When Chana was in her teens, she told her mother that she wanted to go to college. Her mom’s response was immediate and vitriolic. “She told me she’d have me locked me up in a psych ward if I applied,” she recalls.
Now a 33-year-old Manhattanite with a family of her own, Chana says that she was ashamed, but not surprised, by this reaction. In the insular ultra-Orthodox (or Hasidic) Jewish enclave in which she lived, college attendance was unheard of. In fact, books, movies, newspapers, television, the Internet—indeed, all connections to the secular world—were verboten.
“I am the second of 13 kids and was raised with strict rules and boundaries to keep me from forming relationships with outsiders,” she begins. “The idea was that God was looking over our shoulders at all times. As a girl, I was expected to be modest and obedient.” What’s more, Chana was groomed to expect an arranged marriage followed by as many pregnancies as possible.
But things did not turn out as expected. As a young adult, Chana discovered Footsteps, a nine-year-old Manhattan-based organization for those seeking to enter or explore the world outside the narrow confines of ultra-Orthodox life, and her life is now her own.
Chana says that her problems began as a child when she told her parents that she coveted a Barbie boombox; later, she questioned the hatred she heard whenever the word schvartze was uttered. “The term was said in a tone that mimicked the word Jude when the Nazis said it,” she recalls.
Her inquiries—her insistence on understanding the community’s hostility to both African-Americans and popular culture—presaged trouble, and her family worried that her queries might negatively influence her younger siblings. The solution? A summer program in Israel.
Unexpectedly, this three-month sojourn morphed into a year-long exodus after someone told Chana’s parents that their problem child was roaming the Holy Land in immodest garb. “Yes, my reputation was sullied by a tight sweater,” she laughs.
A year later, in 1996, Chana was allowed to return to the U.S. but was ordered to stay away from her New Jersey home. She ended up in Borough Park, alone, jobless, and without friends. She was 16. Eventually, she found both a minimum wage job and a cheap, basement apartment. “I was so lost,” she admits. “I was raised to believe there was only one future for a girl. Now, here I was, on my own. It was like asking a daffodil to become a penguin. I had no idea how to get into college and was scared shitless of God’s judgment.”
Still, one thing was certain. Chana knew that she wanted out of the ultra-Orthodox community. This realization propelled her in numerous directions, not all of them wholesome, but she eventually found a public library where she made it her mission to read everything on the high school and college booklists. She subsequently enrolled in college and graduated in 2006. Three years later she earned a Master’s in Public Policy.
Footsteps is part of a burgeoning movement of ex-fundamentalists. And they’re not just Jews—a wide array of evangelical Christians, Mormons, and Jehovah’s Witnesses are finding solace in blogs such as unpious.com, losingmyreligion.com, nolongerquivering.com, and hasidicrebel.blogspot.com; podcasts like livingafterfaith.blogspot.com; and memoirs including Jesus Land by Julia Scheeres; Not That Kind of Girl by Carlene Bauer; A Real Christian Boyhood by Frank Schaeffer; Unchosen by Hella Winston; and Unorthodox by Deborah Feldman.
Park Slope resident Lani Santo, Footsteps’s executive director, likens the group’s membership to new immigrants, a population unfamiliar with English—most speak Yiddish as a first and often only language—or the social mores of their new environs. “People regularly come to us on the verge of suicide,” Santo says. “Most have known that the Ultra-Orthodox way was not right for them since they were 10, 11, 12 years old and they’ve been struggling for years without seeing alternatives. They’ve been told that they’ll never succeed if they leave, that they must be crazy if they have questions or doubts. Their sense of isolation is profound.” At the same time, she continues, they know that repressing their curiosity is impossible. “The community is held together by conformity. The biggest emotional piece is working through the idea that having a voice of one’s own is okay, that it’s good to express opinions or ideas. This makes creating a safe space at Footsteps especially important for self-actualization.”
