Monthly Archives: May 2012

Lithuanians Rankled Over Hasidic Domination of Anti-Internet Conference

The Lithuanians, who were the original conceivers of the “pan-Israelite” conference to highlight the hazards posed by unfettered Internet access, are disillusioned. While trying to coax the Hasidim to get on board they conceded too much for an average Lithuanian to feel that they were reasonably represented by the Rabbis and speakers at the conference.

They may have had the first word in, but they certainly didn’t have the last, or the middle, for that matter. Most orators at the conference spoke in Yiddish, the lingua franca of Hasidim in America which many Lithuanians do not understand. The filter, much touted in the PR hype leading up to the conference, was not mentioned or promoted at all at the conference, apparently an 11th hour decision due to intra-Hasidic discord over its acceptability. R. Aaron Teitelbaum-Satmar, for example, has recently issued an edict prohibiting all Internet at home, even with a filter, unless approved by a special commission on business grounds, according to a report in The Forward. (R. Aaron was not present at the conference).

Dzibo Rebbe surpassing his allotted time

Dzibo Rebbe surpassing his allotted time

In the spillover Arthur Ashe stadium there wasn’t even any English subtitles on the mega-screen (perhaps that would have required transmission through the malevolent Internet). Lithuanians were forced to endure long speeches by Hasidic Rebbes whom they didn’t know or had no admiration for. Some, such as the Dziboer Rebbe from Montreal, even exceeded their allotted time. The Dziboer Rebbe spoke for 45 minutes to the consternation of organizers and audience alike while the restless crowd tinkered with the very devices and media they were told to shun, and munched on the provided pretzels and doughnuts to pass time.

In the negotiations leading up to the conference, for which planning commenced over a year ago, the Lithuanians’ patience was tested repeatedly as they had to negotiate and accommodate each Hasidic sect separately. One of their most prized scores was R. Zalman Teitelbaum, the more fundamentalist of the two Satmar Rebbes. But it came at a steep price: Zalman insisted that some anti-Zionist message be incorporated in one of the speeches and that 90% of the speeches be in Yiddish. R. Zalman sat beside R. Leibish Leizer of Pshevorsk, a widely recognized Hasidic Rebbe from the previous generation, whom Zalman insisted on being invited as a sine qua non.

The keynote speaker and by far the most eloquent and engaging one was R. Ephraim Wachsman. He spoke in English after issuing an advance apology that English was being used in order to accommodate the media; this despite the banishment of the media from stadium grounds. One Rabbi, R. Shlomo Leib Weinberger, was seen plugging his ears with his fingers while  English was being spoken, perhaps in compliance with the Hasam Sofer (R. Moses Sofer) who prohibited sermons in the vernacular, an innovative Reform practice of mid-nineteenth century Europe.

R. Zalman-Satmar at the far right and R. Mottelle Vizhnitzer beside him

R. Zalman-Satmar at the far right and R. Mottelle Vizhnitzer beside him

R. Wachsman, dean of a non-sectarian Hasidic Yeshiva in Monsey, spelled out the dangers of the Internet to the integrity of Haredi Judaism if left unchallenged, but he did not offer any concrete solutions; nor did any of the other speakers, who were even more abstruse than him. Critics were disappointed that more concrete guidelines were not set forth and pointed to the incessant quibbling and bickering between the various Hasidic Rebbes as the culprit.

Indeed, the Lithuanians arranged another meeting the morning after the CitiField conference, as reported by the Flatbush Jewish Journal (p. 67). Calling it a conference for “out of town rabbanim” the real purpose of the convocation was to actually do something about the Internet threat now that the fractious Hasidic Rebbes were out of the way. The Rabbis agreed on several points including:

  • even (porn-)filtered Internet is dangerous
  • every device must have a filter
  • employer should install filters at work
  • schools ought to be involved in setting standards and enforcement
  • communities should sponsor free “technology offices” to evaluate and install the filtering devices.

Rav Matisyahu Solomon, the leading Lithuanian figure behind the conference, who did not speak at the CitiField conference, ostensibly due to Hasidic objections, took to the dais. He talked about the insidious influence of the Internet and urged its absolute prohibition without a filter. Moreover, each frum community shall set its own standards with respect to what content should be allowed through. The reasoning behind this, analysts say, is that for Lithuanians pornography is not the main threat. Lithuanians, who are versed in English and in the rudiments of mainstream American culture, are much more susceptible to the creeping influence of liberal ideas expressed on the Internet. Many communities in the Lithuanian and perhaps Modern Orthodox sectors have already reconciled themselves to certain sciences and professions, which they have become adept at co-opting into their Orthodox views and lifestyle. These very same sciences and professions pose a much greater hazard of upsetting the apple cart for someone from Lakewood as opposed to someone from the Five Towns, for example. Blogs are therefore completely off-limits for the Lithuanian sector.

Skollener Rebbe

Skollener Rebbe

Hasidim, on the other hand, are primarily concerned about access to lewd content. The Hasidic culture is so insular and pervasive that centralized authority and deference to Rabbis are not considered vital for its continuity. Pornographic sites, on the other hand, may lead young adherents into night clubs, movie theaters and drugs, which would undermine the socio-religious structure of the community. A site such as FailedMessiah.com, which is commonly cited as the quintessential unruly and subversive voice against the established haredi system is not much of a threat to a typical Hasid who is struggling to make sense of its strange ideas of liberty, democracy and accountability, and even stranger language.

In the absence of any concrete proposals to tackle the Internet threat, the rally at Citifield was for the Hasidim more of an introduction to the Mets baseball stadium –which most had never seen before, nor will they ever again– than anything else. The joke swirling about in the aftermath of the rally was that when asked what one took out of the conference, the response was “a danish, bottle of water and binoculars”. Pinny Glauber, a popular Yiddish blogger,   pronounced the conference a colossal failure and exhorted community members to safeguard the Internet on their own initiative, in the face of Rabbis whose sole motive and objective is self-aggrandizement.

Even many Aaronites, whose leader formally shunned the conference, attended the conference, not wanting to miss out on the historicity and excitement of the occasion.

Nevertheless, filters are being sold in all major Haredi enclaves. Kamenitz in Borough Park (16th Ave and 56th St.) and iShop in Williamsburg (Bedford Ave.), are said to have offered filtered Internet consultation and/or installation throughout the week and perhaps into the weeks ahead.

For both the Lithuanians and Hasidim, schools have been seized upon as the perfect vehicle for regulation and enforcement. The specter of an adult expulsion from a synagogue isn’t much of a goad to compliance. Children being kicked out of their prestigious schools is wholly another matter. Schools that are under the aegis of the Lithuanian leadership are now sending letters home to parents in which they require that the parents’ Rabbi certify that they have no Internet at home (not trusting the parents themselves, apparently) for non-business purposes.

