News & Views

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.

Child-sex abuse victim rallies Orthodox Jews to pressure politicians for Child Victims Act passage, By Michael O’Keeffe

June 1, 2016 – New York Daily News

“Ken Thompson should be on the front line supporting this bill,” Levin said of the Brooklyn district attorney, who was elected to the post in part because he promised to be tougher on sex abuse in the Orthodox community than his predecessor, Charles Hynes. “He should be telling the Republicans in Albany, ‘We can’t do our job without this bill.’”

Levin’s inspiring survivor story and uncompromising activism are drawing attention. The Jewish Week community newspaper named him one of its “36 Under 36” last week, and he will be honored this week by Footsteps, an organization that provides support to those who wish to leave the Orthodox community.

Read the full article here.

36 Under 36 2016, The Jewish Week

May 23, 2016 – The Jewish Week

A Voice For Transgender Chasidic Jews

When Abby Stein began her transition from male to female at the age of 23, she could have chosen to stay under the radar. Instead, she came out on her blog, and when reporters started calling she responded, because she wanted to let other chasidic transgender Jews know they are not alone.

“I wanted to be a voice,” she said. “If someone would have told me then that there were other people like me, it just would have been so helpful.”

Read the full article here.

Standing Up For LGBTQ Rights

From the time Chaim Levin was 6, a cousin six years his senior sexually abused him. The violent assaults continued weekly until he was 10 — in his father’s shul, their houses and their Catskill bungalows. At 14 he told his rabbi, who advised his parents to preserve family unity by “pretending nothing happened” — a “systematic cover-up,” he says, “that still haunts me.”

But it didn’t silence him. Levin, who came out at 15 to a friend and endured homophobic yeshivas here and in Israel, eventually found a way to be a strong voice and champion for LGBTQ Orthodox Jews.

Read the full article here.

From Conversion Therapy to a Rainbow Yarmulke; Death, Sex & Money

May 11, 2016 – Death, Sex & Money 

“Chaim and Benjy grew up in Orthodox Jewish communities in Brooklyn, but they didn’t meet until they signed up for a therapy program then called JONAH, or Jews Offering New Alternatives to Homosexuality. Chaim was 18, and Benjy was 20. Both were attracted to men, and they sought out the program hoping to become straight.”

Listen to the podcast here.

Child Abuse Allegations Plague The Hasidic Community, By Elijah Wolfson

March 3, 2016 – Newsweek

Somehow, in the midst of this Caribbean decadence, a very different community also thrived. Just a few blocks from the scantily dressed beachgoers and the drug lords in Armani silk were men in ill-fitting black suits and heavy beards, and women in thick wigs and long woolen skirts all year long, even as the wet heat of the Atlantic swept across the peninsula. The ranks of Miami’s ultra-Orthodox Jews, Hasidim, were swelling. They were insular and defiantly anti-secular, clinging to traditions that may have protected their community in a medieval world but in modern America would lead to tragic consequences for many of their youngest, most vulnerable members.

Read the full article here.

Off the Path of Orthodoxy, By Talia Lavin

July 31, 2015 – The New Yorker

There are many terms for people who have left Orthodox Judaism: apikores (an ancient Hebrew term for “apostate”); chozer b’she’elah (a decorous Israeli term, which translates roughly to “one who returns with questions”); frei (Yiddish for “free,” usually used in a derogatory fashion); and “O.T.D.,” or “off the derech” (“derech” is Hebrew for “path”). The last term, once a dismissive way to describe Orthodox youth who sought to explore drugs and sex, has been reclaimed by some ex-Orthodox Jews. Using this term says: Yes, I have left your path—and now I must find my own way.

Read the full article here.

Op-Ed: Faigy Mayer’s suicide is a Jewish tragedy, not just an Orthodox one, By Shulem Deen

July 24, 2015 – Jewish Telegraphic Agency (JTA)

In September 2013, I gathered with a group of friends to share feelings and reflections on the suicide death of one our friends, Deb Tambor, who had been struggling with a variety of issues related to leaving the insular Hasidic Jewish world. Next to me sat Faigy Mayer, a friend and fellow ex-Hasid.

