The High Price of Leaving Ultra-Orthodox Life

Young adults who decide to abandon their cloistered Jewish communities have only one another — and a single organization — to help them navigate the alternate reality of modern-day New York.

The New York Times/March 30, 2017

By Taffy Brodesser-Akner

On Thursdays, the nonprofit organization Footsteps hosts a drop-in group for its membership of formerly ultra-Orthodox Jews, who mostly refer to themselves as “off the derech.” “Derech” means “path” in Hebrew, and “off the derech,” or O.T.D. for short, is how their ultra-Orthodox families and friends refer to them when they break away from these tight-knit, impermeable communities, as in: “Did you hear that Shaindel’s daughter Rivkie is off the derech? I heard she has a smartphone and has been going to museums.” So even though the term is burdened with the yoke of the very thing they are trying to flee, members remain huddled together under “O.T.D.” on their blogs and in their Facebook groups, where their favored hashtag is #itgetsbesser — besser meaning “better” in Yiddish. Sometimes someone will pop up on a message board or in an email group and say, “Shouldn’t we decide to call ourselves something else?” But it never takes. Reclamations are messy.

At the drop-in session I attended, 10 men and women in their 20s and 30s sat around a coffee table. Some of them were dressed like me, in jeans and American casualwear, and others wore the clothing of their upbringings: long skirts and high-collared shirts for women; black velvet skullcaps and long, virgin beards and payot (untrimmed side locks) for men. Half of them had extricated themselves from their communities and were navigating new, secular lives. But half still lived among their Hasidic and ultra-Orthodox sects in areas of New York City, New Jersey and the Hudson Valley and were secretly dipping their toes into the secular world — attending these meetings, but also doing things as simple as walking down the street without head coverings, or trying on pants in a clothing store, or eating a nonkosher doughnut, or using the internet. They had families at home who believed they were in evening Torah learning sessions, or out for a walk, or at synagogue for evening prayers. On the coffee table were two pizzas, one kosher, one nonkosher. The kosher pizza tasted better, but only a couple of people ate it.

The group was facilitated by a Footsteps social worker, Jesse Pietroniro, soft-spoken and kind, who had told me that he had his own conflicted religious upbringing. He allowed the attendees to democratically settle on a loose theme for the evening. One woman in her early 20s brought up sexuality. She had started to date and wasn’t quite sure what the norms were. A young man talked about how hard it was for him to interact with women casually outside his community, since he was taught that sexual desire outside the intent to procreate means that one is a sexual predator, so anytime he was attracted to someone, he worried he was going to do something untoward, or that he was a kind of monster. The young woman who had suggested the theme said she didn’t know when exactly to submit to kissing — the first date? The second? Is she a slut if she kisses at all? Is it still bad nowadays to be a slut? She’d heard girls talking on the subway and calling each other sluts, and they were laughing. Are there rules for this? A few of them made sex jokes. The O.T.D.ers, newly alive in a world of puns and innuendo, love a junior-high-grade sex joke. The social worker narrowed his eyes and pursed his lips and tapped a finger to his chin and nodded and opened the question up to the group. (I was allowed to document the meeting on the condition that I wouldn’t publish anyone’s name or descriptive information.)

Another woman in her early 20s, sitting on the sofa in jeans with one leg slung over its arm, told us she had spent most of her life being molested by her father. She told the group that recently she had taken to advertising online, saying she followed the laws of family purity — going to a ritual bath after menstruation, not having sex during her “unclean” week — and that she was available for sex in exchange for money. Ultra-Orthodox men visited her at all hours, and they cheated on their wives, having sex with this ritually pure young woman in her apartment. When the men finished, they told her what a shame it was that she was off the derech, that she seemed nice, that she should try again at a religious life.

A man, 30ish, still with a beard that he now trimmed closely to his face, talked about staying with his religious wife, who knew he was no longer religious but wouldn’t join him on the other side. He knew the marriage should be over, but he wouldn’t leave, and he couldn’t bring himself to cheat on her, and he wanted to know if he was unable to cheat on her because he was bound up by his religious values or because he was innately a good person. Another married man said that you don’t need to be taught in a religious context not to cheat on your wife — it’s a tenet of secular marriage as well, and what the whole operation often depends on.

“I guess I just don’t know if I’m a good person because I’m a good person,” said the guy who wanted to cheat but might not, “or if I’m a good person because I was taught to be a good person.”

