that,” said Gottesman. “We're hearing from people who are Jewish too, who feel like they are seen – people who say things like, I am so glad that I see those billboards up because it has been a really rough time right now and I'm glad to see someone is saying something.”
Gottesman told ABC News that a woman even traveled from miles away to see one of the billboards in New York.
“I'm going to come because I want to stand there and see the billboard. I saw it on social media, but I want to come and see it because it's really important to me,” she says the woman told her. “And then she got back to us,” Gottesman added. “She said, ‘I did and I started to cry when I saw it because I really feel like it was so important to see.’”
Despite overwhelmingly positive reception, JewBelong has been on the receiving end of hateful messages, too according to screenshots of emails and social media comments that Gottesman shared with ABC News.“We're getting people saying you know, Hitler should have finished you all off…” she said.
Nevertheless, JewBelong is determined to keep going. “The point is never to like, worry about the people who really hate you.” said Gottesman.
The group says people all over the country have reached to ask about getting a billboard in their cities and has plans to expand in the coming weeks, with one going up in downtown Toronto on February 28.