Acheinu Initiative by PHS Now Rivals Footsteps in Outreach to Ex-Haredim

After more than a decade of Footsteps being the only official organization tasked with assisting ex-Haredim, a new initiative by Prospect Heights Shul (PHS) now offers disaffected Haredim an alternative. The program, announced on Facebook on November 16 without fanfare, offers financial and social assistance to folks who seek to leave their Haredi communities but do not necessarily wish to secularize. It is spearheaded by PHS’ innovative Rabbi, R. Ysoscher Katz, who is himself ex-Haredi.

Footsteps nominally supports those who seek to transition from Haredi Judaism to other forms of Judaism –even ones as close to home as PHS’ Open Orthodoxy— according to its official mission statement posted on its website and in fealty to its founding vision:

Footsteps is the only organization in North America that assists people who wish to leave the ultra-Orthodox community. Based in New York, Footsteps provides a range of services, including social and emotional support, educational and career guidance, workshops and social activities, and access to resources.

In practice, however, Haredim who seek its help and advice on how to modernize but remain observant (e.g. help in obtaining a GED) are given short shrift. Moreover, the Footsteps community has unwittingly matured into a milieu that is hostile to Orthodoxy and to organized religion in general. The organization encourages a freewheeling and religiously unfettered ethos by offering its members “a supportive, and flourishing community to turn to as they work to define their own identities, build new connections, and lead productive lives on their own terms”. The Footsteps community palpably shuns adherence to theological tenets, observance of religious practices, and steady membership in synagogues –however “liberal” they may be. This libertine communal vibe in Footsteps is, no doubt, responsible for the bad rap the organization has acquired in Haredi circles of trying to actively proselytize and derail observant Jews from the Orthodox path, an allegation that is not borne out in fact.

R. Ysoscher Katz, Pastor at Prospect Heights Shul in Brooklyn, N.Y.

Nevertheless, as Haredi departees mature, they sometimes become disillusioned with the Footsteps culture. Some find its rigid structure and prim adherence to liberal dogma stifling. Others crave more spirituality and a continuation of the comforting and reassuring traditions. Still other Haredi departees consider themselves “stuck” in the community, and Footsteps’ ability or willingness to help them is limited inasmuch as they have no plans or even consideration of ever “leaving” their communities, even though they are deeply dissatisfied.

It is precisely this latter group of people that R. Katz seeks to help. In line with his own journey, one that took him from a Borough Park Yeshivish-Hasidic upbringing to the forefront of the Open Orthodox movement, he has advocated a similar path for other disaffected Haredim for some years now. In 2013 R. Katz started a project by the name of in which he urged Haredim who felt beleaguered by Haredi rigidity to consider more moderate moves to render themselves “unstuck” without feeling compelled to completely abandon their Orthodox traditions. former website, now defunct.

The project was prompted, says Katz, by an incident in which a  friend’s sister’s husband one day abruptly informed his wife that he was leaving her and his hasidic community “because he was no longer frum”. To his astonishment, his wife rejected that. She offered to modernize somewhat to accommodate his evolution, but rejected divorce as an option. “Let’s figure it together”, she said, “either I live with you more modernly, or perhaps you can even be frei altogether, but let’s stay together”. R. Katz then realized that complete secularization is not the optimal course for some disaffected Haredim who are determined to broaden their vistas. The quest for them is not assimilation into the liberal mainstream society but the creation of a richer and more permissive Orthodox environment.

Indeed, couples leaving their Haredi lifestyle together is now quite commonplace, whereas in the infancy of the OTD movement it was axiomatic that anyone deciding to leave the Haredi community would have to leave their marriage too. In one case, where a yeshiva expelled the children of a woman whose wig was too risque, the couple became so indignant that it decided to send their kids to public school, pull out of the community, and drop yiddishkeit altogether. In other cases couples are now seen openly flouting certain communal norms in full support of each other, resisting pressure by parents and family to separate from the nonconforming or wayward spouse.

Katz’s Frum-and-Unstuck consultancy was jointly run by himself and R. Levi Brackman on a volunteer basis. But when the duo sought the financial help of the UJA Jewish Federation of New York, they ran into a bureaucratic wall of red tape and failed to secure funding. In late 2015, with R. katz’s plate full in the form his rabbinate at PHS and his lectures at Hovevei Torah, the website announced that it was no longer accepting new applicants for help, and it soon shut down.

