NY group helps ex-haredim adjust to secular life

The Jewish world doesn't think of Ultra-Orthodox dropouts as "Jews in need."

haredi girls backs 298.8 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
haredi girls backs 298.8
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
Chaim breezes into a diner on the Upper West Side of Manhattan clutching two huge shopping bags. "I got some clothes: this plaid shirt, two for $5; this leather jacket just $20," says Chaim, 19, in the clipped, Yiddish-accented English of the hassidic world he comes from. "I didn't know what to buy. My roommate went with me, he told me what's nice," he says, fingering a sweater gingerly. Chaim is - or was - a Skver hassid, born and raised in the fervently Orthodox enclave of New Square, NY. His world until recently was Torah, family and a close-knit community. But now he's entering the secular world. In September, he shaved his beard, left his parents' home and took a bus to Brooklyn, where he now goes to college and shares an apartment. "I found it on craigslist," he says with pride, referring to the on-line classified site. His new life comes with help from Footsteps, a two-year-old Manhattan-based nonprofit group that helps dropouts from the haredi world transition into secular society. No one knows how many American Jews have left the fervently Orthodox fold, although most are believed to have come from the New York area. There are no statistics, and, until Footsteps was created, no organization to help them learn how to make it on the outside. While the organized Jewish world doesn't usually think of hassidic dropouts as "Jews in need," outsiders can't begin to imagine how frightening and complicated the everyday world can seem to a person who only knows the carefully controlled cocoon of Satmar, Skver or Bobov. Particularly for a young person, whose departure can be hasty and unplanned, the road out of the Brooklyn neighborhoods of Williamsburg or Crown Heights is fraught with confusion and loneliness - and sometimes drug abuse. "People who have decided to make this transition don't have a place to go," says Hella Winston, the author of Unchosen: The Hidden Lives of Hasidic Rebels. Chaim isn't using his real name out of respect for his family still in the community. His journey from fervent Orthodox hassid to young, secular Jewish New Yorker didn't happen overnight. A year and a half ago, he says, "I heard there was such a place as a public library," where he could find a computer and Internet access. "I didn't know how to use the mouse. I started tapping on the screen," he says, smiling in embarrassment. He began reading about the world outside New Square, and soon realized "it's not all drug dealers and crazy, like they say in our community." Slowly, he felt more and more alienated from his hassidic world. Although he lived at home until this fall, last year he was already sneaking into Manhattan after work to walk the streets and look at people. He let his hair grow longer under his yarmulke, and bought black jeans, sneakers and a baseball cap to wear on his urban forays. "I'd changed in my mind a long time ago," he says. "Something pushed me away, I don't know what." He planned his departure carefully. His first step was to get his GED, or high school equivalency, so he could apply for a loan to go to college. But hassidic boys receive very little secular education, and he didn't know how to begin studying for the test. In late February he met the founding director of Footsteps, 24-year-old Malkie Schwartz, an ex-Lubavitcher. She introduced him to the few dozen other ex-hassidim in her organization, and he enrolled in the GED class. This summer Chaim passed his exam. He's in a liberal arts program, but hopes to major in math or science. He hasn't gone on a date yet - "Socially, I'm very awkward," he admits - but says he's looking forward to that, too. "Without Footsteps, I don't know what I would have done," he says. "I wouldn't have my GED, I wouldn't be in college." The transition can be difficult. Winston recently heard from a young man who spent six months sleeping in New York City parks and subways after he left his hassidic community. "He had nowhere to go," Winston says. "America is a very individualistic society, and for people leaving a community it's important to have one to move into. Otherwise they run the risk of becoming lost." Samuel Heilman, a professor of sociology and Jewish studies at the City University of New York, agrees. "Missing their families" is a major problem, he says. "For most people in the haredi world, the single biggest part of their lives, and the part that outsiders are often envious of, is connection to family and community." When they leave, those connections are radically broken. Even if the one who left remains in contact with family members, those contacts often have to be surreptitious, says Heilman, the author of Defenders of the Faith: Inside Ultra-Orthodox Jewry. A support system like Footsteps didn't exist when Schwartz left Crown Heights five years ago. She was 19, and knew she would be expected to marry soon. That's often the point at which young hassidim who are unsure about their faith or their lifestyle make the move to leave, Winston writes, before their decision will impact their future families. "I felt I couldn't make this decision for myself and for the large number of kids that would follow," Schwartz says. "I wanted an education." She moved out, enrolled in Hunter College with financial aid and got her bachelor's degree. But it was tough to go it alone. In December 2003, she organized a meeting for what she hoped would become a support group for former hassidim. Twenty people showed up, and Footsteps was born. Schwartz runs everything out of her apartment. GED classes, support groups, art and writing therapy groups, and discussions on health, sex and relationships are held at ad-hoc spaces around the city. Once a month there are sessions on life skills. Footsteps has received grants from the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation, the Alan B. Slivka Foundation and the Jewish Foundation for the Education of Women, and in early December was accepted into Bikkurim, a program that provides office space and technical support for Jewish start-ups in New York City. More than 200 former hassidim have passed through Footsteps; about 40 are currently active, mostly young Jews in their 20s. One thing Schwartz would like to offer is a halfway house, a temporary safe space for those just leaving their communities. Many of the former hassidim in Footsteps are not observant anymore, but that doesn't mean they don't have strong Jewish identities. Zelda Deutsch, 28, left her Satmar community in early 2003 along with her husband and their son. Leaving was, she says, "a very complicated and lonely process," and she wishes Footsteps had been around then. The Deutsches no longer go to synagogue, but they speak Yiddish at home and celebrate all the holidays. "My son is very aware he is Jewish. The environment in our home is filled with the way we were raised," she says. In November, they began hosting Friday-night dinners for fellow Footsteppers. "The people who come don't go to synagogue, they're not religious," Deutsch says. "We serve kugel, stuffed chicken, the traditional foods, and we sing all the zemiros [Shabbat songs]." "For some people the singing brings up bad memories," she admits. "But the Jewish life filled such a large part of our daily lives, [and] now that it's gone there's a huge void. As a rule, everybody wants some connection to a spiritual life."