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.
“I’ve spent a decade caught between the secular world and the Haredi Jewish community. But watching the latter resist COVID-19 restrictions while being decimated by the virus pushed that tension to the brink.
The deaths in my family came fast and early. My first cousin, a 39-year-old Hasidic mother of three, contracted the virus and did not wake up on the morning of April 3, 2020, less than a month into lockdown. The gut punch of her death presaged the painful road ahead. We had grown up next door to each other on Satmar Drive, named for our sect, in the exclusively Hasidic village of Kiryas Joel (now Town of Palm Tree) in Orange County, New York. She would entertain me and my sisters for hours with hilarious stories on our adjacent porches in the town house that our grandfather bought for four of his 13 children. The day she died, my Hasidic brother-in-law, 49 and a father of seven, had improved enough that doctors suggested he might be extubated. The next day, he took his last breath alone in an NYC hospital.”
On May 11, 2021, Footsteps hosted our first ever (virtual) gala, New Chapters: An Evening to Benefit Footsteps, honoring Debra Fine, Eli Gordis, and Adina Kadden and celebrating Footsteps members’ achievements during this unprecedented year. In this program book, you’ll learn more about our honorees, members, and supporters featured throughout the evening — and how, with the help of supporters like you, Footsteps has been rising to meet our members’ needs throughout the COVID-19 pandemic.
“My son is 8 years old. He tells me he wants to be a scientist when he grows up. But his ultra-Orthodox Jewish school doesn’t offer any sciences. Even the math and English, it’s only four hours a week. There is a law in New York State that all private schools have to provide an education at least equivalent to what’s being provided in the public school. There’s almost 60,000 children in New York that attend these type of schools. The school is breaking the law, but the city and state officials are not doing anything about it.”
Watch the full video embedded above or by clicking here.
Two months into lockdown, 29-year-old Ella left the ultra-Orthodox Jewish community that she was raised in near New York, started wearing trouser pants for the first time and contacted an organization that helps “leavers” adapt to life in wider society.
US groups like the one she approached report increased demand for their services since coronavirus, from people with more time for soul-searching to others troubled by social distancing violations and some who have already left needing counseling and financial support.
Ella, an alias because she has yet to tell her parents that she has quit Orthodoxy, said she was always interested in the world outside her “extremely religious family.” When she was younger she hid romance novels under her mattress and sometimes “pushed” the limits of her community’s strict dress code.
In the summer of 2019, she and her husband took their first steps towards breaking away by moving a couple of miles down the road to a community whose adherence to Jewish law was not quite as strict.
When lockdown happened in March 2020, they found themselves cut off from friends and family, which gave them space and months to think about whether they wanted to take the next step and leave their community altogether.
“We had time to cement our new identity and feel confident that we made the right decision before having to face anybody,” said Ella.
Watch “Bias and Barriers”, a virtual conversation hosted by Footsteps about the challenges parents face when they leave insular ultra-Orthodox communities — both in the courtroom and in their communities of origin.
This panel follows up on The New Yorker’s publication of “When One Parent Leaves a Hasidic Community, What Happens to the Kids?”, an article featuring Footsteps and our members’ stories. The issues of divorce, custody, and parental alienation depicted in the article affect so many of our members, a third of whom come to Footsteps as parents in the midst of redefining their relationships with their spouses and children. Watch this panel for a closer look inside the communities and courtrooms at the center of this story.
Moderator: Award-winning author, journalist, and producer Abigail Pogrebin
Panelists: Larissa MacFarquhar, the article’s author and Staff Writer at The New Yorker; Julie F. Kay, Footsteps’ Senior Legal Strategist; and Chani Getter, Footsteps’ Senior Director of Organizational Development.
Larissa MacFarquhar recently reported on the difficulties of leaving the insular world of Haredi, or ultra-Orthodox, Judaism, where the way of life is profoundly different from that in secular society. If a married person wants to leave a Haredi community and live another way, the process of divorce can be profoundly rupturing and contentious. For the children of a couple in this situation, no judge can help them reconcile the differing messages about life that they hear from their parents. MacFarquhar spoke with a woman named Chani Getter, who grew up Orthodox and went through a divorce as a young mother, and with two lawyers who see the process from opposing sides.
November 30, 2020 – The New Yorker
(Print Edition – December 7, 2020, titled “Solomon’s Choice”)
“One of the most painful difficulties that leavers faced was the risk of losing their children. In the early days, the few who left had not attracted a lot of attention, and some got custody of their kids without much of a fight. But, as more people defected, communities alarmed by the prospect of so many children lost to Haredism mobilized to keep them. Secular courts were called upon to determine the best interests of children who were being torn between two irreconcilable ways of life: what to one parent was a basic human freedom might be, to the other, a violation of the laws of God. To many Haredim, the loss of a child to secular life was unbearable, because it meant that the child’s future, and that of all his descendants, would be ruined, not only in this world but also in the next.”
What do you do when you leave ultra-Orthodoxy, but you can’t leave it all behind?
For those who maintain a connection with their ultra-Orthodox communities of origin, the journey out has become all the more complex and dangerous. What was already a high-stakes decision is even riskier against the backdrop of a public health and economic crisis.
In this Webinar, Footsteps members share what it means to be caught between two worlds in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic. This virtual conversation was moderated by award-winning author and journalist Taffy Brodesser-Akner and features Footsteps members Dr. Schneur Zalman Newfield, author of Degrees of Separation: Identity Formation While Leaving Ultra-Orthodox Judaism and Assistant Professor of Sociology at Borough of Manhattan Community College (CUNY); and Beatrice Weber, speaker, writer, and Interspiritual Minister.