Faigy and I talked for a bit, about Deb, and about our own lives. She told me she was doing well. I told her I was writing an essay about Deb’s death for an online magazine, and she offered me some helpful thoughts.

This week, nearly two years later, Faigy jumped to her own death from a 20-story building in Manhattan.

The news, when I heard it, shook me, as it did many in our community of ex-haredi Orthodox Jews. But it didn’t shock me. It’s almost as if we’ve come to expect another suicide in our ranks every so often.

Read the full article here.

The Journey Out: Peril And Promise In Leaving The Ultra-Orthodox Jewish World, By Talia Lavin

May 21, 2015 – The Huffington Post

Shulem Deen’s first steps away from Hasidic Judaism were in the direction of a radio. Defying his community’s express prohibitions against secular media, Deen waited until his wife and children were sleeping. Then he leaned in close to the small tape player in his home — the one whose radio he hadn’t had the heart to disable. He turned it on and began to listen.

“I switched the dial from one station to another, commercials for medical malpractice attorneys, car dealerships and department store blowout sales filling me with forbidden pleasure,” Deen wrote in his recently released memoir, All Who Go Do Not Return. “I was like a visitor from a different era encountering our modern one, captivated by its very mundaneness.”

Read the full article here.

Expelled for Heresy, The Brian Lehrer Show

April 16, 2015 – The Brian Lehrer Show

Shulem Deen, a former Skverer Hasid, the founding editor of Unpious and the author of All Who Go Do Not Return: A Memoir (Graywolf Press, 2015), isn’t the first to lose his faith, but as former Skverer Hasid, that loss cost him his family and community.  He tells his story.

Listen to the show here.

Supporting Jews in Transition: Lani Santo, 36 Under 36 Special Edition of The Jewish Week, By Amy Sara Clark

June 1, 2015 – The Jewish Week

When Lani Santo was 13 and living with her Modern Orthodox family in the increasingly black-hat neighborhood of Kew Gardens, her mother came out as gay.

“I couldn’t tell anyone or be my authentic self because I had the understanding that everyone was basically the same … even in the Modern Orthodox world,” she said.

Now, as executive director of Footsteps, an organization that helps Jews leaving black hat and chasidic communities, the experience resonates.

“Although I didn’t come from a charedi background, I have a firsthand understanding of some of the challenges that a veil of conformity in a community can do to an individual’s self-actualization, becoming who they feel they authentically are,” said Santo.

Read the full article here.

‘Hasidic Rebel’ Shulem Deen on Leaving Orthodoxy and Losing His Children, By Julie Wiener

April 8, 2015 – Jewish Telegraphic Agency (JTA)

Footsteps is featured in a Q&A with Shulem Deen and JTA

JTA: I know you’re on the board of Footsteps, a nonprofit that helps people leaving the haredi Orthodox community to make the transition to the secular world. Is there an increase in the number of people choosing to leave?

Deen: Footsteps represents anywhere from 10-25 percent of the people who leave, and the number of new people who come each year is rising steadily. The fact that many of us are writing and publishing, this gives those who leave somewhat more prominence, and people within the Hasidic community are not oblivious to this, especially people who are thinking of leaving. We have people in medical school, getting master’s degrees, a nice number of lawyers. It’s becoming a community that has people doing things in the world, and that serve as something of an example that defies the old stereotype of the OTD [an acronym for a term that means “off the path”] person who’s lost, dysfunctional, has no home, no friends, gets involved in drugs and takes up with a bad crowd.

Read the full article here.

Life After Conservative Faith: The Defectors Who Leave Ultra-Orthodox Communities, By Farah Halime

March 27, 2015 – The Guardian

Shulem Deen swipes through photos of his eldest daughter’s wedding with a look of pride on his face. He points to a modestly-dressed bride sitting stiffly next to her husband. “I know how nervous they felt,” he says.

Deen is only guessing; he wasn’t invited to his daughter’s wedding. These are not official photos – they were taken clandestinely by people he asked to infiltrate the ceremony.

Deen, 40, left the cloistered ultra-Orthodox Jewish enclave of New Square, a village in Rockland County, New York, seven years ago. He is one of a minority that has stepped off the derech, the devout and religious path.

