New York's Chasidic rebels learn to be secular

By Rebecca Schischa , April 8, 2010

Right in the heart of Manhattan is an unusual refuge - a place where New York's 'Chasidic rebels' gather to socialise, meet and learn.

Footsteps, which runs the centre, is the only organisation that exists outside Israel to provide defectors from the Chasidic community with the practical and emotional support they need to make it in mainstream society.

"People don't come to Footsteps for sex, drugs and rock'n'roll," says executive director Paula Winnig. "They're with us because they want to learn."

Footsteps was set up in 2003 by Malkie Schwartz, a young woman from the Lubavitch community who, in the process of becoming secular, realised how much support others in her position needed. It provides career and college guidance and training in basic computer skills. It also provides peer support meetings, social events, and a library and computer lab.

Critics from the Chasidic community allege that the group tries to turn Chasidim approaching it away from religion. Ms Winnig denies this, saying, "we're not trying to lure anyone away from their communities. We make participants see the real pluses and minuses they'll face with leaving.

Just four years ago, Sam only spoke Yiddish

"We get fairly frequent calls from the UK and other countries," she adds.

They are considering creating an online chat group to reach out to these Chasidic defectors overseas.

At least 550 people have used Footsteps's services since it was set up in 2003, but there is no way of knowing how many Chasids are struggling to leave their communities.

However, it is clear that male "rebels" vastly outnumber their female counterparts. Ms Winnig says there are three men to every woman at Footsteps, and suggests this may be partly connected to the fact that Charedi men tend to be less educated in secular subjects than women. She adds that women may also be less able to access the organisation's services which are open only to those over 18 - an age at which many Chasidic women are already married.

Sam is a clean-shaven, articulate 20-year-old university student and Footsteps participant. Just four months ago, however, he was dressed in full Chasidic garb, with peyot and a beard. Just four years ago, he barely spoke English, only Yiddish: "I was able to buy a bottle of milk, that's about it."

Hailing from Brooklyn's Satmar community, Sam says his journey began five years ago. "I just wanted to read. I used to go to libraries, it was a good escape. But if you'd told me that libraries would lead to me going to university, I would have stopped."

He came to Footsteps, unusually, through his father, a Chasidic defector himself, who moved over from Satmar to modern Orthodoxy. Nowadays, he hides his secular lifestyle from his mother (his parents are divorced).

He is relatively well adjusted, however, compared to Sholom, a 35-year-old former Skver Chasid, who used to attend Footsteps's social events. Living in the strictly-Orthodox town of New Square in upstate New York, Sholom's realisation that he no longer believed in God led to a messy divorce and estrangement from his five children.

He turned to blogging as an outlet, achieving minor celebrity status with his Hasidic Rebel blog. Matters came to a head when word spread that Sholom was having wayward thoughts. He was "summoned" to a rabbinical court and effectively ordered to leave New Square. "I'm now secular to the point of almost believing in nothing," he says, "but when you spend your whole life immersed in religion, it's very hard to find something to replace that."

This is the struggle many former Chasidim face - they still feel strong cultural ties with their upbringing, but no longer belong. "I was born a Chasid, I'll die a Chasid," says Sholom. "It's something that's in you."

Last updated: 1:27pm, April 8 2010