NEW YORK – When Emmy-winning writer Ilana Wernick took one of her first jobs writing for the TV show The King of Queens, she had to explain to her boss that although she was willing to work hard every day, she was not able to make it to episode tapings, since they take place on Friday nights and she keeps Shabbat.
Being an observant Jew is “second nature” to her, Wernick explained.
“It’s never occurred to me not to keep kosher. It never occurred to be not to keep Shabbat,” she told The Jerusalem Post,
“It’s the No. 1 thing in my life. It’s the No. 1 thing in my husband’s and my kids’ lives. Everything else just fits into that.”
Wernick has worked on multiple hit series including Modern Family and The Middle.
Combining being an Orthodox Jew and having a career that may sometimes conflict is all about “owning it,” she said.
“You can’t walk in there with a sense of entitlement, and you can’t be apologetic or wishy-washy about it either,” she said. “I think when secular people see that you are serious about it, they respect that.
“People line up for your spot, even if you do work on Shabbat. If you are good at what you do, they will be understanding,” she added.
Wernick was honored on Thursday night at the fourth annual Orthodox Jewish All Stars Premiere Party, hosted at the Museum of Jewish Heritage by Jew in the City – an organization aiming to break down stereotypes about religiously observant Jews through social media.
Allison Josephs, a mother of four, founded Jew in the City in 2007 and has been involved in the field of Jewish education and outreach for more than a dozen years.
“I was raised Jewish but with a real bias against the Orthodox community,” Josephs told the Post
She did not know any Orthodox Jews growing up, but her father – a neurologist who worked at Mount Sinai Hospital in Manhattan – often ridiculed his hassidic patients.
“He had some very negative experiences. One of my earliest memories of life were him coming home and disparaging his patients.”
When Josephs was eight, a horrific triple murder took place in her hometown of Florham Park, New Jersey.
“A father went crazy, and killed both kids and himself,” she recalled. “During the funeral, I saw the small caskets and suddenly I had this existential crisis. I realized no one told me why we’re alive.”
Josephs asked herself what is the meaning of life, and was tormented that no one in her close circle had an answer.
“It was a horrible discovery to make at eight years old that for most people life was just about staying distracted long enough to not get to that question,” she said. It was in Orthodox Judaism that Josephs found the answer she was looking for: that being Jewish was “bigger than gefilte fish, and lox and bagels.”
A few years later, in high school, Josephs and her sisters were sent to an after-school Hebrew program. There, she had an Orthodox teacher who challenged her childhood stereotypes about observant Jews.
“I saw that you can be an observant Jew without going off the deep end,” she said.
It was an epiphany that triggered Josephs’s journey toward observant Judaism.
With Jew in The City, she has now made it her mission to overcome stereotypes about the Orthodox community.
Through its online presence – which includes a website, YouTube channel, Facebook page and Twitter account – the organization explains key Jewish concepts such as Shabbat, keeping kosher, and modesty, while also tackling topics like the Orthodox Jewish approach to homosexuality, feminism and conversion. Posts usually present the issues with light humor, and share stories of interesting Orthodox individuals to appeal to anyone curious about Orthodox Jews and observant Judaism.
“Being an observant Jew doesn’t mean you have to be an extremist. You can actually be open-minded and educated,” she said.
The Jewish All Stars event on Thursday night put the spotlight on “individuals who have reached the pinnacle of their respective fields while maintaining a Torah-observant lifestyle.”
“So many celebrities that are put forward in the world and that people idolize have no values,” Josephs said, “so to see people who have that kind of conviction and at the same time are critically acclaimed is just uplifting.”
Wernick was joined by nine other honorees including Britain’s Minister of Pensions Baroness Ros Altmann; executive vice president of the Madison Square Garden Company Lawrence Burian; MIT physicist referred to as “the next Darwin” Jeremy England; award-winning business journalist for The Wall Street Journal Gregory Zuckerman; and treasurer of Columbia University Gail Hoffman.