Forward Thinking

The 'Footsteps' of Those Leaving Ultra-Orthodoxy

By Josh Nathan-Kazis

  • Print
  • Share Share

At a party for ex-Orthodox Jews last night, celebration was tempered with anxiety for those still leaving Orthodoxy, and sadness for some who hadn’t quite made it.

The crowd that packed a downtown loft for Footsteps, a not-for-profit that provides services to people leaving ultra-Orthodox communities, looked from afar like those at any other Manhattan loft party.

Up close, however, there’s no mistaking the Footstepers, as Footsteps participants call each other.

Sol F., 22, a hip kid in a pink tie with a few days’ growth on his gaunt cheeks, still lives with his parents in Satmar Williamsburg.

“I don’t know how much my parents know,” he said in a Brooklyn Yiddish accent.

The dozens of Footsteppers at the event were at every stage of ex-Orthodoxy. Some, like Sol, were living with their ultra-Orthodox parents, others had just moved out. One was attending college, but going home to his still-religious wife. Another was in a residency program at Mount Sinai Hospital.

Reporters were asked to follow relatively strict guidelines at the event, in order to protect the anonymity of participants still leading double lives. No photos were allowed, and reporters were warned to ask before using names.

And though the evening’s program was celebratory, one recipient of a leadership award paused to dedicate his honor to a Footstepper who had committed suicide.

“They offer a community of people who are like you,” said Yitzchok M. Pinkesz, an incoming senior at Yeshiva University who grew up in a Hasidic home in Boro Park, of Footsteps. “People understand you. You’re not alone. That’s a big deal.”

Founded in 2003, the organization has worked with 670 people considering leaving the Orthodox community since its founding, the group’s board chair Mark Goldberg said during his address. Goldberg said that the organization is launching a branch in Spring Valley, New York, a suburban town near the Hasidic village of New Square and the Orthodox hamlet of Monsey.

Footsteps executive director Lani Santo drew laughs joking that she had considered renting Citifield for the party — a reference to the ultra-Orthodox anti-Internet rally that packed the Queens baseball stadium last month.

Speakers included ex-Orthodox luminary Shulem Deen, founder of the blog Unpious.com and an occasional contributor to the Forward

Deen, a Footsteps board member who left the Skver Hasidic community five years ago, recalled getting a phone call from a woman considering leaving ultra-Orthodoxy who asked to speak with an ex-Orthodox person who “isn’t a screw-up.”

The message in the Orthodox world, Deen said, is that those who leave are troubled. “Now, thanks to Footsteps, we have something to counter that message,” Deen said.

Sara Erenthal, 30 grew up in Boro Park. Her father was a member of Neutari Kartai, the fervently anti-Zionist ultra-Orthodox sect. Just back from a trip to India, Erenthal wears a clip-on bowtie and a bowler-ish hat, like a hipster Stan Laurel. Two vibrant watercolors painted by Erenthal hung on the loft’s walls.

“No one else in the world will ever get us the way we do,” Erenthal said of her fellow Footsteps participants.


Permalink | | Share | Email | Print | Filed under: Ultra-Orthodox. Footsteps. Shulem Deen

The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.




Find us on Facebook!
  • The eggplant is beloved in Israel. So why do Americans keep giving it a bad rap? With this new recipe, Vered Guttman sets out to defend the honor of her favorite vegetable.
  • “KlezKamp has always been a crazy quilt of gay and straight, religious and nonreligious, Jewish and gentile.” Why is the klezmer festival shutting down now?
  • “You can plagiarize the Bible, can’t you?” Jill Sobule says when asked how she went about writing the lyrics for a new 'Yentl' adaptation. “A couple of the songs I completely stole." Share this with the theater-lovers in your life!
  • Will Americans who served in the Israeli army during the Gaza operation face war crimes charges when they get back home?
  • Talk about a fashion faux pas. What was Zara thinking with the concentration camp look?
  • “The Black community was resistant to the Jewish community coming into the neighborhood — at first.” Watch this video about how a group of gardeners is rebuilding trust between African-Americans and Jews in Detroit.
  • "I am a Jewish woman married to a non-Jewish man who was raised Catholic, but now considers himself a “common-law Jew.” We are raising our two young children as Jews. My husband's parents are still semi-practicing Catholics. When we go over to either of their homes, they bow their heads, often hold hands, and say grace before meals. This is an especially awkward time for me, as I'm uncomfortable participating in a non-Jewish religious ritual, but don't want his family to think I'm ungrateful. It's becoming especially vexing to me now that my oldest son is 7. What's the best way to handle this situation?" http://jd.fo/b4ucX What would you do?
  • Maybe he was trying to give her a "schtickle of fluoride"...
  • It's all fun, fun, fun, until her dad takes the T-Bird away for Shabbos.
  • "Like many Jewish people around the world, I observed Shabbat this weekend. I didn’t light candles or recite Hebrew prayers; I didn’t eat challah or matzoh ball soup or brisket. I spent my Shabbat marching for justice for Eric Garner of Staten Island, Michael Brown of Ferguson, and all victims of police brutality."
  • Happy #NationalDogDay! To celebrate, here's a little something from our archives:
  • A Jewish couple was attacked on Monday night in New York City's Upper East Side. According to police, the attackers flew Palestinian flags.
  • "If the only thing viewers knew about the Jews was what they saw on The Simpsons they — and we — would be well served." What's your favorite Simpsons' moment?
  • "One uncle of mine said, 'I came to America after World War II and I hitchhiked.' And Robin said, 'I waited until there was a 747 and a kosher meal.'" Watch Billy Crystal's moving tribute to Robin Williams at last night's #Emmys:
  • "Americans are much more focused on the long term and on the end goal which is ending the violence, and peace. It’s a matter of zooming out rather than debating the day to day.”
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.