Want to learn more about Footsteps and its mission? Here you will find a collection of articles, videos, interviews, and blog posts about the Footsteps staff, members, and organization. Don’t worry – we know how important confidentiality is to our membership. Everyone interviewed and mentioned on this page gave their consent.
(Abby) Stein knew from a young age that didn’t fit neatly into the gender-segregated roles outlined by her Hasidic community, a sect of Judaism that chooses to live in isolation from the secular world. In 2012, Stein secretly used the Internet for the first time to research what she was feeling and found a Wikipedia page explaining the term “transgender.” That’s when everything started making sense. Soon after, her son was born, a joyful moment but also one that made her think, “What if my kid is going to be like me?” That was the catalyst for what she calls her two transitions: first, leaving Hasidism and distancing herself from its rigid interpretation of Judaism, and second, presenting as the woman she’d long suspected she was.
A small number of other organizations exist that engage with the problems in the Haredi world, but their issues are far from the broader Jewish agenda. Footsteps, an organization that helps those who wish to explore the world outside their Haredi enclaves, with which I’ve worked closely, is a small organization that operates largely outside the mainstream Jewish organizational network. Unchained At Last, founded by a former Haredi woman who, as a teenager, was pressured into an arranged marriage that turned violently abusive, seeks to help women get out of similar situations, but it also operates largely unknown to the broader Jewish world. These — and others — are small organizations with big missions, missions that should be the purview of all Jews, but aren’t.
Chavie Weisberger married a man she’d barely met and suffered for years until she realized she was a lesbian. But her greatest battle was yet to come.
Read the full article and watch a WPIX interview with Chavie.
Growing up in a highly insular Hasidic community in Borough Park, Brooklyn, I had little knowledge of secular culture. I had no access to popular music and movies, or even to classic works of secular literature. I was expected to be a modest Jewish girl, which meant not asking questions. I knew my purpose in life was to follow the community’s pre-scripted life of marriage by 18, homemaking, and, most importantly, producing as many children as possible.
A few months ago, the documentary One of Us came out on Netflix, and shook the orthodox world along with its release. The movie detailed the stories of three young Jews who had made the decision to leave their Hasidic communities, and the aftermath of their choices.
One of those subjects was Ari Hershkowitz. In the movie, we see young Ari not just struggling with his own beliefs and place in the world, but also addiction and the trauma of sexual assault.
In this episode, Ari discusses what his life has been like since the movie followed his life, the effect it had on his life, why he thinks many choose to leave their Hasidic lives, and much more.
Our Jewish guest is Lani Santo, the executive director of Footsteps, a New York-based organization dedicated to helping formerly Orthodox Jews establish new lives outside the insular communities in which they were raised. Three Footsteppers were recently featured in the acclaimed Netflix documentary One of Us, and Santo gives us further insight into the kind of the emotional, educational, and vocational support members need to flourish on their chosen paths.
Listen below to a dynamic interview with Footsteps Executive Director, Lani Santo, starting at 21:50 or here.
The directors of ‘Jesus Camp’ explore the high price of freedom for three Hasidic Jews who left the fold.
Think what it would take for someone born into such a tightly guarded culture to pick up and leave.
That’s precisely the struggle that One of Us illuminates. Following three former Hasidim over a fraught and eventful three-year period, Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady have made their most powerful and complex film. Netflix plans to stream it worldwide in the fall, and its deeply personal insights into a shrouded subculture should generate a wide viewership.
While Etty, Luzer and Ari are among a minority, it’s a significant enough minority to keep the not-for-profit organization Footsteps busy, providing social and vocational guidance for people who have left ultra-Orthodox sects.
They’ve crafted compassionate, hard-hitting studies of works in progress — portraits that may disclose dark secrets of a circumscribed world, but which also tap into something regrettably universal.
For those who’ve grown up within the ultra-orthodox community, getting caught breaking the rules is to risk being cast out of society. When she did get found out, Maya, who’s now in her early 20s, remembers her parents threatening to say prayers for the dead for her. But while she had to find her way, alone and undercover, into the secular world, there’s now a charity that exists to make the transition easier for people like her.
Mavar (the name means “crossings” in Hebrew) often uses public libraries to meet ultra-orthodox Jews who ask for help. “
Mavar deals with around 15 “rebels” at any one time. In New York, where the 600,000-strong Hasidic community dwarfs its London equivalent, 1,250 people have made use of Footsteps, which has been around since 2003. Footsteps’ director Lani Santo says the group now welcomes around 150 new members every year. She, too, says the internet plays a role. “There are a huge number of underground forums that exist – secret, private Facebook groups – international ones – used by [Hasidic] people with aliases,” she says. “Even people who do not have access to Facebook have email addresses that they can access at public libraries.” Having connected online, “doubters” then go on to meet up face to face, and it’s at that point that awareness of Footsteps spreads, through word of mouth.
