Off-road Jews: A Helping Hand for Those Who Stray From the ultra-Orthodox Path

The New York-based Footsteps organization, now celebrating its 10th anniversary, provides professional support and practical advice for Jews who went OTD - 'off the derech.'

NEW YORK − A spontaneous cheer rose up at the Skyline Hotel when Malkie Schwartz introduced several of her siblings at the 10th anniversary gala celebrating Footsteps, an organization that supports people leaving Haredi communities. Her brothers and sisters were in the audience at the midtown Manhattan venue two weeks ago, but didn’t want to be photographed for fear of repercussions in their own Haredi circles. Many of the 300 people present knew that it was a rare demonstration of public familial support for someone who had left the ultra-Orthodox way of life to go “off the derekh,” or OTD. They appreciated the significance of Schwartz’s siblings supporting their sister as she was honored by the organization she founded.

In the decade since Schwartz first organized a meeting at the Hunter College Hillel here, shortly after she left the Haredi community in Crown Heights, and 25 people showed up − Footsteps has provided social, emotional and practical support to more than 800 clients, known in the group’s parlance as members. Footsteps provides peer-support groups as well as one-on-one advice as people learn how to navigate the modern world, and it assists them as they work toward high-school equivalency diplomas and apply to college. Social events include a Passover seder, a summer camping trip and Thanksgiving dinner. The organization recently added vocational training for its members to its roster of services and is hoping to provide assistance to the 30 percent of Footsteps members contending with divorce and custody issues, current executive director Lani Santo told Haaretz in a recent interview.

Today, the number of people approaching Footsteps for help is mushrooming: Three years ago, 35 new members joined, Santo said. Last year, it was 95. So far in 2013, up to early November, more than 100 people had joined. Providing services to people leaving Haredi communities is an entirely new phenomenon in the U.S. and Footsteps is the only organization doing so. In addition to offering services in its lower Manhattan offices, it recently began running a support group in Rockland County, near the Haredi shtetls of New Square and Kiryas Joel. The budget this year, which comes from donations, fundraising and some event fees, is $585,000, Santo said. Next year they are aiming to increase that to $850,000, and more than $1 million after that.

According to Santo, “There’s a nascent movement of formerly ultra-Orthodox. It’s a moment where people are starting to get comfortable owning their voices in the public space and feeling comfortable contributing to the broader Jewish community and society at large. Looking back 10 years, there were just a couple of ... people blogging anonymously. Now there’s a powerful group of individuals meeting needs [of those going OTD].”

The organization doesn’t see its role as trying to convince people to leave the Haredi world, but rather aims to give them the tools they need to succeed once they have already made the decision to do so.

“Both the community of OTDers and awareness [of their problems] are growing,” said Ari Mandel, 30, a former Nikolsburg Hasid. “It feeds on itself. The more people leave, the more people become aware that it is a choice,” said Mandel, adding that these are “people like me who, a generation ago, would leave and just slink off into the night and we’d never hear from them again. More recently some of us have decided, ‘I’m not ashamed of who I am, I’m here and I’m proud.’ That has helped people who might have never left 10 years ago.”

Now an undergraduate student at New York University, Mandel is a Footsteps mainstay who garnered notoriety last May when he tried auctioning off his portion in the “world to come” on eBay, which shut the auction down after bidding reached $100,000 because a religious person complained, said Mandel, and eBay rules prohibit selling intangible things.

Haredi communities in the New York area are growing rapidly, mostly because of their remarkably high birthrates. The New York Jewish Population Study, conducted in 2011 by New York’s Jewish federation, found that 32 percent of Jews in the area are Orthodox. Half of them are Hasidic. And because of that birthrate, there are almost as many Hasidic children as there are non-Orthodox children. No one knows, however, just how many people from those communities leave to go OTD.

Those who leave do so for a variety of reasons: a crisis of faith or an inability to tolerate what they view as hypocrisy in their community. They may feel they are not ready to get married or to conform to the strictly defined gender roles typical of Hasidic communities. They may have been abused. At their initial intake, over 50 percent of Footsteps members report having been abused physically, emotionally or sexually. Nearly half ‏(i.e. 25 percent‏) report that they were sexually abused, said Santo, but the number is likely even higher than that.

No driving

Srully Stein is one of those whom Footsteps has recently helped. The 22-year-old former Vishnitz Hasid was born and raised in Brooklyn, in a family so pious it is extreme even by Williamsburg standards, he said. “I come from a family of rebbes. What all Hasidishe people have growing up, I have double that,” Stein explained in a thick Yiddish accent. He wasn’t allowed to go on outings during the intermediate days of Pesach, customarily a time for family trips to playgrounds and amusement parks. Both men and women in his family are discouraged from driving, he added; out of 50 first cousins, perhaps two or three have a license. “Since my bar mitzvah, my father told me, ‘It’s not nice, pas nisht − not made for us − we are holier and higher.’”

He always had questions about the meaning of what he was told, Stein told Haaretz. When he asked for answers to inconsistencies in the Torah text he was learning at 12, his rebbe “exploded, told me I’m an apikorus [heretic], it’s over the line, you’re not supposed to ask,” Stein said. In high school, it only got worse. “I felt like there was a missing piece. If I tried to ask anything, I was shut up right away.”