 

Anti-Internet Rally Yields Cacophony of Voices

Amid the din of choppers circling overhead and the number 7 trains hurtling into the CitiField station, the only voices even more discordant were those of the rally and anti-rally “Internet is Not the Problem” attendees. When asked why they were there, almost as many different reasons were cited as the number of their exponents. Among the people we interviewed two were dressed haredi and supported the main rally, one wore a yarmulke but buzzed about among the counter-protesters. Three others appeared to be overtly non-religious and some even reveled in their having successfully escaped the haredi fold.

An additional counter-rally –whose participants were dressed as cavemen and were not necessarily Jewish– was held nearby. They demanded that haredim make up their mind: if they choose to reject the Internet and technology “let them not wear cotton clothing and drive in technological cars”, as one of their lot put it.

The stated purpose of the rally, to curb inappropriate Internet use among haredi members, mattered little to most of the individuals we surveyed. They utilized the spotlight to voice their individual opinions and express their disparate values regarding the latest challenges facing the haredi community and those who have left in recent years.

Avi Burstein, wearing a yarmulke like many others in the counter-rally crowd, argued that the rally was a misplacement of priorities. Acknowledging that Internet filtering and other guards may indeed be appropriate for the haredi community, he asked why the community was investing so many resources in Internet control while simultaneously ignoring the more pressing concern of child sexual molestation. Even more suspicious, he added, is the fact that Internet was the medium responsible for bringing sex abuse to the fore.

Watch HN Interview with Avi Burstein

“Ten years ago before the Internet there was no concern about sex abuse, but now people are talking about it, so we feel that a lot of the anti Internet effort is really trying to stifle the discussion”, he said, adding that the Rabbis are curtailing Internet access because they feel that in general it poses a challenge to their concentrated authority by allowing community members to express their dissatisfaction with the system and its leaders. He cited FailedMassiah.com as an example of a dissenting, muckraking voice in the community that is largely responsible for uncovering many of the sex abuse incidents but has been named a rekhilut (gossip) and lashon hara (defamation) website by community leaders and blacklisted by some of the haredi Internet filtering companies.

Sara Erenthal, a young woman who grew up in a fanatical Neture Karta household and subsequently left the community in the late 90’s, agreed that the resources should have been allocated to sexual molestation programming instead. Ms. Erenthal, whose photo was featured on the front page of the NYT Metro section last week in its coverage of the Weberman rally, said “I’m here to defend my friends, my family members and myself, who have been abused by the system — physical abuse and mental abuse. Look at this stadium filled with black and whites. Why are they here? They rented out this frickin place for like three billion or like three trillion –I’m joking, million– dollars when there are so many problems in the community. Why don’t they put the money where the money really needs to go, to so many abused, to so many victims.”

Wtach HN Interview with Sara Erenthal

For others, among the “Internet is not the Problem” demonstrators the issue was a lack of proper secular education in the Haredi community. Naftuli Moster, founder of YAFFED, whose mission is to champion the cause of better education in haredi schools, was seen holding up a poster and chanting the slogan “education, not molestation”. He declined to be interviewed. Shulem Deen, founder of unpious.com was seen participating passionately in the counter rally, even engaging Haredim across the street in polemics. He too declined to be interviewed. (Read his recollection of quips from of the event).

The narrower issue of sex abuse was completely lost on still other, less wonkish, members in the crowd who were proud to declare themselves out of the haredi bubble altogether. Max Moster explained why he was there: “I came with a bunch of friends who said they were going to a rally against religious people. I’m not against anybody really; I think anybody can do whatever they want. If I have to choose where to go I’d rather be with my people that I go around with.” contentedly adding that “I’m happy to see myself having changed to this lifestyle –it’s amazing. I could have been standing there like a fool praying to hashem (God). Right now I’m here with my friends in my shorts.” said Mr. Moster, a brother of Naftuli Moster and regular host to popular Friday night parties to like-minded individuals in Brooklyn.

Watch HN Interview with Max Moster

Shauli Grossman spoke in a similar vein but preferred to emphasize the bold social progress made in recent years by those who have left the community, many of whom participated in the counter rally. “The point is we’re actually doing something. Two years ago if you wanted to go to college it was hell. You had no one to talk to and to associate with.” said Mr. Grossman who along with his girlfriend Perry Reich are cast member of the reality TV show “Shunned”, currently in pre-production.

Not all haredim corralled themselves on stadium grounds. Some came out to the protesters to engage them in conversation. One such man identified himself as Yanky Schnitzer, 43. He said he was a regular worshiper at the Kremnitz shul in Hews Street, Williamsburg but insisted that he was an “International Hasid” (that is, unaffiliated). His chief concern was that “the youth was falling away from the community because of the Internet and all kinds of things like this”.

Asked about about the sexual abuse issue, he cited an unattributed statistic that “three out of four women and two out of four men” are molested in the general population, as proof that it is no more an issue in the haredi community than elsewhere. Since prisons were already overflowing with inmates and they were, at any rate, ineffective at rehabilitating criminals, Mr. Schnitzer argued that the best approach to dealing with sex abuse incidents is to refer the matter to rabbanim.  “Nobody’s getting the message [of the protesters]. Take the victims to the Rabbis. There are Rabbis who would do something. People are ready to make changes… I’m ready to go with the victims to the Rabbis… you’re making a hilul hashem (profanation of God’s name)” he pleaded.

Labeling the dollop of protesters osgeshpigene hevrah, meshugaim and meturafim (rejected folks, eccentrics and lunatics) and contrasting them with the 60,000 happy and successful members of the community in the main rally, he contended that “most of these people are not victims of molesting, they’re victims of the Internet”.

The solution, in Mr. Schnitzer’s opinion, is turn back the clock on technology. Reminiscing how his father, a Torah scribe, foresaw the disaster technology would wreak back in the 80’s when he wisely decried the new computerized proofing of Torah scrolls, he argued for the elimination of technology altogether. “Computers is the problem for the whole world; we’re becoming robots”, he said.

Watch HN Interview with Yanky Schnitzer

The Cavemen –whose derision is usually directed against the Church of Scientology but today were protesting the haredi anti-Internet rally– agreed, oddly, with this radical view. According to a representative of the Cavemen at the protest: “we, being from the Internet and the Internet generation are saying: hey, if you’re gonna go ahead and do that [censor the Internet] go the whole nine yards. Forget all technology and go back to caveman times.”

Watch HN Interview with Cavemen

Mr. Grossman disagreed with Mr. Schnitzers juxtaposition of the large numbers of the main rally attendees vs. the puny numbers of the protesters. He argued that “many more from the Haredi community would have been in the protest rally if they weren’t afraid of retaliation and social isolation: “I got a ton of people calling me and telling me ‘I support you but we have kids in the mosdos [institutions]’. Now there’s a voice to all these people who say I have kids in the mosdos but I would have [supported you]”. Contrasting the deliberate move protesters made to critique the system with the lackadaisical attendance of the rally by the haredi masses, he added: each person here took time from his day to come, not like a bunch of Yeshiva bahurim (lads) packed in the bus and told ‘let’s go’.

