When any new show about Orthodox Jews pops up on Netflix, the immediate question Orthodox Jews ask is: “Is this good for the Jews?” And in almost all cases, we already know the answer.
From “Unorthodox” to “My Unorthodox Life,” our stories have been told by those who have left Orthodoxy. And while those who have had negative experiences or trauma have a right to tell their stories, we as Orthodox Jews are misrepresented when their stories are presented as our stories. When tropes, stereotypes, misconceptions and generalizations are peddled about Orthodox Judaism and Orthodox Jews, viewers believe them to be true, especially viewers who have never met a religious Jew before. We have no alternative but to present the beauty and depth of living as observant Jews in the modern world.
When Netflix launched “Jewish Matchmaking,” I could hardly believe what I was seeing. Here was Aleeza Ben Shalom, a proud Orthodox Jewish woman, wife, mother and entrepreneur, who confidently walked into scenes kissing a mezuzah. She shared Jewish values and wisdom about dating and marriage with her clients, and the world was watching. Here was a woman who was proudly observant—and presented as likable, warm, strong and wise—far from the descriptions we’ve heard before of Orthodox Jewish women as fundamentalist and oppressed.
And the world fell in love with her. Tweets touted Aleeza Ben Shalom as the best thing about “Jewish Matchmaking,” citing her non-judgmental attitude and caring personality. One fan told Aleeza that when she’s faced with an ethical challenge, she now asks herself: “What would Aleeza do?”
One cannot underestimate the significance of this type of real, non-fictionalized representation on-screen and the positive response towards Aleeza Ben Shalom as a human being. If she were an actress playing a character, it would have been enough! But for the first time, we have a real-life Orthodox woman, confidently wearing modest clothing and head coverings, starring in a Netflix show. Aleeza, by just being Aleeza, has provided the foil to the backward Orthodox woman Netflix viewers thought they knew.
This is a start. But we need more. We need to be telling more personal, human stories of Orthodox Jews. We need to show the world who we are and what we believe. Yet most Orthodox Jews wouldn’t want to be the stars of a Netflix show, nor would they want cameras rolling in their homes. While film is arguably the most powerful tool at our disposal, we also have another powerful communication device: social media.
After launching the #myorthodoxlife social-media campaign, which got international attention (the hashtag was used in almost 3,000 Instagram posts) in response to “My Unorthodox Life” in 2021, I realized we need to be telling our stories as Orthodox Jews. Participants in the campaign were extremely motivated to dispel the myths and stereotypes purported on the show by sharing their own stories. How could we continue to share with others who we really are?
With the support of the Orthodox Union, we launched the social-media initiative “Faces of Orthodoxy” in 2022. It puts a human face on Orthodox Jews by telling the day-in-the-life stories of diverse religious Jews through portrait photography, personal photos and journal-style posts. We’re highlighting our everyday heroes of faith—not perfect people—who share their triumphs and struggles. Our followers engage daily with our content, cheering on our subjects as they share their life journeys.
The mission of “Faces of Orthodoxy” is to expose the non-Jewish and non-Orthodox communities to the diversity within the Orthodox community while emphasizing the universal values we all share. We also aim to inspire Orthodox Jews to be proud of who they are, what they do and what they believe. “Faces of Orthodoxy” has become a supportive community and a positive space on social media that celebrates the individuality of the Orthodox Jews in our communities.
One of my favorite pieces of feedback from a follower was in response to our profile on David Sacks, a Torah-observant Hollywood producer. She said: “Thanks for sharing your story. There is a narrative that if you are brilliant and talented, you are naturally not religious. Your life story counteracts that completely.”
And another about one of our “faces,” Shalom Goodman who’s a search-engine optimization (SEO) editor at The Wall Street Journal and has a significant speech impediment: “I love to follow this page so I can learn more as a non-Jew. And you speak beautifully and I’m so glad you shared your voice. It’s so important for all groups that a diversity of voices and experiences are shared. Thank you for your courage.”
We hope we’re sharing stories of Orthodox Jews in various careers, of various ethnicities, ages and religious backgrounds, who serve as role models to us all—and maybe break stereotypes along the way—as they live their lives committed to their faith.
More than ever, we need to put a human face on Orthodox Jews. We need to tell our stories. We need to show the world that we share similar human struggles, overcome universal challenges and live fulfilling lives in the modern world guided by the values and traditions of our ancient wisdom. Because if we won’t tell our stories, who will tell them for us?