When Lani Santo was 13 and living with her Modern Orthodox family in the increasingly black-hat neighborhood of Kew Gardens, her mother came out as gay.
“I couldn’t tell anyone or be my authentic self because I had the understanding that everyone was basically the same … even in the Modern Orthodox world,” she said.
Now, as executive director of Footsteps, an organization that helps Jews leaving black hat and chasidic communities, the experience resonates.
“Although I didn’t come from a charedi background, I have a firsthand understanding of some of the challenges that a veil of conformity in a community can do to an individual’s self-actualization, becoming who they feel they authentically are,” said Santo.
Helping people figure out who they “authentically are” has been a theme in Santo’s career. She came to Footsteps after earning a master’s in public administration from NYU and working at American Jewish World Service, where she developed a yearlong program for young adults volunteering in India while they “figured out what they wanted to do with their lives.”
Santo, who lives in Kensington with her husband and 10-month-old son, said she’s passionate about “both helping people figure out who they want to be in the world and building supportive communities around that.”
She brought that passion to Footsteps, where during her five-year tenure it grew from three to 10 employees, moved to a bigger space and increased its annual budget from $340,000 to over $1 million. She launched career and peer mentoring programs and developed a partnership with New York Legal Assistance Group to offer help in divorce and custody cases. Membership has grown to 1,000.
Founded in 2003, Footsteps also offers support groups, social events and counseling.
“Many people lose their entire support system because they can no longer pretend to be something they’re not,” Santo said. “They don’t know that there are people out there that have done this and have been successful in life. … Finding a community when you think you’re the only one is huge. Many people have told me that just finding this community has saved their life.”
Globe trekker: In a span of three years, Santo traveled to 10 countries on four continents.