Sent upstate as an older teen to yeshiva in remote upstate New York Kiamesha Lake, Stein began to read widely, teaching himself modern Hebrew in order to understand books bought at through Judaica store. His crisis of faith grew acute. “On my exams, I always did perfect. But there were days I wasn’t able to cope. Wasn’t able to pray,” he said. “I thought something was wrong with me.”

Stein got married at 18, set up in an arrangement typical in his community. After studying kabbala for two years, Stein learned that there is little historical evidence that The Zohar, the central text of Jewish mysticism, was authored by Shimon bar Yochai in the first century C.E.. His faith totally collapsed, he said. “I was sleeping for days. All my old questions came back.”

That’s when, about three years ago, he first went online and connected with others with similar experiences. He started leading a secret life. When his wife and infant son would go out on Shabbat, Stein would use the telephone. On fast days, he would clandestinely eat. He learned about Hillel, a nonprofit Israeli organization doing similar work to Footsteps. When told that they couldn’t help him because he was in the U.S., Stein immediately planned to emigrate. He had a plane ticket in hand when he discovered an OTD group on Facebook, from which he learned about Footsteps.

When Stein called the organization, he was so upset that a social worker told him to call back in two weeks, after he’d had a chance to calm down. At his first appointment with a Footsteps social worker, his relief was enormous: “It was the first time in years I was talking to someone and felt, like, ‘Okay, he understands me.’”

The social worker advised Stein to remain in his community as long as possible and try to work things out with his wife. After a year of trying to work things out, his wife wanted to divorce. “Her family convinced her to leave me,” Stein said. Now, they have joint custody of their young son. And Stein, who works for a box wholesaler, is transitioning into the modern world.

“My English was terrible, terrible, terrible. I learned ABCs on my own,” he recalled, adding that he earned a high-school equivalency diploma and took a class in English literacy at a community college near where his ex-wife and son live.

Stein still has his beard and peyot, but dresses in ordinary street clothes and is no longer observant. Through Footsteps, he explained, “I learned how to dress. Where to buy food, where to buy clothing, how to get a driver’s license.”

At present, Stein, who is the sixth of 13 children and the eldest son, is back living with his parents in Williamsburg. While they allow him to come and go and don’t ask many questions, living there is “hard for me, it’s hard for them. I want to move out.” Still, he realizes how unusual it is for family to be at all supportive when an adult child goes OTD. “All the parents at Footsteps should be like my parents,” Stein said. “Footsteps would have a lot less to do.”

Secret location

The organization has a full-time paid staff of six, responsible for social work and running their many social and support programs. Based in lower Manhattan, it keeps its precise location secret, Santo explained, “like domestic violence shelters that don’t put out their addresses. If people find out you’re thinking of leaving the community, your livelihood can be cut off. We’ve had numerous members be fired because of that.”

Associating with the organization is “a genuine problem for people who are in hiding,” noted Mandel. “Every day you see people come in to Footsteps dressed Hasidic. There are people still stuck between two worlds. People have been busted and had their lives ruined. They lose their marriages, custody of their children and can lose their jobs and homes. It’s no joke. It’s not a game.”
In online Haredi forums, some accuse Footsteps of trying to persuade people to leave the Haredi fold. “The Orthodox world has a misconception of what Footsteps is,” said Mandel. “They seem to think that Footsteps does reverse kiruv [literally, “bringing closer”]: goes out looking for people to ruin their lives and [make them] eat treif.”

Rabbi Avi Shafran, spokesman for Agudath Israel of America, suggested that Footsteps may be trying to encourage people to make a clean break from Haredi life rather than offer them alternatives: “Perhaps Footsteps points out to its clients that there are options for them to be part of the ‘outside world,’ at least to a degree [outside the Haredi communities but still part of the Orthodox fold], and still to obtain a secular education and other services − namely, in the countless Orthodox communities that are not overly insular. But if it doesn’t, then it is doing a terrible disservice to its clients, many of whom are seeking to break with what they perceive to be stifling insularity, not with their entire religious heritage.”

But some Footsteps members say that the organization has helped save their lives. For instance, Miriam Weiss ‏(not her real name, 26, is a former Satmar Hasid raised in Jerusalem’s Mea She’arim, who came to the U.S. with her family as a teen. At 22, she married a man she had met on one supervised 10-minute date, which is called a bashow. But she had other ambitions and did not feel ready for the life of a Satmar wife and mother.

“Every time I spoke to my mother and told her how I felt, she was supportive but also confused. She would cry with me and at the same time she would say, ‘What can we do − there is no choice.’ Every day I thought: My life is over, whether I kill myself or get married,” said Weiss.

She read about Footsteps in an Israeli newspaper and had six appointments with a staff social worker in the four weeks before her wedding. “They were just listening and being supportive. It was my first time telling my problems to anyone.”

Two months after her wedding, Weiss left her husband. Now she is in college and plans to attend graduate school. “I knew nothing about the world, I didn’t know any math, any science, no English, nothing,” she said. “They showed me how to get a GED [high-school proficiency diploma]. Whenever I had questions I didn’t know if something is good or bad, they would help.”

Still in regular contact with her family, Weiss worries about the impact of her leaving on her younger siblings’ marriage prospects. She also fears losing her part-time job in Williamsburg, which is why she asked not to be identified by name or in connection with the career she’s pursuing. When Weiss goes home to see her family each Shabbat, she said, “I dress up completely religious and we don’t talk about that [her new choices]. I’m literally leading a double life. Hopefully when they are getting married, I will be able to be myself.”

Beth Kander
George Lewis