Children laughing, a baby’s muffled cry, the peaceful sounds of a Saturday afternoon drift through the open window. This is New York—one of the liveliest, most turbulent cities in the world—but here, within the boundaries of the eruv string—the thin line separating indoors from outdoors, the community from the world—Crown Heights lay deep in its sacred Sabbath slumber.
Malkie Schwartz didn’t join her family in the synagogue today. She stayed home, saying she wasn’t feeling well, and for the last hour she’s been staring intently at the phone, incapable of lifting the receiver. She knows that once she dials, intentionally desecrating the Sabbath for the first time in her life, it’ll be a step from which there will be no return: one that will separate her from her religion and her family, severing her past from the possible course of her future.
This step would lead to the making of an organization that will change her life and the lives of hundreds of others. But of course she doesn’t know this at the moment. Right now she merely feels small and alone.
The realization that her family should be home any minute finally drives her to action. She snatches the receiver and dials swiftly. When her cousin answers, it takes her a few seconds to find her voice.
“I can’t live here anymore,” she finally says. “I need your help.”
After completing high school with honors, Malkie, the eldest of nine in a family of Lubavitch Hasidim, was sent to a Jewish seminary in Israel for a year. The seminary year was meant to cement her religious devotion, but instead, the lengthy stay far from her community’s scrutiny made way for serious questions . Did she truly believe the bible was dictated by God? And the 613 mitzvot derived from the Torah—were they from a divine source as well? Let’s say for a moment they were written by mere mortals—if so, what’s the point in sacrificing to them her education, career, the possibility to be anything but a mother and wife?
Like most Lubavitch followers, Malkie loved the rebbe and wished to follow his calling: to save souls, to draw more and more Jews to the Torah, thus drawing the entire world closer to salvation. But the man she once perceived as the messiah had been lying in his grave for years, and the constant effort to get one more Jew to keep one more mitzvah didn’t seem to be improving the world in general. Was it even improving her own life? The more questions she asked, the fewer answers remained.
One thing was clear: at nineteen, she wasn’t ready to get married and have kids. She needed more time, and knew her community wouldn’t allow it. She had to escape.
A few months after her return from Israel, Malkie left her parents’ home, with her cousin’s help, and moved in with her secular grandmother in Manhattan. She enrolled as a law student in Hunter College. Within a few months she seemed like a normal American college student.
Almost normal. Some questions still remained. How should she dress, if she knew nothing of what clothes say about its wearer? What are the codes of behavior in a class where genders were mixed? What can she talk about with her new acquaintances, what was she expected to do, and what not? If a man spoke to her, did that mean he was hitting on her? If he startled her by resting a hand on her shoulder—should she lower her gaze and hurriedly walk away, or was this a common thing? How does one live in a world where the laws are unwritten?
The transition from ultra-religious to secular was filled with confusion, blunders, and tragic misinterpretations, but worst of all was the loneliness. Even new immigrants from far-away cultures couldn’t fully grasp the shocking totality of the change.
There were others like her, she knew, who may be sitting at Starbucks in jeans and T-shirts, but still incapable of eating without reciting the appropriate blessing first. Others like her, cloaked in buttoned-down shirts and head covers, who were sitting in a darkened room with the curtains drawn and secretly telling their blog all the things they couldn’t tell their loved ones.
Towards the end of the semester she put up a few signs in college and spread the word among her acquaintances that she’s interested in meeting others like her, who broke with religion.
To her amazement, twenty people showed up.
That was the first gathering of what was to become “Footsteps”: an organization dedicated to support those who sought to enter or explore the world beyond the insular religious environments in which they were raised. In days to come this organization would address a wide spectrum of difficulties and needs, but this giddy first meeting was all about the enormous relief of no longer being alone. For those raised in enveloping and warm societies such as the ultra-Orthodox ones, the isolation following the change in lifestyle was almost a curse. They needed each other, the understanding, advice, and conversation of like-minded peers; and for those with no ties whatsoever in the secular world, support was a matter of life or death.
Malkie was raised on the concept that it’s her own responsibility to care for the world, to save souls. She decided to form a Chabad house of a different sort: a home for the ones on the outside.
~ ~ ~
They’re from here, from this city—but from an entirely different world.