Deborah Feldman, bestselling New York Times author of Unorthodox, showed up at the protest rally unexpectedly with who appeared to be her boyfriend. In a chat with a New York Times reporter who was mingling with the protesters Ms. Feldman was ecstatic about the loud, uninhibited stance the protesters were taking. “The trend of speaking up isn’t gone. It’s a storm, a tidal wave. I’m not the only one, not the first, not the last; I’m just part of the wave” she exclaimed triumphantly.

The most lucid and informed expose in support of the Anti-Internet rally was articulated by Yoely Katz, a handsome and intelligent young melamed (teacher) in Lakewood with splendidly perfect sidecurls, whom we buttonholed at the entrance to the stadium. He explained at length how tight regulation and censorship of the Internet is self-imposed by community members to guard against inappropriate lascivious impulses and their easy satisfaction through online channels. For a young adolescent who grapples with burgeoning sexual impulses, the Internet is just too tempting too resist. “Even if you don’t want it, you get pulled in”, he cautioned. The sensible solution, therefore, is self-censorship in accordance with guidance by the Rabbis.

When asked whether the Internet posed an ideological hazard through exposure to heretical content, he firmly dismissed it as a component in what “our leaders are concerned about”. He explained that his life was “totally unaffiliated with the Internet… the Yiddishkeit that is provided to us is a very healthy balance, a very enjoyable way.”

He added that he read Deborah Feldman’s book (whose name he mistook for “Untraditional”) but was unmoved. “What I see is a child coming from a disturbed home, an extremely unhappy child. For us, every shul is like a little bar. The only way we survive is by creating our own entertainment”.

Watch HN Interview with Yoely Katz

Indeed, the very rally itself was arguably just such a form of entertainment. In casual discussions and exit surveys with rally attendees many openly admitted that they were going for the sheer spectacle of it.

 

Eminent Hasidic Spiritualist, Hershy Schnitzler, Lectures at Thursday Night Chulent

art by Michael Levin mikelev.com

art by Michael Levin mikelev.com

One of the most exciting figures in the Haredi spiritual but non-observant Jewish world is Hershy Schnitzler. With a cult-like persona he attracts gaggles of adulators and devotees. For the May 17 Chulent gathering in Kensington, Brooklyn Hershy showed up fashionably late like a Hasidic Rebbe, except that he was bare-headed and his beard was not nearly as long.

After some passionate trance-like crooning of some traditional Hasidic folk songs in Yiddish accompanied by musical instruments, Hershy was finally ready to give his lecture. Topic of the day? The besht –founder of Hasidus!

In a piercingly insightful and profoundly revealing half-hour presentation, Hershy demonstrated how the very elemental ideas of Hasidus as originally expounded by the Besht have been unrecognizably altered and forgotten. The besht was far from a halakhically observant Jew, asserts Hershy.

Hershy was on a brief visit to New York. He has now returned to his home town Miami where he is active in a Carlebach-type congregation.

Watch the lecture below.

Who’s Hot and Who’s Not? Who’s Going and Who’s Blowing (Yiddish calque for sulking)?

While HN was pessimistic in a previous article regarding the projected success of the Pan-Israelite Anti-Internet Conference coming up this Sunday, we now predict a massive, unprecedented turnout and a resounding success attendance-wise. It is now reported that the Arthur Ash Stadium has been rented to accommodate an overflow of reservations for the event. Nonetheless, casual polls of community members reveals that a significant portion of projected attendees will participate mostly as spectators and kibbitzers, beholding what is anticipated as the largest ever organized Haredi gathering in modern times. At this point people are going for the spectacle and to be a witness to the historic moment. (This is somewhat akin to the highly extravagant and massively popular wedding by the ultra-wealthy Haim Moshe Srulowitz in the 90’s).

So, let’s get right down to brass tacks. Who’s in and who’s not?

Belz, Vizhnitz, Gur, and other Israel-headquartered Hasidic sects are all on board. The Belzer and Vizhnitzer Rebbe have signed in person. As moderates and Agudists they revere the daas torah (Torah opinion) as rendered by acknowledge leaders of Haredi Judaism. Skver is likewise on board.

Skollen. The Skollener Rebbe (R. Yisrael Avraham Portugal) was chosen as the figurehead representative of the Hasidic sector of the conference, likely because he is one of the oldest in his generation and is considered a uniter. As to his credibility regarding the best way to tackle new technology, however, he is largely mocked by the masses. One joke circulating in the community currently is that R. Aaron-Satmar asked him why he supports restrictions on the Internet, to which the Skollenner Rebbe responded “today we already have Artscroll; we don’t need Internet”.

SATMAR-ZALMAN POSITION ON THE CONFERENCE

Speaking of Aaron Teitelbaum, in a most bizarre twist in Hasidic politics, it is he who is boycotting the event due to what appears to be zealotry, even as his rival and traditional zealot R. Zalman has relented to pressure to endorse the event.

In a recent public discourse on Lag Baomer, R. Zalman publicly endorsed he event after receiving a very senior delegation of the biggest Rabbis behind the event, including the Skollenner Rebbe and R. Matisyahu Solomon himself. R. Zalman is taking flack for it on the level that the German Wehrmacht did over London in 1940. His one-time staunchest allies in the Bene Joel camp –who looked up to him in 2006 as the “one who will return the crown to its ancient glory” by correcting for the Berakh Mosheh’s (R. Moses Teitelbaum, Satmar Rebbe 1980-2006) digression from the orthodox Satmar path– are now bristling at him for collaborating with the Agudists.

R. Zalman has reportedly deferred to his beth din to decide whether the community should participate in the conference. One eminent judge on the beth din, R. Shlomo Leib Weinberger, who is a brother-in-law of the Skollenner Rebbe, nepotistically endorsed the event. After R. Zalman publicly endorsed it, others on the panel such as R. Yisrael Haim Menashe Friedman and R. Menasheh Phillip quietly assented, so as not to jeopardize their politically-dependent positions.

R. Zalman Leib Phillip, however, a brother of R. Menashe and the leading exponent of the radical anti-Zionist cause, isn’t playing ball. In a harsh, stinging criticism of R. Zalman he accused R. Zalman Leib Teitelbaum of being even worse than his brother Aaron: “even Aaron Veltz (aligned with Satmar-Aaron) that Satmar does not join with others in the Kinnus Tehilim (Psalms Conference) in Borough Park. Indeed, R. Mensahe Philip and others Bene Joel members are  not giving R. Zalman a carte blanche, their alliance with the Zalmanites having been tenuous all along and predicated on the understanding that Zalman will purify Samar from the attenuation and contamination introduced by the Berakh Moshe.

Another leading figure, one Alte Moshe Goldberger, announced on his hotline 951-262-3722 that “Zalman Leib eitelbaum hot zich geshmadt” (Z.L. TB has committed apostasy). According to this ultra-radical, puritanical line of reasoning the biggest problem with the Internet is its insidious Zionism emanating from the Jewish Haredi circles with which the Satmars tend to cooperate to some degree in one form or another, contrary to the idealistic vision of the radical Bene Joel and Neture Karta.

