When one hears about an organization known as Footsteps, all kinds of images pop up depending upon what your perspective is. If you are Ultra-Orthodox, chances are you see them as an antireligious organization that helps Ultra Orthodox Jews leave Orthodoxy and lead secular lives (popularly referred to as going OTD – off the Derech). If you are someone who is already OTD you see it as a way to help you adjust in your new secular environment
(For purposes of this essay, I am defining ultra-Orthodoxy as those of its segments that live completely insular lives. Which entails a great many restrictions that are designed to protect them from the evils of the outside world. A community like New Square would be an example of that. But it is not limited to New Square or even to Chassidus. There are non Chasidic communities that are almost as insular with almost as many restrictions.)
My understanding of Footsteps is that they have no religious – or anti-religious agenda. They are a secular group that helps those that have already gone OTD – adjust. That is their agenda as I understand it. They do not try to make you irreligious in any way. I therefore do not see them as evil. They are secular and want to help.
That said, I lament the fact that there is no place for an ultra-Orthodox Jew to go if he simply wants out of his restrictive insular environment. Now I have no quarrel with those who prefer an ideology that is insular and ultra-strict. As long as they are not a financial burden on the rest of society, do not break any laws, and members of their community are happy living that way, it is certainly their right. As much as I could not live that way – they do nothing wrong.
But what about those in that community that do not want to live that way? Often there are some people that cannot live that way and yet they feel forced to. Furthermore they are indoctrinated to believe that the way they live their lives is the only legitimate expression of God’s will. So that if for example a Skverer Chasid even reads a secular newspaper it is considered a breach of fundamental breach of Jewish behavior. There is little if any attempt to differentiate between Chumra and Halacha.
As such it is quite understandable when an individual from this community goes completely OTD. Buying a computer and going online is seen in such negative terms that it is almost as if they were violating Shabbos. It then becomes difficult if not impossible for such a person to feel comfortable living in such a community. The more of secular culture they pursue, the more ostracized they will feel. It should therefore not be surprising that they come to feel their only option is to become entirely secular.
Being raised in such an insular environment makes them ill prepared to enter the secular one. Imagine for example trying to get a college education with no high school diploma and the bare minimum education that comes with. That’s where Footsteps comes in. They help them achieve that goal.
Granted – in some cases there is more than a desire for a little freedom that causes someone to go OTD. There may be intellectual reasons that turn them into skeptics and non believers. I’m not sure anyone can do much for them. Although I would not entirely abandon the hope that they return to observance, it is a difficult task for anyone to convince them to do that.
But I am 100% convinced that a lot of Jews raised in these kinds of extreme environments would remain observant if they could find a way to engage in the world that was once forbidden to them. That’s where Modern Orthodoxy comes in. I have always felt that these formerly extreme Jews looking for relief could find it there.
But they don’t. That’s because the two cultures are so radically different from each other that they cannot adjust. Nor are those communities all that welcoming to those who are so culturally different from them, I’m told. So… they go all the way. And I found it a shame that they could not adjust. What was missing, I thought, was an organization like Footsteps that would not only help them adjust to their new lives outside their former world and yet show them that they can still maintain Halacha.
Thankfully there are others who felt the same way. And they have done something about it. There is a new organization called Makom that does exactly that. It was founded by one of my heroes, Allison Josephs. From the Forward:
It took Josephs two years of organizing and fundraising… to provide an answer to this question: Curious ultra-Orthodox Jews can now receive an orientation to the Modern Orthodox world via Josephs’s latest endeavor, Project Makom. It was officially launched this past December… and soon it will offer classes on a variety of topics, along with religious mentorship, career training, and support groups for those struggling with the transition between ultra and Modern Orthodox worlds.
Josephs and her co-directors, Schaper and Gavriella Lerner, a social work student and teacher, respectively, are currently planning their first official shabbaton, or retreat, where they will offer lectures on, among other things, women in Jewish scholarship and minhag, custom, versus Halacha, law, in mid-April in the New York tristate area…
(B)y establishing Makom — which means “place” in Hebrew — she can show those formerly constrained by religion how to access the strength and liberation she finds in it. “Faith should be there as a thing to lean on, not something to hold you back and to make you feel trapped,” she said.
As can be expected there are skeptics about this project – Footsteps executive director, Lani Santo among them. She questions the need – pointing to Chabad as a place where ultra Orthodox can go to lighten their load. But that shows a fundamental misunderstanding about both Chabad and what they do. Although not an insular movement – quite the opposite in fact – many of the restrictions these people want to free themselves from are a part of parcel of Chabad. And Chabad’s stated mission is not to lighten the load of formerly ultra Orthodox Jews. It is to bring secular Jews closer to observant Judaism and ultimately to Chabad. Something with which they are very successful.
Santo says that she finds most of Footsteps clients choosing to leave observance altogether. That may be true. But I have to wonder, given the opportunity to live a religious lifestyle that is not restrictive, how many wouldn’t prefer that? Wouldn’t remaining observant prevent the loneliness that often accompanies leaving observance completely?
That’s where ‘Makom’ comes in. As I understand them, it is not their goal to get these formerly ultra-Orthodox Jews to move into the Modern Orthodox community of Teaneck. It is their goal is to teach them that they can live their lives religiously by adopting the values of Modern Orthodoxy no matter where they live.
It is my sincere hope that those looking to leave their insular lives and participate in the culture are made aware of the fact that they do not have to leave observance to so. In Modern Orthodoxy, you can actually have the best of both worlds.