Approximately 150,000 Chasidic Jews from different sects currently live in New York. They gather in insular communities, the largest of which are in Borough Park, Monsey, Williamsburg, Kiryas Joel, New Square, and Crown Heights. Each community revolves around its own spiritual leader, the rebbe, a revered position passed down from father to son. The laws of the community are rooted in the Torah, rules derived from interpretations of the Torah, the creed of wise rabbis throughout the ages, and the guidance of their own rebbe.
There is a famous rabbinical saying: “How did the Israelites distinguish themselves from the non-Israelites during their slavery in Egypt? By name, language, and dress”.
The strict code of dress physically differentiates the Hasidim from the rest of the world, making assimilation difficult, if not impossible. The Chasidic community has its own language as well; Yiddish is generally the mother tongue. A separate education system exists in which the boys after sixth grade study only religion. It is also different in its social structure, which is based on strict gender separation and marriages arranged according to status. Family relations and social values are governed not by personal views but by religious obligations. Television and the Internet are completely prohibited; movies, radio and secular newspapers are considered a negative influence, best avoided.
The seclusion religious communities impose upon themselves serves as a dual line of protection: it preserves the community’s spiritual purity by shielding it from sinful external influences and temptations, while at the same time perpetuating its own way of life from within. With no familiarity with the world outside, even if an individual desperately wants to leave, even if he’s willing to fling his soul to the burning pits of hell—where could he go?
In the organization’s offices in Manhattan there is a computer lab, a small meeting room, and a library. Books like “A Stranger in a Strange Land” by Robert Heinlein, “A Hundred Years of Philosophy,” and the Koran lay on the shelves.
Every two weeks a drop-in group gathers in the meeting room. Under a signed confidentiality agreement, with the guidance of a professional counselor, they strive to untangle the complicated questions of their transition.
“What do I know about dating?” one of the young participants may say. “I thought it was going fine but then he leaned in to kiss me and I bolted. I had no idea he was going to do that! Is that accepted? I was too nervous to even look at him afterwards—I think he was upset, or merely disappointed. Didn’t hear from him for a few days now—what does that mean? Did he only want to take advantage of me? Or was he really interested but feels I pushed him away? I’d like to call and explain, but is that customary?”
Or: “My wife will no longer let me see my kids. The rebbe and the entire community stand behind her. What can I do in such a way that won’t bring them more grief than what I’ve already inflicted? Maybe it really is the best thing for them, to let them forget me.”
Or even: “All the friends I grew up with, the friends with whom I studied and prayed and shared meals—they want nothing to do with me now. Except for the meetings here, weeks could pass without me speaking to another soul.”
With the advice of the more experienced participants and the gentle guidance of professionals like Michael Jenkins, a clinical social worker and the director of programs at Footsteps, the group strives to provide answers.
“The needs vary,” Jenkins explains. “We have those who just started questioning their core beliefs—their understanding of the world and their place in it, their role in the immediate environment, and in the larger scheme. All these questions can be dealt with as one large issue, but then come the more practical questions. If I no longer believe, should I be open about it? How open, to whom, when, and most importantly, what would be the consequences, and can I handle them? When a person is open, it threatens his relationships with family, not to mention the wider community. He’s bound to lose some support. This can range from: ‘Leave, don’t come back, we never want to see you again’ to ‘We’d like to stay in touch, just don’t shave your beard or payess,’ or ‘Can you just respect the Sabbath?’ People at Footsteps usually have a strong motivation to maintain ties with their families. But how does one go about it, when one gives up the faith and the ideological values upon which the family unit was built and moves into a world his family neither recognizes nor respects?”
~ ~ ~
“Chasidic societies, of course, do not have the legal autonomy to order people out of their homes and neighborhoods. But they can and do enforce expected norms by means of school admissions, shidduchim, shul membership, and other forms of social orchestration… the comforts of one’s social circle and environment can’t be underestimated as considerable factors in the one’s overall life-contentedness.
“And then there’s married life. Chasidic couples are generally not paired for their compatible personalities or mutual attractiveness. Young families are established with the very specific goal of carrying on the traditions of Orthodox Judaism in general and the Chasidic lifestyle in particular. Instead of wishing a pair of glowing newlyweds that they happily maintain their passionate love for each other, they are warmly congratulated on the chance to raise doros yesharim umevorachim, generations of upstanding and blessed offspring who follow in the hallowed footsteps of their ancestors.