PHS is a 40-minute walk from New Williamsburg

Now, with R. Katz’s firm enshrinement at PHS and with the board’s full blessing and commitment, the just-launched Acheinu (“our brother”) project seeks to achieve a mission substantially similar to Frum-and-Unstuck –but with greater resources to bring to bear and a congregational framework in which ex-Haredim could assimilate. The Prospect Heights Shul is conveniently located within walking distance of “New Williamsburg” (south of Williamsburg proper, technically Clinton Hill or Bed-Stuy), so that its intrepid Millennials could reach it by foot to attend services there on shabbos and yomtov, in compliance with halokho that prohibits vehicular travel on such days. The shul is also not too far from Borough Park, another Brooklyn bastion of Hasidim, from which it may draw adherents –Haredim who are fascinated by the shul’s unique culture or are making a deliberate effort to explore alternatives to Haredism but are as yet non committal. Alternatively, a “hospitality committee” now attends to the shabbos room and board needs of prospects. This averts the need for long walks to services and it also helps with the communal bonding.

Open Orthodoxy’s allure to disaffected Haredim is both theological and social. It is the only branch within Orthodoxy that tolerates –and in some respects even encourages– the posing of critical questions on topics long considered outside the pale of acceptable debate: Biblical revelation, literalism v. figuratism in biblical narratives, and whether “belief” necessitates a rejection of scientifically proven facts.

Writes R. Katz in 2015 in a review to the book Beeinei Elohim Veadam:

I believe that this is the approach we need to adopt. We should reexamine philosophical terms, not quibble with established halakhic norms. We need to debate what heresy is, not whether it is allowed.

A promising direction is to revisit the philosophical meaning of “belief,” and examine to what degree religious belief can be understood as being a-factual; a faith-proclamation, not a factual postulate. Defining belief as a-factual would allow a person of faith to “believe” religiously in the historicity of the biblical narratives and at that same time entertain the postulates of Bible critics…

For observant Judaism to survive biblical criticism’s heavy artillery it will have to further articulate the meaning of its faith claims. This will allow it to remain faithful to its traditions while maintaining a mature dialogue with contemporary modes of thought.

In other words, one can remain completely observant of halokho and believe religiously but not factually in the biblical narrative, asserts Katz. It is a difficult and dubious distinction, one that was made also, more or less, by the Conservative movement in the early twentieth century and by R. Kaplan’ Jewish Renewal. Both those movements ultimately rejected the immutability of halokho. Nevertheless, for Haredim who feel that their skepticism on Orthodox dogma cannot be aired within their communities for fear of being labeled heretics and being ostracized, Open Orthodoxy provides a “safe space” wherein they are at home with respect to custom –inasmuch as it conforms fully to halokho– but are simultaneously free to voice skepticism and deviant thoughts.

Open Orthodoxy holds the promise of satisfying Haredim in the social realm as well. It is by far the most gender-egalitarian among all Orthodox streams: it was the first to ordain a female Rabbi “maharat”, albeit with circumscribed ministerial duties, in 2009. And on sexual orientation issues it is the most tolerant: it regularly collaborates with Eshel, an organization that supports LGBT Orthodox individuals, to host shabbaton dinners and the like. Accordingly, Hasidim who have deviant sexual predilections but are otherwise satisfied with their religion, find the movement attractive and attend PHS events in considerable numbers.

Perhaps most importantly, R. Katz’s par excellence credentials as a scholar of Judaic literature is a rarified trait outside of Haredi Jewry. Few Jewish adherents of more modern denominations have the drive, sense of duty, and sense of satisfaction that accompanies the dogged pursuit of the study of Talmud and Shulhon Orukh. Hasidim can instantly relate to Katz’s vast scholarship and to his homey Hasidic-bred mannerisms.


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3 Responses to Acheinu Initiative by PHS Now Rivals Footsteps in Outreach to Ex-Haredim

  1. Yoely says:

    Headline should be rabbi Katz changes his kiruv org’s name from Stuck to Achinu

  2. Rabbi Entitled-Bum says:

    Will he reopen his website or will he keep it closed since he wants to be better than foodstamps not to use the טמאנע internet?…

  3. Ysoscher Katz says:

    Great piece-with one caveat: my shul’s initiative, is hoping to compliment Footsteps’ work, not rival it. We and Footsteps are serving different populations. People who’ve made up their mind and want to join a Footsteps kind of community, will turn to them. We hope to support those who are at the early stages of this long process, and are only making their first steps outside the community-testing the waters to see where to turn and how to proceed.

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