R. Haim David Katz, the chief dayyan (Rabbinic judge) in Satmar-Zalman Borough Park is a relative moderate in the Zalmanite rebellion against their Rebbe’s endorsement of the event. He pledges his support under one condition: expel Shimon Rolintzky, proprietor and editor of The Star and The Spective which is banned in Williamsburg by the Zalmanites due to its secular outlook. Rolintzky has been running ads and publishing editorial columns supporting the event, probably for pay from the organizers. He is generally aligned with the Aaronites (although on the matter of support for the event he differs); hence R. Katz’s stipulation of support on the condition that Rolintzky be sidelined.

Lastly, R. Yitzchak Lebowitz, Rabbi in Woodridge, NY asserts that “the biggest Internet problem is the very kinnus (conference) itself”, according to a person familiar with the matter.

SATMAR-AARON POSITION

On the flip side of the coin, Aaron’s vacillation about endorsing the event until recently when he finally came out vehemently against it, is almost as puzzling. Analysts are scrambling to make sense of it and are grasping at straws. “Aaron thinks he’s the biggest Rebbe”, says a member of the community, “He’s afraid people will say he’s mattir (permits) Internet with a filter”.

Others add that Aaron is too eloquent and dignified to be able to go along with the coalition as one among equals. He’ll steal the spotlight and upstage the other Rabbis if he participates in the manner he would have wanted to. What’s worse is that he may thus alienate other, pettier Rabbinic members of the coalition envious of the honor accorded him and resentful of his demanding concessions pertaining to the Satmar shittah such as no Hebrew in the conference and minimization of English.

BOBOV

There are two Bobovs. As the case is with Satmar, if one faction endorses the event the other opposes it. Bentziyyon Bobover (48th St.) is against the event. Critics say it’s because organizers first secured the endorsement of R. M.D. Ungar, the rival Bobover Rebbe (45th St.), and attached the title “kaq maran admor shelita mibobov” (Rabbi of Bobov) to his signature. Thus, the Bobov 48 bahurim (bachelor Yeshiva boys) will not attend the event (which seems to be generally free for Yeshiva boys) although others in the congregation may attend following a lower-level endorsement by a congregational functionary.

R. Mordechai David Ungar, by contrast, is a staunch advocate for the event, one of the most outspoken in the spectrum of Hasidic Rabbis.

LITHUANIANS

R. Matisyahu Solomon

R. Matisyahu Solomon

Tens of thousands are expected from Lakewood and other Lithuanian enclaves in the metropolitan New York region. Unlike the Hasidim, the Lithuanians are more dogmatic about the principle of daas torah (a torah opinion, rendered by a qualified scholar and Rabbi). They are also much more cohesive than the Hasidim since they don’t follow petty Rebbes with grand egos who love to squabble quibble, and cavil.

Notwithstanding the above, R. Shumel Kamintzky, a preeminet figure in Lakewood is against the conference on the grounds of it being bittul torah — withdrawal from Torah study. It is not known how big of a dent his dissenting opinion will have on overall Lakewood participation levels.

INTERNET-FILTER ECONOMIC OPPORTUNITIES

The two companies standing to reap a windfall from the conference are the Internet filtering giants Jnet and YeshivaNet. YeshivaNet is run by a member of the Lithuanian sector and R. M. Solomon had reportedly originally insisted that they receive an exclusive charter to provide the required Internet filter. Jnet is run by one Mr. Rosenthal from Williamsburg and is expected to be the prevailing  filter among the Hasidim.

Jnet, an Internet Service Provider that piggybacks on Verizon’s DSL service, offers three tiers of filtering service, ranging in price from $60/month to $100/month. Mr. Rosenthal has been campaigning for filtering for over a decade and his company is even older. The Rabbis were skeptical or dismissive of him in the formative years of the Internet, arguing that the Internet ought to be kept out altogether. For Mr. Rosenthal, the conference on Sunday signifies a mainstream recognition that he had been right all along that the Internet cannot be kept out forever and effective filtering is the ultimate solution. As a sign of its popularity, B&H, the largest commercial Hasidic employer in the world has deployed Jnet on its network, in addition to having donated an estimated million dollars toward the campaign.

Both Jnet and YeshivaNet representatives are expected to speak at the event and sign-up booths will be provided so that attendees can sign up for Filtered Internet on the spot.

Nevertheless, as alluded to earlier, HN does not anticipate large numbers of new sign-ups for the services. Many attendees will be there for the sheer spectacle of it all with no intention of ever making a purchase. Others are expected to drop the service soon after signing up and discovering that the filter is crude and overly-aggressive. Jnet, for example, seems to be unable or unwilling to discriminate between a search for penis in a raunchy context and one in a medical context, resulting in intense frustration and service calls.

Boorie Deutsch Learns a Hard Lesson: Customer is ALWAYS Right

OPINION

Our own Boorie Deutsch, protagonist in the Weberman sexual molestation case that has become a cause celebre topping the news this week in the hood, may have erred in his headstrong belligerence against the Hasidic Williamsburg establishment. Is is now reported that R. Shmuel Berger, a notable kashrut endorser in Williamsburg, has revoked his kashrut certificate from Mr. Deutsch’s restaurant Old Williamsburg Cafe at 45 Lee Avenue in retaliation for his role as the prime instigator in the Weberman lawsuit, which will go to trial next month and for which the entire town was galvanized yesterday at the Continental Catering Hall on Rutledge Street.

If past events are any reliable indication, it is predicted that he will be driven out of business. Even though there was some vocal contingency yesterday from the fringes of the community rallied in protest to the Weberman fundraising dinner, the average “bum” in Williamsburg is an inconspicuous bum who is not willing to go out on a limb to support a despised individual. The community in Williamsburg, the most cohesive in the Urban Hasidic world, is up in arms against him. Not only will they boycott his restaurant but they will throw their weight around to intimidate neutral individuals from patronizing him.

Boorie (or “Burie”, Baruch in Hebrew) Deutsch, 23, is the present girlfriend of the 17 year old girl who was allegedly molested repeatedly in her adolescence by Mr. Weberman in the course of religious counseling sessions with the self-proclaimed wizard. Years ago, when Mr. Weberman and the girl’s father found out that she was consorting with one Mr. Solomon outside of marriage, an act frowned upon in the community, they conspired to file charges against the boy and had him arrested and arraigned for statutory rape (an act of sex wherein one of the partners is underage and is therefore legally incapable of consent). That case was ultimately dismissed, perhaps when the girl subsequently refused to cooperate with the prosecution. Nevertheless the pair never mended their fractured relationship resulting from what the boy saw as her betrayal of him.

After the religious therapy sessions in Williamsburg sputtered, the girl was expelled or taken out of the hidebound Williamsburg institutions and placed in a relatively liberal Flatbush school to complete her education. That’s where a licensed secular therapist reported to governmental authorities her revelation that she was molested by Mr. Weberman.

Normally, when such a thing happens intense pressure is brought to bear, if necessary, on the aggrieved not to press charges in the secular courts. It is commonly argued that airing such dirty laundry in public constitutes a tremendous hilul hashem (profanation of God’s name). However, after Mr. Deutsch hooked up with the girl, he egged her on to resist the pressure to drop the charges.