Like others who have turned their back on the Hasidic way of life, Deen has lost contact with his five children and has been ostracized from the community for being a heretic. At the same time, he has found it difficult to assimilate to non-Hasidic culture and worries he comes across as strange to New Yorkers.

Read the full article here.

Stepping Off the Path and Redefining Faith, By Samuel G. Freedman

October 17, 2014 – The New York Times

The cantor closed his eyes and lifted his voice into Kol Nidre, the prayer that begins Yom Kippur, the holiest day on the Jewish calendar. The young men and women assembled before him, perhaps 80 in all, instantly recognized the plaintive chant. They had known it for their entire lives.

Some responded with a wistful gaze, as if Kol Nidre conjured the memory of distant sweetness. A few laughed, finding the somber liturgy ridiculous. Several glared with fresh anger, fisted hands in their laps, not applauding with the others when the cantor concluded.

Read the full article here.

Formerly Orthodox and Struggling for Parental Rights, By Melanie Grayce West

August 11, 2014 – The Wall Street Journal

Divorce decrees granted by religious leaders heavily favor the still-devout parent

When Shloime Fisher started his divorce process three years ago, he found the proceedings to be “very civilized.” Now, Mr. Fisher said, he faces an uphill battle to broaden his paternity rights.

What has made his situation different from the average soured divorce is that he wasn’t only unwinding a marriage—he was divorcing the whole Orthodox Jewish community.

Most New Yorkers reach a divorce agreement through mediators or civil court—usually over several months, with an attorney’s help. But those who leave the Orthodox Jewish faith, as Mr. Fisher did, must mediate their divorces through religious leaders, facing agreements that heavily favor the still-devout parent, experts say.

“From a religious perspective, certainly, there is a sense among Orthodox Jews that Jews are born with a special mission as God’s chosen people,” said Rabbi David Zwiebel, an attorney and executive vice president of Agudath Israel of America, an organization representing devoutly Orthodox Jews. “When a person who has been raised in that tradition walks away, it is considered a tragic outcome.”

Mr. Fisher’s custody agreement allows him just a few hours with his five children on alternating Sundays.

“People who leave the religious community end up signing away their rights,” said the 32-year-old Brooklyn-based accountant.

Read the full article here.

What Brooklyn Hasids and Southern Jews Share, By Anne Cohen and Sigal Samuel

July 17, 2014 – The Forward.com

Turn off Highway I-55 N at Frontage Road in Jackson, Mississippi and you’ll come across a non-descript squat brown building. Inside is a trove of Jewish learning.

The Institute of Southern Jewish Life (ISJL) delivers rabbinic services, educational programs and cultural events to small Jewish communities spread across 13 states. Their community engagement director is Malkie Schwartz, whom New Yorkers know as the founder of Footsteps, a nonprofit organization that supports Jews seeking to transition from ultra-Orthodoxy into the mainstream. Schwartz left Crown Heights’ Chabad Lubavitch community in 2000. She moved down south five years ago.

Anne Cohen and Sigal Samuel caught up with Schwartz in Jackson, the latest stop on their road trip through the Jewish South.

Read the full article here.

Press Release

Footsteps’ New Program to Provide $50,000 in Legal Assistance to Formerly Ultra-Orthodox Jews Facing Custody Battles

Assistance will help people who have left ultra-Orthodoxy secure their parental rights

NEW YORK, NY, June 15 – Footsteps today announced a new program that will make $50,000 in legal services available to members who face the possibility of losing custody of their children as a result of their decision to leave the ultra-Orthodox community. Members will be referred to the New York Legal Assistance Group (NYLAG), whose family law attorneys will provide legal representation and educate clients about their legal rights.

The partnership emerged to address the growing need of formerly ultra-Orthodox parents who were losing custody as a result of their lack of resources, unfamiliarity with the legal system, and the willingness of the ultra-Orthodox community to supply the funds and guidance needed to help the still-religious partner secure custody in family court.