“The unspoken agreement is that the family will be established according to rules, customs, and norms of the community, and is to continue to abide by them for a lifetime. It is a contractual relationship, if only an implied one, in which both parties understand that deviating from these norms could be a deal-breaker.
“Married men and women of the Chasidic world who develop dissenting views therefore face a real crisis. Their dissenting views are dangerous to their status quo, and with the typical age of marriage being between eighteen and twenty, by the time one has a chance to develop a more expansive worldview, their status quo might very well include multiple children settled securely in reputable schools with comfortable social dynamics. The upheaval that can result from revealing dissenting views—especially if those views are carried into practice, such as disregard for the laws of Shabbos and kashrus—are enough to scare away even the bravest of souls from open dissent.”
The previous paragraphs are quotes from the “Hasidic Rebel” blog, an online journal that became a cultural reference point for ex-Chasidim.
For more than seven years, Shulem Deen, an ex-Hasid and a father of five, has been writing an online journal documenting his struggles within ultra-Orthodox society and faith. For most of those seven years he was writing covertly while still living in the strict community of New Square, outwardly performing all the rites and customs of a religiously devout orthodox Jew.
“Most of my life I truly was a devout believer. I loved Judaism and the Orthodox way of life. I loved the moments of ecstatic belief, which were frequent in my life and incorporated in the life of the community. I had my questions, but was careful not to dwell on them: Chasidism teaches the value of ‘Emuna Pshuta,’ simple faith, which translates to ‘Don’t think – feel.’ It is avoda shebalaev, serving God from the heart. ‘And you shall love the Lord your God, with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your resources.’ I did.
As was customary, at the age of eighteen Shulem was presented with a marriage arrangement suited to his social and academic status.
“It was an unpleasant process. I met with my future wife for fifteen minutes, and closed the deal with an engagement at the rebbe’s. It was rough. We had little in common, and I knew beyond a doubt that I didn’t want to do this. I also knew that it was the right thing to do, it’s what my faith and traditions required of me. The next time I saw her, half a year later, was at the wedding.
“Obviously, I knew nothing about sex or female anatomy. All I knew was what the ‘groom instructor’ told me: ‘Get into her bed, lie on top of her, give her a kiss… the rest will happen by itself.’ Horrified, I held on to him: ‘Can you give me some more details? It still doesn’t sound right!’”
By the age of 20 Shulem had fathered a child. A computer enthusiast since childhood, he taught himself programming and found a job in a religiously-owned company in Manhattan. Slowly he began indulging more personal interests, reading more secular literature—history, science, Biblical archeology, history of the Middle East—“And suddenly it all fell apart. The truisms on which our faith is built, they’re impossible—the whole thing just unraveled.”
“What did it feel like? Imagine you’ve been living for years with someone you’re madly and passionately in love with, and one morning you wake to find the room empty. ‘She just stepped out for a minute,’ you think, yet days pass and the room remains empty. You think ‘She left me!’ but after a while you realize that nothing had changed: it’s the same room as always, and it’s always been empty. Your loved one was an illusion, an imaginary friend meant to counter your loneliness. You aren’t even angry for being abandoned, because there no one to be angry at. There’s just this horrible sense of loss, confusion, and inner turmoil: how could I get so attached to something so obviously groundless—and if I’m already so attached, why couldn’t I hold onto the illusion?”
“You think too much. It’s not good for you,” was his wife’s response. She had two kids to care for, the third on his way. For his family’s sake, Shulem carried on with life as usual—but as mentioned, the community has ways to deal with those who dissent. The daily rituals, without faith to give them meaning, became a cumbersome charade. Shulem found an outlet for his conflicting feelings in the blog he began writing in 2003, and soon the blog gathered company: an ever-growing community of anonymous figures began responding to his entries, adding their own stories of doubt and conflict.
In New-Square, Shulem recounts, if a woman walked towards a man on the sidewalk, he crossed to the other side of the street. In time, his double life within this particularly strict community grew unbearable. Shulem tried to rekindle the belief in his heart, or at least create some personal philosophy that would ease the inner conflict, but in the end he realized that he was grieving over his unfulfilled life.