But in the deeply insular world of ultra-Orthodox Judaism, few such advances are being made. Chani Getter, a program coordinator at Footsteps, a nonprofit that helps people transition away from the ultra-Orthodox community, said that “coming out” has a twinned meaning for the people she works with. Because of its strictly implemented gender roles, there is no room in the ultra-Orthodox world to be queer or trans. This means that coming out marks a person’s departure from the religion altogether, usually at the expense of family, friends, and one’s entire life as they previously knew it. “Coming out” as being non-religious is every bit as significant to a person’s life as coming out as gay or trans.
What it feels like to find Footsteps, a place where people at long last are accepted and seen: “I immediately burst out crying, and I just sat in her office, sobbing,” he said. “It was just so overwhelming. It was like, I made it. I’m safe. It was just the strangest feeling.”
Last year she [Melissa] and Malky Goldman, a fellow ex-chasidic Jew, founded an independent movie production company named MalkySquared. (Malky was Weisz’ original name; she took on “Melissa” when she left the chasidic community because she “wanted to be anonymous,” not readily identifiable by a Hebrew name.)
MalkySquared is working on productions — often with a female and Jewish perspective, often dealing with sexuality — that offer an accurate portrayal of charedi life, she said. “We’re showing a little of the underbelly of the community.”
Weisz said. “I feel a responsibility” to show the true side of that life. Particularly, women’s stories. The women she grew up around are “passionate,” she said. “We’re not meek little girls.”
Melissa Weisz, a working actress in Manhattan, did not exactly grow up a drama club kid.
Lately, she has found herself among other Hasidic exiles, speaking Yiddish and struggling with the strict rules of Orthodox Judaism.
They are part of the cast of “God of Vengeance,” Sholem Asch’s 1907 play, which is being revived by the New Yiddish Repertory Company. “God of Vengeance” is the professional stage debut for the five Hasidic exiles. Having grown up speaking primarily Yiddish, they were natural choices for the play, which offers projected English subtitles for the audience.
On a deeper level, their personal stories of shaking off the strong bonds of Hasidic life have helped them connect with the essence of their characters and the poignant themes of the play, said Ms. Weisz, who called her Hasidic upbringing “my background for my character.”
“There’s a depth that we bring to the show,” she said. “To have the complete break of losing your family, that loss. Nobody else can play it as intensely.”
Winter 2017- Contact: The Journal of the Steinhardt Foundation for Jewish Life
“Part of this journey is an inclination toward creativity and self-actualization,” says Phin Reisz, a 31-year-old entrepreneur who sits on the board of Footsteps, a New York City-based community of those who’ve left the ultra-Orthodox world. “With the journeys they’ve undertaken, those who’ve left have also shown a significant amount of chutzpah and conviction and persistence and definitely a whole lot of resourcefulness.” That, Reisz believes, is vital for success.
In the mid-1940s, Joel Teitelbaum, an eminent and charismatic rabbi, immigrated to the United States, colonizing a section of Williamsburg in Brooklyn for his Hasidic sect, the Satmar, its name taken from the Hungarian town of Szatmar, where Rabbi Teitelbaum had fought to resist the encroachments of a modernizing society.
A reliance on public assistance is remarkably common among the Hasidim, explained Lani Santo, the executive director of Footsteps, an organization begun in 2003 to help those who decide to leave the ultra-Orthodox world. “Even if you want to be able to have a community that is maintaining its own traditions,” she told me, “you still need to be able to have the tools and skills to support your family.”
“Of course, I’m a worthy human being. I don’t have to do anything to deserve it. I exist and, therefore, I’m good enough.”
Growing up a “perfect” straight-A student in her Lubavitch (a branch of Hasidism) community, Deena Chanowitz had to basically conceal every part of her body (from her ankles to her elbows) least a man catch a glimpse of her bare skin and be lead to “sin.” As Deena tells it, “There is so much fear of inappropriate sexuality that it breeds all kinds of other forms of sexuality.”
Mark Trencher, the director of Nishma Research, noted that there was an inverse relationship between level of observance while still a part of Orthodox Judaism and level of observance after leaving.
The study was a joint effort with Footsteps, an organization that helps facilitate the transition out of Modern and ultra-Orthodox communities for those wishing to leave. It may be difficult to leave Orthodox Judaism, or simply leave a specific community, if an individual does not know people outside the community, does not have the material means to leave, or does not have sufficient English skills to live on their own.
“The only surprising thing to us was how many people filled it out in a week and a half,” says Lani Santo, the executive director of Footsteps. “It’s great to have quantitative data on things that we as an organization have known qualitatively for some time.”
Read the full article here. Review the full survey results here.