Welcome to the first ever Footsteps Yearbook! Inside, you will read about Footsteps members’ triumphs, which are all the more epic given the year’s context. This yearbook is a testament to their hard work and to outpouring of support they have received from our extended community. We hope you will take a few moments out of your day to flip through the pages of this yearbook and to celebrate with them.
Netflix series Unorthodox’s exploration of one woman’s journey out of her insular ultra-Orthodox community in Brooklyn in search of a life of her own choosing in Berlin has captured the hearts of viewers around the world — a fact highlighted by the series’ 8 Emmy nominations and director Maria Schrader’s win for “Outstanding Directing for a Limited Series.” Many binge-watchers were left wondering about the real life “Estys” out there; what happens to the women who make the courageous choice to leave the world they know in search of an authentic, self-determined life?
Their paths often lead to Footsteps, the only organization in North America providing comprehensive services to those who choose to take the journey out of ultra-Orthodoxy. Nearly 2,000 individuals have become Footsteps members since Malkie Schwartz, who left her own ultra-Orthodox community at the age of 19, founded the organization in 2003.
Footsteps’ Executive Director, Lani Santo, speaks with Unorthodox cast members and long-time Footsteps members Eli Rosen and Melissa Weisz about their stories of finding freedom and forging their own paths out of ultra-Orthodoxy.
The video begins a few minutes after our formal program started; it opens with Eli answering the first question: “For Esty, leaving was a dramatic move of getting on a plane and flying off to Germany. Did you have a dramatic moment like this where it became clear you needed to leave? Or was it more gradual?”
Netflix’s ‘Unorthodox’ has become a favorite to binge watch as we hunker down at home these days. The success of this Yiddish language show has raised many questions about its accurate portrayal of Hasidic life in Brooklyn. Check out the video below for a conversation with Eli Rosen, who played Reb Yossele, was the production’s Yiddish translator and consultant, and is a Footsteps member; Abby Stein, activist, ‘Becoming Eve’ author, former Hasidic Rabbi, and Footsteps member; Alexa Karolinski, co-creator and co-writer of ‘Unorthodox’; Chavie Weisberger, Director of Community Engagement at Footsteps; and Rukhl Schaechter, Editor of The Yiddish Forward about the reality of leaving Hasidic communities and how one woman’s story was adapted.
Hasidic communities are facing a unique challenge when it comes to controlling the spread of the coronavirus. I fear that in these places, highly communal lifestyles combined by skepticism about the need for social distancing — at times promoted by religious leaders — are going to cost more lives. One rabbi I know of mocks the ‘hysteria’ around the virus and still holds services in his sanctuary.
The main ZIP code in the ultra-Orthodox hub of Borough Park in Brooklyn has the second-highest number of reported positive cases in New York City. Rockland County, N.Y., has the state’s highest rate of Covid-19 infection per capita, and the second-highest in the country. Authorities say the numbers are partly explained by the communities there where Orthodox residents haven’t conformed to social distancing.
Last week, I lost three close Hasidic relatives in three days to the virus.
I believe a lack of information about this unprecedented threat — and what it will take to survive it — is part of the problem.
Anna Winger was one of the creators behind ‘œDeutschland 83’ and ‘œDeutschland 86,’ the spy thriller series about East German espionage and the ordinary people who became caught up in the Cold War’s machinations. So ‘œUnorthodox,’ a four-part series about a young woman escaping a Hasidic community in present-day Brooklyn, might seem like a departure for her.
It is not. It’s not just that the show, which arrives Thursday on Netflix, shares the intensity, cultural specificity and psychological acuity of Winger’s earlier series. It’s that the story, which tracks its protagonist’s personal journey and peril across continents, is itself a kind of espionage caper, a thrilling and probing story of one woman’s personal defection.
As anti-Semitism continues to rise in our streets and Jewish identities are being stolen by white supremacists intent on stoking division, many in the Jewish community are calling for unity. But an insidious infighting of a new sort has begun to take shape over whether we are allowed to criticize Jewish groups at a time when we are all feeling so threatened. What do we do about legitimate criticisms at a time of rising hate speech against us? What role does for example legitimate concerns and advocacy for better education in Hasidic schools play when a major political party of a county with an exponentially growing Jewish population puts out a shrill video that would make Goebbels proud?
Many believe that in situations like we Jews find ourselves in, criticism is no longer valid. It’s just too dangerous.
The problem, as I see it, is the conflation of legitimate criticism with blatant anti-Semitism, by both by Jewish apologists for problems in the Hasidic community who know better, and by the anti-Semites themselves. The solution lies, as it usually does, in scraping the barrel for nuance.
Imagine you’d never seen The Wizard of Oz. Or gotten sunburned at the beach. Or twisted apart an Oreo and made tooth tracks in the filling. Or pawed at your tenth-grade boyfriend in the back of a Honda Civic. Imagine you’d never learned how fun it was to stay at the Y-M-C-A, or taken scissors to your jeans to make short-short cutoffs. Or shaded in the bubbles on an SAT with a freshly sharpened number 2 pencil. Imagine you’d never heard the song ‘Imagine.’ Or driven a car. Or celebrated Thanksgiving. Or learned that dinosaurs once existed.
Nataly Antar grew up in a Hasidic Jewish community in Brooklyn. Due to the strictness of that society she decided to leave, but that meant leaving behind everything and everyone she had ever known ‘“ including her children. This is one woman’s story about finding her own path.