Analysts in the community are not exactly sure why Mr. Deutsch is going to such great lengths to bring Mr. Weberman down. Some claim it’s some sort of personal vendetta, perhaps a retribution on behalf of his girlfriend for breaking up her first love affair with Mr. Solomon. Many even doubt the very credibility of the charges, often citing in Weberman’s defense that his reputation precedes him as an upstanding member in the community and it’s thus forbidden to “release a bad name” (motzi shem ra).

Looking back at Mr. Deutsch’s personal record, however, there may be other, broader motives in the mix. Mr. Deutsch, weary of “squeezing the bench” in the Yeshiva as many others do in the absence of any interest in Talmudic scholasticism, had left Yeshiva as a bachelor and sought to join the communal self-patrol organization, Shomrim, but was rebuffed due to his bachelorhood. He then launched a new patrol group, KCSP (Kings County Safety Patrol), which did not discriminate against bachelors. The venture was not ultimately successful, however, and he may therefore still be bearing a grudge on the community.

Another factor may be explained through social psychology. The community usually has little tolerance for those who do not follow the program lock stock and barrel; which would normally position Mr. Deutsch and his extramarital girlfriend outside the pale. By casting his girlfriend –and by extension himself– as sexual abuse victims they may be hoping to receive better, more lenient, treatment. The girl, for example, still resides with her parents in Williamsburg, which wouldn’t normally be acceptable practice given her wayward demeanor. As a sexual abuse victim, she is perceived as having strayed in response to abuse and is therefore still welcome in the community pending the resolution of the abuse episode.

All this, of course, does not impugn the actual charges being made, which anecdotal evidence suggests are substantiated. Numerous members in the community have revealed in private (under condition of anonymity) that they too were molested or fondled by Mr. Weberman, but are not wiling to go public because of the stinging boomerang effect that invariably follows. This is very bad news for Mr. Weberman’s credibility since those who are not turning to authorities and are reporting in confidence seem to have nothing to gain from such reports if they were fabricated as Weberman and his supporters assert.

Weberman Sexual Molestation Case Drives Wedge in Community

As the fundraising event gets underway this evening for Nechemiah Weberman’s defense against allegation of sexual misconduct with a minor, deep rifts are laid bare in the Hasidic Community of Williamsburg. There is far from consensus in the street opinion as to whether Mr. Weberman is innocent or guilty. Informal polling of community members regarding the accusation yields emotions ranging from sympathy to the neutral “it was probably consensual” claim to the vehement denial of the charges.

For those who deny the charges, the “evidence” is written on the wall. Mr. Weberman, a member in good standing in the community and a popular activist has a a good reputation — that is ipso facto proof that he’s innocent. But for family members and sympathizers who are fed up with the abuse of power and sexual impropriety that gets shoved under the rug, the accusation is serious. They paint a grim picture of a man who for years juggled illicit sexual encounters with members of the opposite sex he encountered in the course of his “consultancy” work for community members.

Ab Fried, a brother in law of the victim, insinuates that Weberman’s alleged sexual misconduct extended to his other sister-in-laws as well (but not to his wife). “He was considered a wise and trusted family friend. My father-in-law really trusted him”, he says, adding that his father-in-law is now irresolute about the case, sympathizing with his daughter on the one hand but not willing to incur the wrath of the community on the other by supporting her openly. Other community members concur about Weberman’s dissolute sexual behavior. On one blog a comment was left claiming “this men abuse me too [sic]  if you want to know more please send me email at newgirlblue21@yahoo.com“.

weberman in court for his arraignment

weberman in court for his arraignment

But what the mainstream media have failed to report is the epic intrigue underlying this case. The legal case against Weberman didn’t solely result from a Flatbush therapist who reported the reports of abuse to authorities as required by law. It started when the 12 year old girl, Ms. Kraus, was referred to religious therapy after she posed unanswerable questions in school. She seemed to have gone off the derekh at that time and developed a tryst with a similarly freewheeling young man by the name of Solomon. This is where Mr. Weberman, as a self-proclaimed psychological guru and maven, entered the picture. Apart from the alleged sexual affair with the girl, he also tried to break up her relationship with Solomon, to which end he reported it to the police as statutory rape. Solomon was arrested and endured several agonizing weeks until the case was dropped for unknown reasons.

In the meantime, the religious therapy wasn’t quite successful in steering the girl back on track. She subsequently formed a relationship with Boorey Deutsch a bachelor restaurateur in the community. Outraged over the emotional scars left on his girlfriend and Mr. Weberman’s high-handed tactics, including his vicious reporting of Solomon to the authorities, Mr. Deutsch decided to speak up against the perv and take action, which explains his girlfriend’s cooperation with the prosecution despite overwhelming communal pressure that they drop the charges.

Even as this article is being written. Mr Deutsch and a group of sympathizers are staging a rally in support of the girl and against the fundraising campaign for Weberman’s legal defense.  The event on Facebook has 119 people confirmed as “going”.

Anti-Internet Rally Floundering Amid Apathy and Counter Rally

The Ultra-Orthodox Anti-Internet rally organized by the “committee for purity in the camp” scheduled to take place in Citi Field on May 20 is floundering amid general apathy by the Hasidic community and an inability to secure high-level endorsements in many Hasidic courts, including Bobov and both Satmars.

R. Aaron Teitelbaum, Satmar Rebbe in Kiryas Joel, received a delegation of the most senior Rabbinic organizers, including R. Matisyahu Solomon and the Skollenner Rebbe himself and yet he was reluctant to commit. After a similar delegation was then sent to his archenemy R. Zalman, who did issue a low-level approval of the rally, R. Aaron responded with a resounding no (in the form of an anti-Citi-field sermon by the Kashau Rav in KJ last week).

A posteriori objections are a dime a dozen: for one, the Internet ought to be forbidden even with a filter. Secondly, with the Lubavitchers conspicuously uninvited to the rally (since their adversaries, the Lithuanians, are at the forefront), it isn’t a pan-Israelite (“kelal yisrael” — as touted by the organizers)  initiative any longer; it’s partisan! — and the Aaronites won’t have any of partisan politics. (Of course, that doesn’t stop them from the most sordid of political scheming in the intra-Satmar strife saga, but hey, every rule has an exception.) The Aaronites are arguing that the Lubavitchers are no less Jewish than the Litvakkes (Lithuanians) and an insult to them is an insult to the entire Hasidic sector.

Ironically, Aaron’s apprehension about the campaign may have been fueled –according to some pundits– by the fear of being labeled too soft on the Satmar shittah (doctrine) by the very Zalmanites who have ultimately signed on to the campaign after being honored by the high-level delegation. English is expected to be a lingua franca at the rally. And who knows how low those organizing folks may stoop: they may even utter some words in the wicked Zionist language — Hebrew. This may be the reason why Zalman is still holding back on a more proactive involvement and aggressive stance in the campaign.