They went around in circles for many minutes, most of them summoning scriptural sources on whether morality is inherent, then other sources to make or disprove that point, then laughing at the fact that they’d summoned Scripture. The married man who was deciding if he should have sex outside his marriage put his head in his hands, then through his hair and made a great, guttural noise of frustration.

They all took a breath and laughed at themselves again, and then they went silent, and in their silence was their uncertainty, now familiar, of whether these questions would ever be answered, and if they could talk enough about it to the point where they would ever feel normal. God, would it ever feel normal?

Footsteps was started in 2003 by a college student named Malkie Schwartz, who grew up in the Lubavitch sect in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, and who knew after high school that she wanted to step off the community’s moving walkway to marriage and motherhood. She moved in with a grandmother who wasn’t religious and enrolled at Hunter College on the Upper East Side.

But just because she left her community didn’t mean that she felt part of the secular one. She started Footsteps as a drop-in group right there at Hunter and told a couple of formerly religious friends what she was doing. About 20 people showed up to the first meeting. Soon they had a G.E.D. study group — and a human-sexuality-and-relationships group, so that they could learn about sex education, which was normally taught to the ultra-Orthodox only in the days leading up to their weddings. Footsteps became a chrysalis for them through which they would leap into their new lives, just as soon as they figured out exactly how to live them.

Schwartz eventually left the organization in the hands of nonprofit professionals — Footsteps was a chrysalis for her, too — and went to law school. Today, Footsteps is a 501(c)(3) with an executive director, social workers, scholarships, court-companion programs and special events like fashion nights, at which members learn about modern style outside the realm of black-and-white dresses and suits and hats. Ultra-Orthodox communities, whose leaders stand vigil against outside influences, know about Footsteps; about half the people I met in Footsteps first heard of it when they were accused by someone in their family of being a member.

It’s hard to talk about O.T.D.ers as a group, because like the rest of us, like ultra-Orthodox people, too, they are individuals. No two people who practice religion do it exactly the same way, despite how much it seems to the secular world that they rally around sameness; and no one who leaves it leaves the same way, either. In the region of New York City, New Jersey, and the Hudson Valley that Footsteps serves, 546,000 ultra-Orthodox Jews live in one of about five different sects. With a few exceptions, like the Skver sect in New Square, N.Y., which has actual boundaries and operates its own schools, the ultra-Orthodox live not in cloistered neighborhoods, but among secular America in Crown Heights, Flatbush and Williamsburg, Brooklyn, and beyond. Perhaps it’s easiest to think of them as living in a different dimension — occupying the same space but speaking a different language (Yiddish, for the most part), attending different schools, seeing their own doctors, handling judicial issues among themselves and eating their own food from their own markets.

So once they leave, if they leave, they learn how ill equipped they are for survival outside their home neighborhoods, and that has a lot to do with the ways that ultra-Orthodox communities are valuable and good: the daily cycle of prayer and school and learning; how people share goals about family and values; how neighbors support one another during times of need. Once that’s gone, and all a person has is her mostly Judaic-studies education and little familial support and no real skills, life gets scary. For those who leave and are married with children, the community tends to embrace the spouse left behind and help raise funds for legal support to help that person retain custody of the children. You could be someone with a spouse and children one day and find yourself completely alone the next.

I learned about Footsteps in 2015, after the very public suicide of one of its young members. Her name was Faigy Mayer, and on a hot night in July, she went to the top of 230 Fifth Avenue in the Flatiron district, where there’s a rooftop bar, and jumped. In death, she became something of a brief symbol (and also a lightning rod) for the O.T.D. movement, with her story plastered across local papers, many illustrated by a Facebook image of her holding a paintbrush and standing in front of a newly painted mural that said “Life is Beautiful.”

As news of her death broke in the New York tabloids and the Jewish papers, seemingly all the ultra-Orthodox and Orthodox people I know (who number in the hundreds — but more on that later) converged on my Facebook page to wonder if the suicide of Faigy Mayer was a case of mental illness or if suicidal tendencies were a condition inherent to the kind of person who would leave a secure and comfortable community in favor of a large world with no guarantees, a world that you’d been warned would reject you. What kind of person wants to leave safety and start from the beginning, sounding different from everyone else, not knowing what to say, not knowing how to make a living — not knowing how to read past a sixth-grade level, because English is taught as an afterthought, if at all, in many of these schools?

