May we do better
I have the privilege of working at Footsteps where we have spent twenty years lighting up paths that at first seemed impossible to navigate. Our mission is to support those who make the decision to leave their communities and live as their authentic selves.
For many, this time of year is a time to reflect on how we can do better, prompted by the changing seasons, heading back to school or rooted in ritual connection to the holidays. We take an accounting of how we live our lives, and consider the ways we want to change for the upcoming year. We look at ourselves and our relationships – and reflect on how we can be a better friend, partner, family member or leader.
This particular year, the time of reflection finds me overwhelmed with disappointment and even devastation at segments of the Jewish community: the systemic denial of education to tens of thousands of Hasidic children, discrimination by Yeshiva University against queer students, and the dismissal of a highly qualified teacher by an Orthodox day school in Brooklyn — because she is trans. No matter what community you align yourself to, it is painful to see Jews tossing young people aside who by no choice of their own exist on the communal margins.
There are many ways to react to this misalignment of values and community. Some people may feel that they want to throw up their hands and retreat or bury the hopeless feelings because they feel like it’s not appropriate or their responsibility.
I would argue that we must each believe in our power to create change.
I have the privilege of working at Footsteps where we have spent 20 years lighting up paths that at first seemed impossible to navigate. Our mission is to support those who make the decision to leave their communities and live as their authentic selves. They come to us with a myriad of needs: unstable or unsafe housing, limited education and skills to navigate the world, and some are threatened with the loss of their children. We create a supportive, loving community for those who have been cast out or who have never felt accepted by those around them.
We join with many other institutions in this work, including Jewish Queer Youth (JQY) and Yaffed. JQY supports queer Orthodox youth who seek a connection to to Judaism without feeling isolated and ostracized. Yaffed’s work ensures that Hasidic children are not denied the basics of education.
Despite the immense barriers that the larger communities and institutions put up with the intention of self-preservation, individuals find ways to support each other and build new lives. I commend both JQY and Yaffed, amongst many other organizations, for having the “holy chutzpah” to stand up for individual rights in the face of powerful institutions.
As we enter this new year, may we each pay attention to those in our midst who may feel they need to hide their hopes and dreams, may we work to bring them to the center of our communities with pride and compassion. And if we feel we cannot bring them to the center of our communities, let us reexamine how we define community, and reshape our spaces to welcome individuals who may have felt cast out of their communities of origin.
May we do better in the year ahead.
Lani Santo is CEO, of New York City-based Footsteps, which provides services for those who have left Haredi communities.