“Over time I grew closer to my wife, and I loved my kids more than anything. It was the hardest decision I ever made – but I knew that if I stayed, I’d always see my life as a tragedy. I didn’t want to be a tragedy.”
In 2007, Shulem divorced his wife and moved out of the community. His immense relief was coupled with an overwhelming loneliness.
“After the divorce I enrolled in college, but couldn’t relate to the other students. They were simply from a different world. My old friends were now part of a different world as well, we could no longer really communicate. The loneliness became a major issue, one that I was ill-prepared for. Now, I’ve known Malkie since 2003. I knew Footsteps existed and that it assisted with basic assimilation issues. I’m in my thirties, I have a job, an apartment, I can read and write fluently, and to be honest, I don’t need anyone to hold my hand. But when I finally came to Footsteps I was pleasantly surprised: they were the young and clueless, yes, but I also met people whom I could relate to, who became my first friends since the move. With time I established my own social circle, but during that first year, with the collapse of my former life, Footsteps cushioned the fall.”
Though the organization doesn’t accept minors as members, many participants are 18-21 years old. For some of these youngsters, Footsteps is indeed something of a foster parent.
According to Jenkins: “Until today they only lived in their parents’ homes. Suddenly they have to care for themselves, acquire skills so they can find a job to pay rent. And they have to do it all fast, in a world they aren’t familiar with. It’s hard. Some have to get into college with the average level of secular education of a fourth grader. Some of those who left but didn’t find their way to Footsteps, never made it. They just… fall.”
“That sounds like a pretty extreme scenario,” I remark. “A situation where a person loses all his support at once, and is thrown into an unfamiliar world with no tools.”
“Not at all,” Jenkins answers, with a hint of surprise. “It’s the most common case.”
~ ~ ~
Elazar turned to Footsteps after a month of sleeping in his car and eating leftovers from restaurants. After his wife divorced him and the word spread that the reason for this was heresy, his landlord evicted him from his apartment. He was fired from his job in a kosher liquor store, and it was clear he would not be hired again within the community. He worked for a friend and lived in his basement for a while, but was kicked out after he was spotted eating a non-kosher meal at Starbucks. “I can’t risk my family,” the friend said by way of apology. Elazar understood: dissenters were always unwelcome guests, but hosting the rebel son of a Hasidic rebbe was an even greater danger.
Elazar (or “Luzer” as he’s unfortunately dubbed in Yiddish) is one of twelve children in the Twersky family. Twersky is a highly respected family name descending from the grand rabbi Nachum Twersky, a disciple of the Baal Shem Tov himself and founder of the Chernobyl dynasty. Luzer’s father is the rebbe, the spiritual and ancestral leader of the Faltitchan community, and related to the Belz dynasty. “As a child I was always the black sheep. I was too curious and I asked all the wrong questions. For example, I wanted to know: Is God in the bathroom? I was told that God was everywhere, but I was also told that he was holy, and that the bathroom was an unholy place.”
“What was the answer?”
“I never got an answer. It was considered a cheeky question.”
When he was fifteen Elazar was sent to an ultra-religious boarding school in London. The strict discipline did the trick: believer or not, to get through the day without being beaten, Elazar had to study. He did this well, and quickly won recognition as a gifted student.
Upon returning to New York at the age of 18, Elazar was set up, as appropriate for the son of a rebbe and a student of his caliber, with a pious girl from a pious family.
Now in a house of his own, free at last from his parents’ and teachers’ supervision, Elazar began to explore the world around him. Since a rebbe’s son need not worry about money, Elazar was free to roam the city, conducting long conversations with passerby, hanging out in libraries and cinemas as well as bars, clubs, and strip joints. At the age of 20, through a theological argument with an atheist stripper, Luzer learned of the theory of evolution.
“Her certainty shook me… I couldn’t dismiss her arguments, or get them out of my head.”
He began studying the subject to disprove these arguments. “I was taught that goyim were crazy, since they believed the universe was billions of years old, while all facts point to it being merely 5,000 years old. I discovered that we were the crazy ones, and that we don’t know what the word ‘fact’ means.”