Lastly, Satmar is just not used to being a follower. For decades R. Joel, its first Rebbe, had inculcated in his followers the insistence on standing strong, resisting the winds of the time and rendering independent, unbiased, even unpopular opinions and initiatives in Judaic matters. Satmar does not follow, it leads.

The campaign does not fare much better in other Hasidic camps. In Bobov, likewise riven by sectional strife between R. Bentziyon Halberstam and R. Mordechai Ungar, neither of the Rebbes would deign to commit their John Hancock to the program. A dayyan (judge — fairly equivalent to the second-in-command in a Hasidic court) by the name of R. Rubin signed on behalf of Bobov 45th S. (Ungar) while R. Haim Yaakov Tauber signed off in the name of Bobov 48th St.

Organizers have coaxed educational institutions, especially the “modern” Lithuanian ones, to get pupils’ parents to commit in writing that they will either attend the rally at a cost of $10 per person or affirm that they cannot make it but fully sympathize with it. This is seen by some observers as a sign of weakness.

Despite a massive propaganda campaign, arguably unprecedented in expenditure in the history of pro-religious Jewish campaigns in America, support remains tepid. Many are indifferent, asking “what is in it for me?”. It is, accordingly, doubtful that organizers will be able to fill up the 50,000 seat stadium.

With no luck in America, organizers are turning to the Israel. The Belzer Rebbe reportedly did sign on to the initiative bikhvodo uveatzmo — in his honor and sameself.

COUNTER RALLY

Meanwhile, amid all the internal bickering a rare alliance is being forged between aggrieved elements in the community who are balking at the system and those on the periphery. Their slogan is: “Internet is Not the Problem. Child sexual Molestation is.” This seemingly utter diversion of attention from the subject of the principal rally may appear odd at first. Considering, however, that the “purity in the camp” that Haredi organizers are seeking to advance is a euphemism for the elimination of Internet pornography, the counter-rally is in fact apropos to the subject of sexual propriety.

On the Haredi side this counter rally is supported by its principal sexual education exponent, Nahum Rosenberg. Some other Jewish organizations are leaning in its favor but are withholding a public endorsement out of fear of backlash by the powerful organizers. One sympathizer from the community reports that upon voicing support for the counter-rally on a Facebook page he was threatened that Hasidic participants “would be photographed and their lives publicized from the day they were born.”

On the periphery, there is Ari Mandel, a former Hasid who is also an army veteran, Chanie Friedman and others.

In a phone interview Mr. Mandel explained that his objection wasn’t to Internet filtering per se — it was rather to the misaligned priorities evinced by the event organizers and supporters. Drawing an analogy from his witnessing of injuries and casualties during his military service he compares the situation in Haredi Jewry to the one in a triage center: “In triage, you don’t fix the guy’s leg before you get his heart beating again. The Internet is a broken leg; child molestation is a heart that’s not beating.” Listen to our May 3 2012 Skype Interview with Ari Mandel.

On its facebok page, presently 284 strong, and in the recently launched website for “The Internet is Not the Problem” counter-rally, organizers are careful to underscore that the counter rally crosses even denominational lines. According to the website:

This is NOT an anti-religious protest. We are ultra-Orthodox, Modern Orthodox, Reform, Conservative, secular, male, female, young and old. This is not an ideological issue. This is not an issue only for “​insiders.” When it comes to the safety of our children, we must be united and unabashed in our actions.

— a compelling argument indeed.

Another non-observant prominent blogger solicited the Facebook community to find biblical passages and rabbinic verses to augment the universal message of the counter-rally. “What we are standing for is not only *not* an attack on frumkeit (strict adherence to Jewish law), but actually in line with the foundational beliefs of frum Jews.”

It remains to be seen, however, how comfortable Haredi Jews who sympathize with the anti-molestation agenda would be standing alongside folks who don’t wear yarmulkes but nonetheless care as much or greater about the prevalence of child molestation and the impunity accorded sexual molesters in the community. If such a tableau vivant does materialize, it’ll be a powerful and starkly unprecedented partnership between haredi and non-haredi elements on a socio-religious issue relating to the Hardi sector.

Footsteps Steps Up Its Pace

Chart illustrating recent growth in Footsteps membership

Footsteps, the organization famous for its aid to those in haredi communities who seek to migrate to the mainstream, released its annual report last February. Most striking in the report was its astonishing growth over the last two years — especially in the proportion of women– in its intake figures. While overall new membership rolls grew from 35 per year in 2009 to 55 per year in 2011 (57% growth), the female portion thereof grew from 9 in 2009 to 23 last year — a whopping 155% growth, significantly bridging the gap in the longstanding lopsided, and somewhat perplexing,  male/female ratio in the Footsteps community.

Footsteps was founded nearly nine years ago in December 2003 to address a growing trend of folks from insular ultra-orthodox communities determined to break away from the rigorously structured and stifling milieu they were born and raised in. Its visionary founder is Malky Schwartz who herself hails from a Hasidic (lubavitch) family and who sought to expand a grassroots weekly meeting of Hasidic Community departees to a full-service 501-(c)(3) organization that would provide a full complement of services that are typically required for a successful transition, ranging from peer-supportive discussion groups to GED exam preparation courses to creative arts to discreet professional one-on-one counseling.

With the help of extended family members who were not Hasidic and who were eager to part with their expertise in the legal and fundraising sphere to help her fledgling organization, Footsteps has been steered to unprecedented success and is now a widely recognized social service organization in the Jewish philanthropic circuit in New York –and recently even nationally: calls are reportedly being fielded from Canada, London, Antwerp and more.

Ms. Schwartz has since left the organization to pursue a legal career. In her place, Ms. Lani Santo was named executive director in August 2010 and has since introduced ambitions and far-reaching new policies and programs. She oversaw, for example, the policy change from being media-averse to pro-media and the recent Leadership Program under which Footsteps participants are now becoming increasingly proactive in the initiation and facilitation of programs and services.

Ms. Santo is well-qualified for the daunting tasks that lie ahead. She holds a Master’s Degree in Public Administration from NYU’s Wagner School and has cut her teeth on such organizations as AJWS and Avodah.

In accordance with the newly implemented policy of greater transparency of the organizations inner workings, Ms. Santo and other staff members agreed to a series of interviews with HN during which a comprehensive set of inquisitive and provocative questions were posed and answered. For our readers’ convenience we shall divide our findings topically.

Disclaimer note: This article represents our impression of Footsteps. Facts are interwoven with opinion which does not necessarily correspond to Footsteps’ official position. Contact Footstpes directly for inquiries into official policy or to request services: info@footstepsorg.org 212-253-0890.

INITIAL CONTACT

Initial contact with Footsteps is made by phone or email and in about half the cases proceeds rapidly to an “intake” interview. The goal of Footsteps staff at this stage is to ask the question “why are you here?” Licensed social workers sit down with applicants and assess what the their pressing issues are and explore suitable courses of action. Such issues vary from abuse in the community (physical, sexual or psychological), social isolation, desire for better education and fundamental ideological differences from the community.