Santo reports that most Footsteppers are between the ages of 18 and 25. Sixty percent are male and more than 10 percent are lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, or questioning. While most come from Williamsburg or Borough Park, a fair number are from Kiryas Joel or Monsey in upstate New York. Still others come to Footsteps from Lakewood, New Jersey. “We talk to hundreds of people a year by e-mail or phone,” Santo adds. “Approximately 200 actually come into the office, since not everyone who makes contact is ready to leave their family or community.”
The group’s three-person staff includes two social workers who provide one-on-one counseling and facilitate a bi-weekly, coed support group that addresses everything from depression and anxiety to education and fashion. “People have so many concerns,” Santo continues, “dating, child custody, divorce, S.T.D.s, sexuality, getting a job, learning workplace skills, applying to college, getting scholarships, wearing regular clothing. It’s important to remember, though, that they also have assets. They’re courageous, creative, and motivated. When they come to us we determine what they need and try not to replicate the services of other organizations. We refer people out for long-term therapy, career counseling, G.E.D. classes, or other educational programming.”
Shmuly Horowitz came to Footsteps in the fall of 2011. “As a kid I didn’t know the world existed beyond 13th Avenue in Borough Park,” he shrugs. Now 22, Horowitz got his G.E.D. at Footsteps and is presently enrolled in Kingsborough Community College. “I was always curious, which made me different from my classmates,” he says. “I wanted to know the reason for things. Why did I have to wash my hands at certain times? Why did I have to follow this or that rule? The answers I got were insufficient and for every answer I’d have three more questions.”
Horowitz’s yearning for information remained unsatisfied until he finally went to the library in his neighborhood—a forbidden activity—and began reading a book by Mario Puzo. Although he no longer recalls the title, the book intrigued him and before long he was going online, surreptitiously of course.
Then, like Chana, Horowitz was sent to Israel for a yearlong stint at a Jerusalem yeshiva. “That year, I read a lot and looked at maps,” he recalls. “I told myself, ‘Someday, I’ll travel and figure out the world.’” Two years later, in 2008, when Horowitz turned 18, he informed his parents that he wanted to return to Israel. “I’d been saving money for years and came up with a lie about wanting to go back to Jerusalem. Instead of following the plan, I went to India. For the first time in my life I felt free to be unobservant. I started to eat non-kosher, explored Mumbai, and went to Thailand. Then, after two and a half months, I got sick and my parents bought me a plane ticket to return home.”
Horowitz says that he immediately plugged back into religious life. But the return proved temporary. Another trip, this time to Latin America, clinched his decision to leave the fold. “I realized that religions were man-made. I needed to start from scratch and find reasons for what I do,” he says. His exit occurred in 2010 during Purim when people typically don costumes and drink to excess. “I took off my black hat and white shirt and put on a modern suit and tie. That was my costume. I guess you could say I’m still wearing it,” he chuckles.
Horowitz is grateful to Footsteps for helping him with the transition into the mainstream. “Not only did Footsteps help me get my G.E.D. and apply to college, staff helped me see that life can have meaning without God or religious observance,” he concludes. “Culturally, Judaism is amazing but the religious practices just don’t make sense to me anymore.”
That said, Horowitz admits that his new life hasn’t always been easy. “I still live with my family. They love me, but they see my leaving as their failure. Watching the pain on their faces, their suffering, is incredibly hard,” he sighs.
Chana has also found the transition difficult. Although she is professionally accomplished—her current projects include writing for unpious.com, completing a memoir, and working with people contemplating leaving ultra-Orthodox communities—she continues to mourn the loss of close familial ties. “I was raised to believe that family was everything and to have mine sever all contact has been horrible,” she says. “That’s been the hardest thing for me, seeing my parents completely wash their hands of me. Now that I’ve become a mother, it seems even more baffling. I mean, how can parents do that to their child?”
Footsteps can be reached at footstepsorg.org or by calling 212.253.0890.