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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 ‘œcrossings’ in Hebrew) often uses public libraries to meet ultra-orthodox Jews who ask for help. ‘œ
Mavar deals with around 15 ‘œrebels’ 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. ‘œThere are a huge number of underground forums that exist ‘“ secret, private Facebook groups ‘“ international ones ‘“ used by [Hasidic] people with aliases,’ she says. ‘œEven people who do not have access to Facebook have email addresses that they can access at public libraries.’ Having connected online, ‘œdoubters’ 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 ‘œcoming 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. ‘œComing 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: ‘œI immediately burst out crying, and I just sat in her office, sobbing,’ he said. ‘œIt 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 ‘œMelissa’ when she left the chasidic community because she ‘œwanted 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. ‘œWe’re showing a little of the underbelly of the community.’
Weisz said. ‘œI feel a responsibility’ to show the true side of that life. Particularly, women’s stories. The women she grew up around are ‘œpassionate,’ she said. ‘œWe’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 ‘œGod of Vengeance,’ Sholem Asch’s 1907 play, which is being revived by the New Yiddish Repertory Company. ‘œGod 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 ‘œmy background for my character.’
‘œThere’s a depth that we bring to the show,’ she said. ‘œTo 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
‘œPart 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. ‘œWith 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. ‘œEven if you want to be able to have a community that is maintaining its own traditions,’ she told me, ‘œyou 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 ‘œperfect’ 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 ‘œsin.’ As Deena tells it, ‘œThere 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.
‘œKen 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. ‘œHe 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 ‘œ36 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.
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.
‘œI wanted to be a voice,’ she said. ‘œIf someone would have told me then that there were other people like me, it just would have been so helpful.’
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 ‘œpretending nothing happened’ ‘” a ‘œsystematic cover-up,’ he says, ‘œthat 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.
“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.”
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.