“It is unacceptable that some people who choose a self-determined life face the horror of losing custody of their children as a consequence,” said Lani Santo, Executive Director of Footsteps, an organization that provides a range of services to people wishing to leave the rigid confines of ultra-Orthodoxy. “Through this partnership with NYLAG we have a place where our members can obtain quality legal help.”

The partnership was made possible by an anonymous $50,000 contribution.

ABOUT FOOTSTEPS
Since 2003, Footsteps has helped more than 900 formerly ultra-Orthodox men and women wishing to explore the world beyond their insular communities of origin. Footsteps provides a range of services, including social and emotional support, educational and vocational guidance, workshops and social activities, and access to resources. Thanks to Footsteps, former ultra-Orthodox Jews have a safe, supportive, and flourishing community to turn to as they work to define their own identities, build new connections, and lead self-determined lives.

ABOUT NYLAG
The New York Legal Assistance Group (NYLAG) provides free civil legal services to New Yorkers who cannot afford private attorneys. Founded in 1990 on the premise that low-income individuals can improve their lives significantly if they are given access to the justice system, NYLAG has a comprehensive range of services and core practice areas. For more information, go to www.nylag.org.

Twice Born Souls: “Cut Me Loose,” By Leah Vincent, Book Review By Kelsey Osgood

January 21, 2014 – Unpious.com

How one woman’s Orthodox upbringing paved the way for an ill-fated entrée into a world of sugar daddies and careless lovers, a universe in which a man’s satisfaction takes precedence above all.

Assuming there are no Malcolm Gladwellian coincidences, there must still be something to the fact that just as I received my copy of Leah Vincent’s memoir, Cut Me Loose: Sin and Salvation After My Ultra-Orthodox Girlhood, I kept falling into Internet wormholes that led me to articles on the science behind Loneliness.

Most articles stress only what Loneliness isn’t. It is not mourning, or clinical depression, or feeling disconnected from your significant other. It isn’t something that can be with any certainty tied to an age, an ethnicity, a gender, or a socio-economic bracket. In fact, one can be lonely when surrounded by people, because loneliness, according to the New Republic’s science writer Judith Shulevitz, is “an interior, subjective experience, not an external, objective condition.”

And then, as I was reading Vincent’s book, I gasped. I had come to the part where the young protagonist is living by herself in a basement in Brooklyn, struggling to get by on a pitiful salary and with not a friend to her name. It was one of the most wrenching depictions of true, bone-deep Loneliness I had ever read:

Read the full article here.

A Community of Exes — Hasids, That Is, By Frimet Goldberger

December 12, 2013 – The Jewish Daily Forward

I am a Footsteps member and supporter. I am also an observant Jew.

To the critics of Footsteps, a not-for-profit organization that helps those seeking to leave their ultra-religious communities, this statement may seem like an oxymoron. Until about a year ago, I too believed that one could not remain Orthodox and be a Footsteps member at the same time — that one could not eat a plate of chulent at the Shabbos meal, completely unplugged from the world, and engage in an intelligent existentialist debate.

Read the full article here.

Off-road Jews: A helping hand for those who stray from the Ultra-Orthodox path, By Deborah Nussbaum- Cohen

November 29, 2013 – Haaretz

A spontaneous cheer rose up at the Skyline Hotel when Malkie Schwartz introduced several of her siblings at the 10th anniversary gala celebrating Footsteps, an organization that supports people leaving Haredi communities. Her brothers and sisters were in the audience at the midtown Manhattan venue two weeks ago, but didn’t want to be photographed for fear of repercussions in their own Haredi communities.

Read the full article here.

Critically Examining the Hasidic Community, By Adam Sacks

November 24, 2013 – Beyond the Pale, WBAI

A three segment radio show around a single theme: critically examining the Hasidic Community of New York. Featuring three broad angles: a. history and religious practices, b. sex abuse scandals and relationship to civic authorities, c. educational deprivation the struggle to leave the community.

With Rachel Berger of Footsteps, we considered the challenges and isolation facing those who leave the community, not to mention the utter lack of college ready scholastic skills. The show closes with the moving personal story of Yossi Schwartz who became a truck driver after leaving the community and still bemoans his elementary reading level in English.

Listen to the show here.