Elazar shrugged off religion “with a mixture of horror and relief. Horror—everything I knew about life was wrong, there’s nobody to watch over me, no one to pray to. Relief, since finally I was free.”
Even with his newfound and zealously outspoken atheism, Elazar is occasionally seized by the feeling that “God is standing right behind me, looking over my shoulder, quietly judging me as I deny his existence.”
The first time Luzer turned to Footsteps he was still married and living within the community. Footsteps refused him membership. “A lot of people in the organization are covert, still living in the communities with their families. They have a lot to lose. I suppose that with the name Twersky they thought I was a spy.”
The second time he turned to Footsteps he was in ragged jeans, with no job or lodging and visibly worse for wear. They immediately recognized the gravity of the situation. “They set me up with a free apartment in the East Village for six months, and supported me until I got my feet back on the ground. Beyond the immediate lifeline, Michael and the drop-in group were a vital source of information and support… I no longer lean on them financially, but they’re still the only ones who can appreciate where I come from and what I’m going through.”
Elazar Twersky makes a living today as an actor and writer. His beard and payess, once a proud symbol of a religious affinity, are kept today for different reasons: “I play mainly Jewish parts, and I’m hoping to become a cultural adviser for films and plays focusing on Jewish communities. As an insider I can make sure they get the details right. The beard and payess are my professional mark of authenticity.”
Beyond the emergency support and the drop-in groups, Footsteps provides guidance on parenting, clinical psychiatric care for those who seek it, personal one-on-one guidance with Footsteps veterans, and an onsite computer lab offering GED training programs. An internship program is being developed. The offices also hold classes in science, technology, computer skills, resume writing, job interview guidance, as well as sexual education.
Since its founding in December of 2003 until today, Footsteps assisted approximately 600 individuals. For some it was a friendly shoulder to lean on; for others, a lifesaver.
Six hundred. For some believers, these are six hundred sons and daughters now lost to them, ripped from the living organism of the Jewish world. Their children who moved to outer space. There are voices that call: “They could have been saved! If they turned somewhere other than Footsteps, like a rabbi or a religious youth counselor, maybe we would have found a way to keep them with us, and with time this would have blown over. We wouldn’t have to see the empty chair at the Sabbath table.”
“There are those who see us as a kind of devil, force-feeding their children shrimp on a Friday night,” Michael Jenkins jokes. “But when a person clearly makes up his mind to leave, and the family can neither dissuade him nor assist him, I believe at that point they are happy we exist.”
~ ~ ~
The conflict became evident in a 2009 radio show in which religious host Zeev Brenner interviewed Malkie and Michael Jenkins. From the very first question, it is clear the sides are anything but friends.
Zeev: “I understand that so far you helped 500 Jews leave their religious communities.”
Malkie: “Well, we helped 500 people that came to us for various reasons. It would be inaccurate to say we helped specifically to leave…” Malkie goes on to list a few of Footsteps’ services.
Zeev: “If they come to you just to improve their GEDs, that’s not a problem, it’s an important service…”
Michael intervenes: “They come to us to question, in a nonjudgmental environment, among other peers who are also questioning. We don’t tell them to become non-religious… we give them a place where they can ask themselves how they want to choose.”
A phone call from a listener reveals that at an event held by Footsteps non-kosher food was served alongside strictly kosher portions. “But why should you serve non kosher, a shocked Zeev asks, when there’s such variety and quality of kosher food these days? Even secular Jewish organizations such as the JCC or UJA agree to maintain a general standard of kosher. Don’t you think you’re sending the wrong message? If you’re trying to help them stay in the religion, what’s the problem to keep kosher?”
Malkie, her voice tense yet determined, attempts to explain once more: we aren’t trying to make them stay, we aren’t trying to make them leave, we’re letting them choose—and we try to help in whatever choice they make.
More angry listeners call in. Why should treyf be an option? What moral right does Malkie, herself an apostate, have to influence their children’s decisions? Why is she even allowed to speak on a religious channel? The debate escalates; it’s getting hard for Malkie to complete a sentence.
“I’m about to say one thing to our listeners,” Michael’s tone is soft but arresting. “You have the right to choose. If you have questions, if you need help, we’re at (212) 253-0890.”
A Hebrew version of this article appeared in Yedioth Ahronoth America. Click here to download a PDF.Printable Version