Footsteps Steps Up Its Pace
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: firstname.lastname@example.org 212-253-0890.
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 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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
Some of the programs or expansions thereof currently being planned or implemented are as follows:
- 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.