Footsteps does NOT try to foist any course of action on applicants at this or at any subsequent stage of the process. “We’re not looking to coach people. Haredi lifesyle works for many; but it also doesn’t work for a good percentage of people”, explain Ms. Santo. In many cases applicants are referred to other social organizations such as Family Services at Ohel, Met council or Jewish Board for Family and Children Services. “The most important thing we can offer is allow a person to make their own decision.”

In a most telling and revealing note, Ms. Santo adds that “we get referrals from Rabbis; sometimes people acknowledge that it [haredi lifestyle] is not necessarily gonna work for everyone”.

JOINING FOOTSTEPS

Joining the organization is apropos for those who are seriously considering leaving their insular communities behind and transition into the mainstream. Initiation is  symbolized by being added to the google group, which is how staff keep members informed about upcoming events and where members can chime in with remarks, questions and concerns relating to the common experience. There are presently approximately 300 members subscribed to the google group, 100 of which are deemed “not active”.

Out of a total of about 650 individuals who have been members at one time or another, many are no longer involved. This is either because they have successfully assimilated, which is a good sign as far as Footsteps as an organization is concerned, or –more rarely– because they have returned to their communities of origin.

PROFILE OF A “FOOTSTEPPER”

A common misconception is that Footsteps’ mission is to derail people from the religious rack, to teach its charges how to intrepidly devour treif hamburgers on Yom Kippur. This is not borne out at all by the reality on the ground. Staff never encourage members privately or publicly to violate religious rules, and religious sensibilities are accommodated on most events such as by the provision of Kosher food and the refrainment from scheduling any major events on Sabbaths or holidays. Moreover, it is lately becoming more common for some members to continue –or even resume– wearing the yarmulke after joining Footsteps.

The common denominator of all Footsteppers is not their level of religious observance. It is rather a shared ultra-sheltered past, typically one in which secular education, sports, movies and other cultural pillars that mainstream Americans take for granted were absent; and it is a shared struggle to overcome such handicaps that unites and bonds Footsteppers to one another.

THREE CATEGORIES OF SERVICE

The organization has found that there are three broad categories of services desired by its members:

1) Social Support.

For people leaving the haredi lifestyle and world, the specter of being lost at high sea looms large. Footsteps attempts to recreate the social network that is lost upon leaving the community. In part this is achieved by internal bonding with like-minded individuals, but ultimately the goal is to integrate individuals into larger, well-established congregational and institutional frameworks and/or more informal networks. To this end, Footsteps advises its members what is available, makes referrals and follows up to ensure success. Some members, for example, have found spiritual comfort at Romemu, a Carlebach-sans-halakha congregation in uptown Manhattan. Limmud New York, a forum for educational Jewish conferences is another institution highly valued and recommended by Footsteps staff and members. Still others prefer non-Jewish venues such as The Art Students League of New York or are referred and assisted in the college selection and application process.

2) Economic Self-sufficiency.

Leaving the haredi community invariably raises many questions in terms of bringing home the bacon (no pun intended, ok I admit, pun was intended, just kidding) and pursuing a long-term career. Within the community there is often little free choice regarding the types of employment available, and jobs are often community-based. Upon leaving, one may jeopardize their community-based job or voluntarily choose to pursue something more adventurous, higher-paying or more in line with one’s newly adopted weltanschauung. For those leaving straight out of Yeshiva or Kolel it’s even more difficult since they do not have any independent stream of income.

A special program desgined to encourage and support people pursuing a higher education is the college scholarship program, launched about three years ago. Under the program, Footsteppers receive a variable sum ranging from $500 o $5,500 per semester in financial aid toward the payment of college tuition. Satisfactory grades are required in order to remain eligible for this program. A total of $65,000 was awarded to 20 students in the the 2011 fiscal year. Interestingly, one contributing foundation to the scholarship fund as well as many donors to the general fund prefer to remain anonymous. Some are individuals or businesses WITHIN THE COMMUNITY who value education and choose to support it while averting the backlash they would likely suffer if their support of the organization were made public.

3) Exploration of Personal Identity.

The perplexing question, according to Ms. Santo is “who am I if I am not defined by my community?” The possibilities regarding Jewish identity are endless: Modern Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, Reconstructionist, New-age/Renewal (Carlebach), Humanistic, unaffiliated, or some hybrid between between. The very notion of not having someone else impose their definition of Jewish identity upon one, while it may feel liberating it can also be frightening. It can take time getting used to such shades of Jewishness as observing Kosher-style only, wearing a yarmulke in shul and among close family members only, etc… The prevailing view in the early phases of departure often tends to be “if it’s not ultra-orthodox it’s not Jewish at all. What’s the point of keeping anything if I’m not going to keep it according to the complete rigors of halakha.” Discovering about the feasibility of endless gradations within Judaism is a process; one that requires information, liberty, audacity and choice.

Other identity roles are also thrown into question, once community standards are no longer used as a benchmark: who am I as a mother, sister, daughter etc… What are my responsibilities in those capacities?

Another, related topic worth exploring is one of group identity as a formerly haredi individual and/or a Footstpper: what will the Footsteps community look like once they start families. There’s a growing alumni network of people who have benefited from Footsteps services and community in the past but have now moved on to other things or have become involved in giving back. As of yet, there is no clear structure or definition for such a notional community. Member and alumni are still dispersed widely across the New York metropolitan area and there are too few “second-generation” Footsteppers (children that are either born after leaving the community, OR having been taken along for the journey) to envision what the long-term communal identity of Footsteppers would resemble.

HAREDIM ANUSIM — MARRANOS

As alluded to earlier many of the recipients of Footsteps services have never been seen in person by its members or staff. This is usually associated with the growing phenomenon of hardeim anusim (forced haredim) or Marranos (named after 16th century Spaniard Jews who likewise were impelled to conceal their true faith) . Marranos are often married with children and have jobs in the community. “We can only provide support to those who turn to us for help”, remarks Ms. Santo, adding that “leading a double life could be very damaging psychologically, causing intense emotional distress.”

Openly severing communal ties by relocating, changing one’s dress and withdrawing children from communal institutions is beyond the pale of what is practicable for them. Money is very often the chief constraint, but it need not be. At times it’s simply too much too fast that dissuades them from making the great leap forward. For them, emails and phone communication with Footsteps staff as well as an occasional discreet drop-in to a peer discussion group or event is like water to the desert wanderer. They draw immense emotional support from such discreet but powerful conversations or encouners in which they prove to themselves that they are not alone and that they are not crazy. This experience is often the difference between suicide-contemplation and a resolve to soldier on.

FOOTSTEPS PROGRAMS

The Organization’s activities are centered around a number of programs each of which is carefully planned, funded and assigned a programs director. Programs are conceived and implemented with a view toward filling a need in one of the three core categories enumerated above. Example of programs follow:

Peer-support discussion groups (aka “drop=in group”). This is the oldest program and is typically utilized by new members in the first 3-4 years after leaving the community. Groups are facilitated by licensed social workers to ensure order and equal floor time to all participants. The objective is that participants’ see similar veins in others’ psychic makeup and personal journeys. This provides an immense psychological boost in those formative, trying years.

Footsteps 1.

