A 10-year anniversary deserves a night out, and the milestone marking a decade’s work of Footsteps — the New York-based nonprofit helping formerly ultra-Orthodox Jews master the tools to succeed in secular society — was no exception.
Looking over the crowd at the Skyline Hotel last Thursday night, it was difficult to imagine the strikingly attired men and women mingling freely in their former lives, dressed as chasidic Jews and strictly segregated by gender and from greater society. Since its inception, Footsteps has helped over 800 people obtain GEDs, attend college through tutoring and financial assistance, and secure professional internships and jobs. But its most important function, members say, is serving as a substitute family for those who’ve been cut off from their ultra-Orthodox relatives.
“I left an extremely close-knit community,” says Ari Mandel, a former Nikelsburger chasid from Rockland County who served in the U.S. army after he left and now studies at New York University. “Those at Footsteps became my new family, and really get what it’s like for someone who essentially has to start over from scratch.”
Another Footsteps participant, who only wanted to use her first name, Hindy, says Footsteps literally “saved my life” after she left her Satmar community in Williamsburg. “I’m a naturally social person, and when I lost all my friends I became extremely depressed. Footsteps made me feel like I was not alone.”
It was these people in mind that Malkie Schwartz had when she created Footsteps at age 22. At first the former Lubavticher from Crown Heights ran the organization as a monthly support group that met at the Y and NYU’s Bronfman Center.
“I had secular family members who helped me when I left, but I knew most people didn’t, and I saw that their own struggles were that much harder because of it,” explains Schwartz, who began imagining a formal organization to help these people and quickly realized her idea needed financial backing to grow.
Schwartz’s aunt, Deborah Freedman — now a Footsteps board member — connected her to close friend Peter Cherneff, a New York attorney who was immediately taken with Schwartz’s drive and vision. “Deborah told me to meet Malkie for a cup of coffee, and see if there’s anything to it,” Cherneff told those in attendance at the gala event, where he and Schwartz were honored for their work. “So I did, and here I am.”
Schwartz, who largely credits Cherneff for Footsteps’ success, stepped down from the organization’s helm in 2008 to focus on law school, but remains in touch with members and current executive director Lani Santo, who took over in 2010.
In the past few years, membership has steadily increased. In 2012, a Footsteps report found that new membership had grown from 35 in 2009 to 95 in 2012, a 170 percent jump.
The plight of those leaving ultra-Orthodox communities has received wider attention in recent years with the 2010 publication of “Hush,” a young adult novel about sexual abuse in chasidic Borough Park and Deborah Feldman’s 2012 memoir “Unorthodox: The Scandalous Rejection of My Hasidic Roots,” about growing up in Satmar Williamsburg.
The people who benefit from Footsteps primarily come from chasidic and haredi communities throughout the tri-state area, though people regularly call from other countries; the challenges they reference include familial alienation, difficulty navigating an unfamiliar world with little in the way of secular education or knowledge of social mores, and the fear of meeting self-fulfilling prophecies to become failures or drug addicts that are projected by their former communities.
“One of my biggest fears about leaving was that I will end up just as the community predicted, one of those ‘chasidshe bums’ who sat around, smoked and did nothing with his life,” explains Samuel Katz, who studied at Satmar and Slabodka yeshivas, of his initial hesitation before becoming closely involved with Footsteps. Katz was not able to attend the gala as he is currently a Fulbright scholar studying in Berlin.
Certainly, there are high rates of depression, anxiety and suicidal tendencies among “Fotsteppers,” as members are fondly referred to, says Santo; an internal survey found some 50 percent had a mental health diagnosis, and 35 percent were in therapy.
“From a mental health perspective, asking questions is a healthy thing to do,’ explains Santo. “When someone isn’t given the space to do that or is afraid of losing family and social connections if they do, it can lead to a very bad place. Footsteps offers a safe space for people to thrive after they leave ultra-Orthodoxy.”
Though members say they are never pushed to do anything they’re uncomfortable with — several members proudly retain their payes or yarmulkes — and most events are scheduled around Shabbat and yom tov and have kosher food availability, Footsteps’ mission occasionally encounters criticism from Orthodox figures who decry what they perceive as indoctrination of vulnerable young Jews into secular lifestyles absent of any religious observance.
“I could never endorse this type of program that might push people in a secular direction,” says Rabbi David Montrose, who heads the Midwest region of Nefesh, an international network of Orthodox mental health professionals, and who has worked with “off-the-derech,” or “off-the-path” youths in his private practice. “You can go to a vocational college or a Jewish Federation vocational program; you don’t need to go to Footsteps. To push people into secular life is like carrying someone’s neshama (soul) out of the body; I would not want to be people who do that on their day of judgment.”
Others in the Orthodox world take a more balanced view, like Eliyahu Fink, an Orthodox rabbi in Los Angeles who studied at right-wing institutions such as Baltimore’s Ner Israel Yeshiva and the Yeshiva of Far Rockaway. “I’d prefer to see our community warmly support formerly ultra-Orthodox Jews, but right now, Footsteps is doing that work,” he says. “While we may express our dismay that there’s a need for Footsteps, we must also express our appreciation that it’s there.”
Over the next decade, Schwartz hopes that Footsteps will be brought to different communities across the country, and to college campuses to serve as a resource for students whose higher education experience is the first one outside their insular communities. “I see so many directions that the organization can go in under Lani’s leadership,” she says.
Aside from seeing people who once floundered find their footing in greater society and obtain traditional measures of success such as degrees, career paths and new social circles, Schwartz and Santo agree it’s especially gratifying to see Footsteppers take an active role in giving back. Three members have joined the organization’s board and serve as spokespeople for the organization through writing and media appearances. One example is Leah Vincent, who discussed the need for Footsteps on Katie Couric’s talk show. Katz helped coordinate the “It Gets Besser” website and video project (a play on the anti-gay bullying “It Gets Better” campaign) to inspire those on the verge of leaving by showing them others’ stories of transformation. Others have gone on to form their own organizations, including Naftuli Moster, who founded Yaffed to advocate for secular education reform in chasidic schools.
Still, perhaps the best sign of Footsteps’ success is when it is no longer needed by the members it once served.
Hindy, currently pursuing a graduate degree at a top university in New York, doesn’t attend many Footsteps events anymore. “I think it’s a sign of success and integration,” she says, “when you can kind of stand on your own.”