Jewish Identi-tee: Jews proudly flaunt their faith on their chests

Who knew that an intra-office joke could inspire a company?

Sarah Lefton sure didn’t, but now the director of marketing and outreach for Camp Tawonga is using her marketing savvy on her own enterprise: a line of “cheeky” (one of her favored words) Jewish T-shirts.

Called Jewish Fashion Conspiracy, the S.F.-based company currently sells two styles of shirts, with a third available soon.

The first is a two-toned baseball jersey with a few pine trees and the words “Yo Semite” on it, the result of that joke.

“A lot of people around our office refer to Yosemite [National Park] as Yo Semite,” she said. “They ask each other, ‘You going to Yo Semite this weekend?’ So all of a sudden it just hit me — That’s so funny! So I decided to make a shirt.”

Since one of her many responsibilities for the Jewish summer camp is to develop its clothing line, making the T-shirt wasn’t such a leap.

She borrowed a few hundred bucks from Dad, put up a Web site — — and she was in business.

The company name had to be humorous enough that non-Jews get it too. “It makes for a long and unwieldy URL,” she admitted, “but it makes people laugh.”

But she’s not out to make a political statement. On an earlier incarnation of her Web site, she states, “I don’t know about controlling the government or the media. I just think the world could use some cool T-shirts.”

Cool they are. But they also serve another purpose. The shirts are “a way to find other Jews, a way to stick out,” she said. “Yes, there are ways to express that religiously, but why not culturally as well?

“Traditional religious Jews, it’s easy for them to find each other,” said Lefton. “I feel like more liberal Jews are a tribe, too.”

Her other shirt is a playful turn on Jews for Jesus — “Jews for Jeter,” referring to equally loved and reviled New York Yankees shortstop Derek Jeter. The navy shirt (color of the Yankees), features “Jews for Jeter” and the number 2, (Jeter’s number) on the back, and a version of the Yankees’ interlocked NY logo on the front, in a Hebrew-like font.

Lefton, 30, spent most of her 20s living in New York, and calls herself a Jeter fan “as much as the next living, breathing female,” and that’s where the inspiration for that one came. So far, it’s proven to be even more popular than the “Yo Semite” shirt. Lefton’s hopeful someone who has some connection to Jeter will contact her; if she could get a photo of him in her Jews for Jeter T-shirt, she said she’d plain plotz.

In the beginning, Lefton sold hundreds of shirts without any advertising. It began as word-of-mouth and an article about her in a Jewish New York newspaper, but then a mention in Time magazine helped as well. Understandably, what with the Jeter connection, most of her orders are coming from the East Coast.

While she was averaging about five or six orders a day, the holidays brought additional sales, with her selling hundreds more.

Her cousin reported seeing someone wearing one at a party. And Lefton herself has been stopped on the street while wearing one of her own creations. In fact, she said, “it happens all the time.”

“I keep saying I’m going to advertise, but why bother?”

Especially since not too long ago, she was able to plug her company on CNBC. A publicist friend of hers recommended her for a program with two young adults who took large pay cuts to work in the non-profit world. Lefton was the one who was content with her decision; another who appeared with her, was not.

Because she had a less demanding job, she said, she had the time to start her own small business, and gave the URL of the site, which has further increased her sales.

When she visited New York last summer, she brought a boxful of the Jeter shirts to hawk outside a game at Yankee Stadium. The game was rained out.

Originally from Columbia, S.C., Lefton grew up with a traditional Reform upbringing. Though she lived in a place with almost no Jews, her parents, who are from New York and Boston, made sure their children got enough doses of big-city Jewish culture.

After graduating from Cornell University, Lefton went to the obvious place: New York. She got a master’s at New York University, then worked in Web site design and then advertising.

Two years ago, she decided to head west.

“New York was the land of no opportunity at that moment,” said Lefton, who has an infectious laugh, and can often be seen sporting clunky boots with red laces. “My landlord was selling my apartment, I was single, 28 and had never lived anywhere else. And I had always had a crush on San Francisco.”

For some reason, she also thought she’d like to work for a nonprofit, specifically in the Jewish community, but she couldn’t see doing that in New York.

And, she said, “I wanted to explore the softer side of myself. San Francisco’s yin to New York’s yang.”

She knew little about San Francisco or its Jewish community, before moving here. While searching on Craigslist, the S.F.-based online resource, she stumbled upon a listing advertising the New Leaders Project of the S.F.-based Jewish Community Relations Council. She was accepted, though its then-director was initially hesitant to offer the job to someone who didn’t even live here yet.

Lefton arrived in San Francisco in October 2001, and through her participation in the New Leaders Project, got her job at Tawonga.

Around town, she’s known as “the Yo Semite girl.”

Lefton’s T-shirt offerings — just two of the numerous playful Jewish tees available on the Web — are part of what she sees as a resurgence in Jewish pride among her peers.

“There’s a real strong feeling among the liberal quasi-secular Jews that ‘we count too,'” she said. “There’s a lot of really negative Jew versus Jew stuff going on, and this is in part, a reaction to it.”

Next up for Lefton: a tank top with spaghetti straps with “Haman’s Angels” written in red script for Purim.

She’s confident the demand is there; last year, she and several friends appeared at a Purim event with that slogan ironed onto T-shirts, creating a flurry among the other guests who wanted tees of their own. And she has one in the works for Passover as well.

She has more than 1,000 e-mail addresses now, and is preparing a Purim/Passover promotion that should bring in more sales. And she’s beginning now to think about marketing to stores.

For Chanukah, she created a pair of panties that say “A great miracle happened here.” But Lefton said she doesn’t want to be mistaken for someone who doesn’t take her Judaism seriously.

“I have a deep reverence for Jewish ritual and tradition,” she said. “I don’t want to become famous as the girl who makes fun of Judaism. It goes against my whole belief system.”

That belief is strong enough that Lefton is even thinking about rabbinical school, although she remains undecided what her next move will be.

“There are a lot of people our age who grew up in this fast, dot-com, entrepreneurial climate and now that we’re all working in nonprofits or are unemployed, we’re following our hearts, but applying that I-can-make-anything-happen to it,” she said.

Even if Lefton does not add the rabbinic title in front of her name, she definitely plans to make her mark on the Jewish community, and not only in the way of T-shirts.

For instance: teaching Jewish rituals for the religiously fearful. “I want to make a CD-ROM ‘Karaoke Shabbat,'” she said.

And no, it’s not a joke.

“Whenever I have a Shabbat dinner, some people get uncomfortable over lighting the candles,” she said, referring to non-practicing Jews or people’s non-Jewish partners.

So, like the follow-the-bouncing-ball lyrics on a karaoke machine, Lefton’s CD “will teach people in a fun, patented Sarah-cheeky style, to follow the bouncing challah to sing the prayers, so people feel comfortable.”

While Lefton sees herself as becoming involved in Jewish education in some way eventually, for now, she is happy just to see people wearing her creations.

“Every time I see someone wearing one it makes me proud of myself, but also of the real Jewish pride that person has,” she said. “It’s kind of cheesy, but I think, ‘There’s one proud member of the tribe.'”

Julia Goldman, staff writer at New York Jewish Week, contributed to this report.


Related story:
Jewish pride that fits to a ‘T’

Alix Wall
Alix Wall

Alix Wall is a contributing editor to J. She is also the founder of the Illuminoshi: The Not-So-Secret Society of Bay Area Jewish Food Professionals and is writer/producer of a documentary-in-progress called "The Lonely Child."