The conversation on my Facebook page was like the ones that happen between Republicans and Democrats after mass shootings: Half the posts said that we should not be looking at religious society as a cause of mental illness. The other half responded that in many ultra-Orthodox communities, the mentally ill don’t get help not because it isn’t available to them but because there’s a stigma of bad genetics that could make a person less attractive in later marital matchmaking. And does someone have to be mentally ill to feel hopeless after being rejected by her family? Does someone have to be extraordinarily sick to succumb to the despair she feels after having ventured out into a world where she is all alone, without the skills to survive?

“I can’t think of many members who haven’t, at one time or another in their journeys, contemplated suicide because they have felt they have no other options,” says Lani Santo, the executive director of Footsteps. Meaning, by the time Faigy died, they were used to this. On the night of her death, the lights stayed on at Footsteps, and members came in for an impromptu drop-in group. The social workers reached out to the members they knew to be struggling and encouraged them to come in and talk. They planned a memorial for a few weeks later.

There were two notable O.T.D. deaths in the last few years. A year and a half before, it was Deb Tambor, who overdosed on pills and vodka, surrounded by the pictures of the three children she lost custody of when she left her Skver sect in Monsey. A year after that, Joey Diangello, 34, overdosed after becoming a powerful force in protesting child abuse in ultra-Orthodox communities; he said he was raped in a ritual bath by an adult when he was 7.

After I heard about Faigy’s death, I interviewed people who knew her, hoping to be able to paint a portrait I ultimately couldn’t. Her family relationships had been too contentious, and only a few of her family members would speak with me. Her friends told me different stories, but ultimately, the only thing I could say about her was that she was sick and didn’t get the care she needed. On the night of a Footsteps Thanksgiving celebration, I returned home to news that Faigy’s older sister, Sara, who was religious and had just been released from a psychiatric facility, had hanged herself in her parents’ home.

Shmuly was among the Footsteps members who knew Faigy. By the time of her memorial service, he had been O.T.D. for several years, having understood since elementary school that there was a world beyond 60th Street in Borough Park, Brooklyn. All he ever wanted was to know more about it. He was afraid of being married off after high school and so went to Israel for yeshiva (and then to India and then to Thailand) and staved off marital offers, until one day he found Footsteps and enrolled in the G.E.D. course there.

Shmuly had known he wanted to go to college ever since he was sneak-reading $7 best sellers he found on the rack at Duane Reade. He loved the story “The Cop and the Anthem,” by O. Henry; he read the abridged version of “The Call of the Wild” over and over. But his school would not release his transcripts for college applications, and so he spent a year of intense study in the computer labs at Footsteps, starting with the English language and basic long division and ending with his G.E.D. He couldn’t learn enough about philosophy and art. He loved the 20th-century avant-garde, like secessionist art and Dadaism; he loved the tension between the old and new ideas of the art world, and how certain art was rejected as if it were corrupting or dangerous. He enrolled at Hunter College to study art history.

He’s 27 now, tall and smiley and soft-spoken and polite. His English is noticeably inflected with Yiddish: His T is aspirated and dentalized instead of glottalized — in “certain” and “button,” he pronounces the T, whereas most Americans just swallow it in the back of our mouths. His O vowel is less diphthongized than most American speech, and he tends to avoid contractions. He says words like “hair” and “bear” as “hear” and “beer.” It doesn’t bother Shmuly that he sounds different; “Yiddish is very hipster now,” he says.

I also met Malky, who knew Faigy Mayer but hadn’t been close with her. Malky was from a prominent family who lived in an Israeli community so strict that when tourists walked through in short sleeves and shorts, they literally stoned them. In the summer, Malky would complain about the black tights she had to wear, how hot a Middle Eastern July could be, and her mother would say, “Well, hell is hotter.” When they moved to the States, Malky taught art classes to ultra-Orthodox children and wore skirts that were not black, and this marked her as a difficult marital match. Finally her parents found someone who would marry her, but Malky took one look at him and said no. It wasn’t her choice, though. Her parents, whom she loved very much, promised her to this man anyway. “Who’s going to want you?” she remembers her father, who was equally bereft, telling her. “You’re 22. You’re wearing green skirts. We had no choice.”

