Who is paying for these ‘JewBelong’ bacon billboards in the East Bay? – J.

If you’ve driven around the East Bay in recent months, there’s a good chance you’ve seen them. Billboards with the JewBelong.com logo, displaying a massive piece of fatty bacon and the message: “So you eat bacon. God has other things to worry about.”

JewBelong — a New Jersey–based nonprofit famous for flashy billboards and social media memes with cheeky, provocative messaging — put up six of these bacon billboards in Oakland, Berkeley and Emeryville beginning in March.

JewBelong also published a digital “Guide to the East Bay,” in August that appears (for Bay Area users only) as a link on the top of JewBelong’s homepage.

Cities from New York to Atlanta to San Francisco have seen JewBelong’s advertisements adorning bus stops, train stations and highway billboards—several of them paid for by Jewish philanthropists.

But the East Bay billboards and accompanying digital guide represent the first time JewBelong has attempted a partnership of this kind with a major Jewish philanthropy, said Archie Gottesman, the nonprofit’s co-founder.

That philanthropy is the Rodan Family Foundation, an Orinda-based nonprofit that supports Jewish and pro-Israel causes, with a focus on young Jewish adults in the East Bay and San Francisco. The foundation paid JewBelong an undisclosed amount for the billboards, Gottesman said.

Katie and Amnon Rodan, who started the foundation in 2018, are the co-creator and chairman emeritus, respectively, of Rodan + Fields, a highly successful anti-aging skincare company that uses a multilevel marketing business strategy.

JewBelong’s advertising campaigns seek to encourage Jews who feel intimidated or uneducated about Judaism to learn about local Jewish groups and organizations that might resonate with them, Gottesman said.

For instance, the bacon billboards are not encouraging practicing Jews to “break rules” of kashrut, Gottesman said. “But I would hate for a rule to stop someone from going on a Jewish journey.”

The bacon billboard includes a product to passersby to print a free haggadah, and has a companion social media campaign. The digital version reads: “Your Jew-ish connection in the East Bay. Click Here.”

The billboards, Gottesman said, were meant to steer people to the JewBelong website, and in turn, to the 20 organizations listed in their Guide to the East Bay. That list includes Jewish social, educational, religious, and philanthropic organizations, as well as Urban Adamah in Berkeley, and Camp Newman in Santa Rosa — all organizations that receive donations from the Rodan Family Foundation.

Kosher stuff just isn’t a focus for any young Jews I’ve met here.

The East Bay billboards are markedly different than JewBelong’s hot pink #EndJewHate digital billboards that appeared in five major US cities, including San Francisco, in July 2020. That was a national campaign addressing antisemitism. These bacon billboards, which use the same messaging as JewBelong ads in other cities, are locally funded and locally focused.

“What the Rodans were interested in, and what we do well, is we’re mass marketers [for Judaism],” Gottesman said. “We throw a very, very, very big net.”

The billboard campaign was paid for until May 1, though, as of early June, some of the billboards had yet to be replaced.

Gottesman said the goals of the Rodan-funded campaign — to bring new participants to the local East Bay Jewish organizations they fund — has worked.

“People clicked, and they talked, and we got them,” Gottesman said.

That’s true for Micah Siva, a San Francisco food writer who saw one of the billboards in Berkeley.

“I love them!” Siva said of the billboards in an Instagram message sent to J. “Seeing the billboard made me feel represented and seen like I had never experienced. It’s weird to think that a billboard could have such a profound effect, but the excitement and pride that I felt as I drove past was truly special.”

Mariyama Scott, an Oakland resident, had this to say in an Instagram message to J. about the bacon-without-guilt messaging: “Love seeing Jewish stuff that advocates a compassionate God!”

The billboards sparked the curiosity JewBelong intended, but had the unintended effect of being rebuked among more observant Jews in the East Bay.

“Since many — maybe most — Jews in the Bay don’t seem to be observant or kosher, I honestly didn’t understand this sign,” an East Bay Jewish woman who wished to remain anonymous told J. in an Instagram message. “Kosher stuff just isn’t a focus for any young Jews I’ve met here.”

Elizheva Hurvich, a Jewish educator and rabbinical student from Oakland, received several text messages from Jewish and non-Jewish friends who saw the billboards. Despite growing up in a Jewish home that allowed bacon (she has since shunned pork products), Hurvich was not a fan of the messaging. She said it didn’t “feel Jewish” and was reminiscent to her of a kind of Christian evangelism.

“I feel like on the one hand, are they trying to proselytize and draw people in? And on the other hand, I don’t care if Jews eat pork. I definitely care about what people say about God,” Hurvich said.

That criticism, Gottesman said, comes with the territory. “JewBelong is not for everybody,” she said. “We are pushing the envelope, and by pushing the envelope, we will not appeal to everybody.”

Gottesman believes the billboards, even after they come down, will linger on people’s minds — even among those who disapprove. The value, she said, is in starting a conversation around them.

“It’s not over,” Gottesman said, “because there’s always a tale about it.”

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