Footsteps 1 is a particular type of peer-support group. It is specifically geared to members who have recently joined the organization. As such topics that departees typically grapple with are discussed such as inadequate secular education, cultural shock, physical and sexual abuse, ideological objections to the system and even theology. Footsteps 1 is a closed group comprising approximately eight sessions, one per week and a commitment to the entire program is expected from participants.

Footsteps 2.

It was originally intended to be a more narrowly structured form of the freewheeling discussion group, tailored for new members after having graduated from Footsteps 1. The impetus behind it is that Footsteps 1 members may find the mainstream cultural mastery of more advanced members a bit overwhelming and vice versa. Separating them allowed for a more relaxed and fulfilling peer-support experience. In reality, Footsteps 2 has largely morphed into the generic meet-and-schmooze type of meeting and has thus vanished for now.

Arts Program.

The arts program, reported on in a previous HN article, includes both instruction by outside accomplished artists and an initial forum for the display of artwork. Considering that art is virtually non-existent as a hobby or aesthetic in the Haredi sector, this is a tremendous achievement. In the latest art show, Footsteps reports two dozen art pieces by nearly as many artists produced under the auspices of this program. Most are still on display in the Footsteps lounge.

Basketball Program.

Once again, a sphere of life virtually absent in the Haredi universe has been successfully introduced and implemented. An indoor basketball court in South Brooklyn is utilized on Thursday nights to give neophytes basic lessons in the game and then all0w everyone to play in a non-judgmental venue without fear of appearing incompetent.

Scholarship Program — described earlier.

Educational Programs.

An “idea exchange” was recently held in which Footsteppers were given 15 minutes each to present to their peers on an objective topic of their choosing. Topics discussed included: advanced mathematics, health care reform and digital message encryption. The Ancient Israelite History class series was also fairly successful in introducing a novel approach to interpreting the Bible and the history recounted in it.

Parents Meeting group.

A group of Footsteppers who were parents met regularly discuss challenges in parenting. Child care was provided to participants. This group is now  extinct; phased out after demand for it dissolved.

Social Events Programs.

This program is actually a set of many. Each event in the Footsteps calendar is meticulously planned and executed with attention paid to the venue (often  an outside facility in order to accommodate larger crowds), activities and privacy concerns. Events comprise the following:

  • Winter party (January).
  • Semiannual Art opening (spring and fall).
  • Semiannual change-of-season potluck festivals, aka “New Beginning” (Pesah and sometime between Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur)
  • Footsteps Celebrates.
  • Camping trip
  • Thanksgiving party.

DONORS

Footsteps has been very fortunate with generous contributions by people who care, both in the form of foundations and individuals.

The leading financial donor presently is Steve Eisman, a Wall street executive who broke ranks with his colleagues and dared care about the 99%. After his unwelcome doomsday prophecy regarding the future performance of  the securatized subprime mortgage sector, he left a successful career in a wall street firm and “shorted” the market just in time before the 2007-8 financial meltdown.

Cashing in on his keen insight hand over fist, he has emerged as a leading supporter of Footsteps, perhaps seeing in it a parallel to his personal life. He likewise grew up Modern Orthodox and “studied the Talmud in order to prove its inconsistencies”. In his Wall Street rise to the top he was at once loved and hated by his colleagues. Hated by those whose companies he discounted in his ratings reports, he made a name for himself as an honest assessor of companies financial performance. He once crumpled up a deliberately opaque financial statement by a Japanese firm remarking that “this is toilet paper”. He never sought to ingratiate himself with the powers that be and was ultimately rewarded handsomely for this. Does he see in Footsteps an organization whose members likewise peel back the deliberately misleading facade of fundamental Judaism to reveal a hypocritical and unsustainable system?

Another line of reasoning by a certain individual Jewish donor as couched by Ms. Santo is: My grandparents were also Hungarian and I could have landed in this community but I didn’t; and I had all these choices to build my life the way that I want to. And you know what, I’m not exactly like my parents either, but they love me anyway.

Other large foundational donors include he UJA Federation of New York, Natan, and NYCON (New York Council of Nonprofits) Strengthening Community Fund, among others. For Footsteps members in their initial transition stages, it may come as a surprise that “Jewish” organizations would support them when all they want to do is run as far away as possible from their Jewishness. In the long run, however, most Footsteppers settle on a more moderate and balanced conception of their Jewish identity.

PRIVACY ISSUES

Footsteps is extremely vigilant in the protection of its members’ privacy. Media recording is prohibited on most events, unless desginated in advance as a public/media event. If guests are allowed at an event, this is also indicated in advance to allow individual members to take the risk of bumping into an unwanted individual into account before deciding to participate in the event. All members are pledged to protect others’ privacy interests in personal conversations with others even within the group. Pictures and other personally identifiable information on members may not be posted online without their explicit permission. This is sometimes challenging for whose lives are inextricably intertwined with Facebook and the blogosphere but it is necessary in order to maintain the confidence and trust of new members and those who are not yet ready to go public.

A special “white list” of members who have no reservations about publicity has been suggested, along with a complete overhaul of the google group medium, which is increasingly being viewed as too risky and prone to eavesdropping (1/3 of list subscribers are inactive Footsteppers!) or compromise through forwarding.

SOCIAL ACTIVISM

The phenomenon of former Haredim speaking up critically about their erstwhile habitats has been growing at a frantic rate in recent years. In recent months the stage was largely occupied by such eminent public figures as Deborah Feldman (author of the memoir Unorthodox) and Chaim Levin (frequent speaker at conferences, and blogger at Huffington Post and elsewhere on sexual orientation tolerance), neither of whom are directly affiliated with Footsteps.

Footsteps policy regarding their and others’ activism according to Ms. Santo is that “we are very supportive of people getting out there and making the broader public aware of these issues. We feel it’s really important for people to get the story out there.” At the same time, Footsteps does not see itself in a position to endorse or discount the actual message. “We don’t take positions on scandals but we see ourselves as catalysts for change. We’d like to provide the platform –such as art, blogging, book, theatre– that will ultimately create change and build a more diverse, inclusive and accepting community.”

GOING FORWARD

Some of the programs or expansions thereof currently being planned or implemented are as follows:

New website.

  • A completely overhauled website –which will feature social media integration and a hip organizational slogan– is presently in the works  and is expected to be rolled out this fall. In addition to the organization’s history and mission being updated, the website will have a comprehensive set of links to all sorts of entities of relevance to the typical Footstepper, including ventures by the newly emerging leadership from within the ranks of Footsteps. An extensive resource guide for those dealing with divorce is also planned.
  • Leadership program. This program is currently in its beta stage. Its goal is to capitalize on the talents and eagerness to give back exhibited by some members of the Footsteps community. Current Leadership committees include the Footsteps Celebrates event planning committee and the Crisis Support group which will volunteer to aid people in times of crisis such as lack of a job, lack of housing or during child custody battles.
  • Monsey Branch. In response to popular demand, a drop-in group facilitated by a staff member is now being hosted in Monsey on a biweekly basis, for the convenience of upstate members.