Malky planned to kill herself before her wedding. Six weeks before the big day, or her “deadline,” as she calls it, she read an article in an Israeli newspaper about Footsteps. She called the group and told the counselor who answered that her parents were going to marry her off, and the counselor asked, “Well, what do you want?” Nobody had ever asked her this before. She went through with the wedding, because she loved her family and couldn’t imagine that they didn’t deep down know what was best for her in a way that she didn’t.

Her parents told her that she would get used to the man once she was married. On her wedding night, as her husband approached her, Malky ran to the bathroom and cut her gums, smearing the blood on her underwear and coming out and saying she couldn’t consummate the marriage because she had her period. The day after her wedding, Malky went to her parents’ house, and her mother shaved her head, a custom in some sects. Malky begged her mother to let her come home, but her mother pleaded with her to make her marriage work. Malky continued to refuse her husband, and after seven weeks, she again found Footsteps.

She left her husband, got a divorce and went to live on her own, but she remains vexed by her love for her family and her fear of embarrassing them. She’s an artist now, but for the longest time she wouldn’t put her name on her paintings or participate in an art show, because she knew how much that would damage her family’s reputation. On Friday nights she covered her head and walked over to her parents’ house, where her nieces and nephews would ask where her husband was and why she didn’t have children. She still goes every Friday night, but they don’t ask anymore.

“Do you know when people are in love and they say, ‘This person is going to kill me, he’s not good for me,’ and then they never want to break up?” she asked me. She cried and shook her head helplessly. When we spoke, her hair was curly, and highlighted, but still growing in after being shaved. “This is what I have with my family. It’s like, I love them so much, but they are horrible for me. They stop me in everything in my life.”

Three and a half years ago, Shmuly and Malky met at a Footsteps-sponsored birthday party, and they became friends and running partners. Shmuly realized he thought of Malky as more than a friend, but Malky wouldn’t consider a romantic relationship with him; she told me she couldn’t allow herself to belong to a man ever again.

My mother became Hasidic when I was 12, after years of only desultory High Holy Days observance (my parents were divorced), and I was sent to yeshiva high school and Orthodox summer camps. My sisters followed and became religious, too; none of us were ever forced into any of it, which is why my sisters’ religiousness baffled me. My mother has long told me that she did it because she wanted her daughters to have a life that wasn’t cheap and immodest — that she found secular culture was becoming too crass; my sisters tell me it makes their lives more meaningful. Almost 30 years later, I still challenge them on this in a way that they must find tedious but are kind to me about.

It was clear to everyone that religious practice just never took with me, and I waited out my time in my house until the day I left for college, when I swore I’d never wear a skirt again or rush around in anticipation of sundown on a supposed day of rest. I swore I would rid myself of the vestiges of what was taught to me, which was to be afraid of an angry God who made me a certain way and then disavowed that way in the hope that I’d be some ideal of a person who committed arbitrary acts of blind devotion — eating kosher food only; not turning the lights on during Saturdays; not wearing linen and wool together, which is an actual and serious Torah law. I’ve been only marginally successful in keeping this oath.

I was taught that I was innately bad and that I had to work at these rules in order to become something approaching good. In the ultra-​Orthodox school I attended in ninth grade, I was taught to use the bathroom quickly, lest my exposed unmentionables lead me to sinful acts of self-examination. I left that school, but in a more modern one, I received more or less the same lessons. I was taught that humans were the ultimate intellectuals, unless you asked questions that extended beyond what was in the Torah. I was taught that if I ever ate a legume or a piece of risen wheat on Passover, my children would be cut off from their legacy as Jews. No one knew for sure what that meant, but over the years, the collected guesses I got from teachers included: infertility, miscarriage and having to watch my children die before I did. I no longer keep a strict version of Passover, yet each time a legume passes my lips during those eight days, I wonder if I should be hedging my bets, and so an internal war flares inside me over some hummus. After years of confused and at times contentious discussion, my husband and I now identify as something like Conservative Jews; we are incredibly ambivalent but active (read: dues-paying) members of a synagogue.

When I left Orthodoxy, there was some shock of re-entry into regular society, even though I never really left it. I had negotiated to keep a TV in my mother’s house, and my mother, may God and all the rabbis whose graves she prays over bless her a million times, understood that fundamentalism wasn’t something I could get behind. So I watched “Beverly Hills, 90210,” and “Twin Peaks” and “A Different World” to see how regular secular Americans related to one another.

