Forward Thinking

The 'Footsteps' of Those Leaving Ultra-Orthodoxy

By Josh Nathan-Kazis

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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.


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