Taking the First ‘Foot’ Step

In February 2009 we introduced our readers to Footsteps, a New York organization that assists individuals transitioning from ultra-Orthodox communities into the broader society.

Several months earlier, I had met Malkie Schwartz, learned part of her story and about the important work Footsteps was engaged in. Here, is an excerpt from the moving story of Malkie’s personal transition and the beginnings of an organization that would ultimately be called Footsteps.

The Departed
by Orli Santo

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 was 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 clothing 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 a positive 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.

A Hebrew version of this article appeared in Yedioth Ahronoth America.