I had friends who weren’t as lucky — some who had to change out of pants into skirts as they rode the elevators up to their apartments as teenagers; some who still can’t visit their parents on a holiday if they’re going to drive. And yet even under my best-case-scenario O.T.D. circumstances, so much of my previous life remained part of me that even when I didn’t wear a skirt and even when I didn’t observe Shabbat and even when I just went right out and ate nonkosher foods like shrimp, the fears and worries persisted that I was doing something wrong, that I had only departed because there was something lazy about me, that I was too prone to evil inclinations. Even in my lucky circumstances I am left with flickers of superstition and magical thinking, no matter how long it has been since I’ve realized that most of what I was taught as a child is not something I agree with as an adult. And still, every night, I place my hand over my sleeping children’s eyes and I recite the Shema bedtime prayer on their behalf. Every year, I fast on Yom Kippur and apologize for the ways I can’t bring myself to be what I was told God wanted. I do it just in case, or because I’m a coward, or at least because I’m not as courageous as your garden-variety Footsteps member. All of which is to say that I don’t know if it will ever feel normal.

On the night Faigy Mayer died, her body lay on Fifth Avenue until it was wrapped up with all the blood and tissue around it, according to Jewish tradition, and sent to Borough Park to her bewildered parents and their local funeral home. Women from the community stayed with her body all night, washing and guarding it. Others would organize weeks’ worth of meals for the family, and the community would come to their home to pray for seven days.

The morning of Faigy’s funeral, her father stood up next to the wooden box that held her body. Her O.T.D. friends weren’t allowed into the service at first, but one of them spoke to the bouncerlike guy at the front and assured him, in Yiddish, that they didn’t want any trouble. They just wanted to mourn their friend. Before Faigy’s father began the eulogy in Yiddish, he addressed them, notable for their lack of black hats and their lack of beards. “Thank you very much for coming,” he said. “I didn’t prepare anything in English, and I’m sorry.”

After the funeral, the cedar box that held Faigy’s body was taken to New Jersey, off a main road in view of a Coca-Cola bottling plant, where she was buried among other Hasidim, which, it seems safe to say, is exactly where she never wanted to be. The gravestone carries an acrostic of her name, talking about how she suffered, how good she was. One line reads, “May the psalms she read with such devotion bring peace to her dear soul.” When I visited the site, next to her was a freshly filled grave with a temporary marker for her sister, Sara. The two graves were a sight that, though I knew to expect it, made me step backward and put one hand to my mouth. I said Kaddish from muscle memory, though I’m sorry for it, because I feel fairly certain Faigy wouldn’t have wanted that, either.

When her friends left her funeral, one of them noted what a “pageant” the whole ceremony was, and then they went to a pizza place that she loved, to remember her. Some of them later took a train to the city, to the place where Faigy’s body had landed, the site of her last stand against this life. They grew quiet and somber all over again, and they found themselves wondering if you could ever really escape the circumstances you were born into. What if it doesn’t get besser? What if hell is hotter? They had only one another to help answer these questions. In that way, Footsteps is a lot like the organized religion it’s designed to help its members transition out of: Each exists to make sense of an utterly baffling world. But whereas religion seeks to reassure you that you’re not alone, Footsteps seeks to reassure you when you realize that you are.

Malky had planned to go to dinner the next night, with Shmuly and another friend, at the French restaurant Daniel for her birthday. Malky and Shmuly loved learning about new foods and wine outside ritual use. But the day came, and Malky felt that having such an extravagant meal in light of the news was unseemly. When she called the restaurant to reschedule, however, she learned that it was booked so far out that they weren’t taking new reservations. They kept the date.

That night, they luxuriated in the lives that they were somehow still living, having come out on the other side of something. So much had happened to them, but they were young, and one day, the years of living the lives they wanted would outnumber the years they’d lived the lives they didn’t want. They drank five bottles of wine among the three of them, and when it was time to go home, Malky and Shmuly decided to take a yellow cab back to Brooklyn instead of a train. They stopped first to drop off Malky before heading to Shmuly’s house, but when Malky got out of the car, she asked Shmuly if he wanted to come upstairs with her. He left the car, and she took his hand and led him up the stairs, and he has remained there, with her, ever since.

To see more documents/articles regarding this group/organization/subject click here.

Educational DVDs and Videos