Stepping Off the Path and Redefining Faith

The New York Times/October 17, 2014

By Samuel G. Freedman

The cantor closed his eyes and lifted his voice into Kol Nidre, the prayer that begins Yom Kippur, the holiest day on the Jewish calendar. The young men and women assembled before him, perhaps 80 in all, instantly recognized the plaintive chant. They had known it for their entire lives.

Some responded with a wistful gaze, as if Kol Nidre conjured the memory of distant sweetness. A few laughed, finding the somber liturgy ridiculous. Several glared with fresh anger, fisted hands in their laps, not applauding with the others when the cantor concluded.

This was not the night of Yom Kippur. It was the night before, Oct. 2, and the ceremony being held in a Lower Manhattan office building was called New Beginnings. The de facto congregants wore leggings and sleeveless dresses and flannel shirts; they had tattoos and uncovered heads and clean-shaven cheeks.

In one respect, though, Kol Nidre could not have struck a more fitting tone for the evening. Its words ask for the worshipers to be released of all vows, obligations and oaths. These men and women knew about such things firsthand. They had broken their bonds to the enveloping, insular Orthodox Jewish communities of their upbringing — some Hasidic, others of a legalistic stringency known colloquially as “Yeshivish.” Their separate, lonely walkabouts had led them to Footsteps, an organization that for the past decade has helped Jews like them make the transition into the enticing, bewildering, intimidating outside world.

The cantor, Shmully Blesofsky, had left the Lubavitcher Hasidic enclave of Crown Heights six years earlier at age 26. He went on to earn a high school equivalency diploma and watch episodes of “Friends” to learn about secular people his age. He taught himself photography and entered Brooklyn College to major in history. While Mr. Blesofsky still supported himself partly as a cantor for a Conservative synagogue, his faith consisted of, as he wryly put it, “trying to believe in Shmully.”

Soon after Mr. Blesofsky finished Kol Nidre, with the room scented with the dinner aroma of roast chicken and matzo ball soup, the floor was opened to anyone who wanted to report on a milestone from the past year. A woman in a leopard-print shirt, polka-dot skirt and two nose rings spoke first. She announced that she had her first solo art exhibition in a real gallery.

Her name was Sara Erenthal, and she had been raised between Israel and New York in the Neturei Karta sect. The group is controversial to mainstream Jews, whether religious or secular, for its conspicuous anti-Zionism and renunciation of Israel, which has included having its leaders meet with Iran’s president at the time, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

For Ms. Erenthal, though, the most objectionable parts of Neturei Karta were more personal. As a girl, she was not allowed to learn Torah, ride a bike, wear the color red, chat with her male cousins. When her parents presented her with an arranged marriage at age 17, she bolted, hiding with complicit relatives and friends until she could enlist in the Israeli Army. Several years later, she made it to New York and Footsteps.

“I always knew I wanted to be different,” she said in a recent interview, “but I didn’t know it was possible. I’d think, maybe I can be more modern, maybe I can marry someone who’s not extreme, maybe I can be in a more open-minded community. It was a nice fantasy. I just didn’t think it could be reality.”

The experiences of Ms. Erenthal and Mr. Blesofsky are not merely individual acts of emancipation. They fit into a broader social phenomenon of rebellion against the fundamentalist forms of Orthodox Judaism, a rebellion that is both a reversal of recent demographic trends and a re-enactment of historical ones.

Jewish immigration to the United States was largely predicated on the movement away from Orthodox practice — into socialism or Zionism or trade unionism or Yiddish culture or just plain individualism. The millions of Jews who left Eastern Europe from 1880 to 1924 had already left their traditional religious mores, or were willing to put them at risk in a polyglot country. By the 1990s, Orthodox Jews were only about 10 percent of this nation’s Jewish population.

Yet in the last generation, the Hasidic and Yeshivish types of Orthodoxy have unexpectedly boomed in the United States, becoming more numerous and influential. More than one-quarter of American Jews younger than 18 live in Orthodox households, a 2013 study by the Pew Research Center found, and Hasidic and Yeshivish families have the highest birthrate of all.

Such statistics tended to obscure the countertrend of young people leaving the fervently Orthodox world. Yet that process has produced its own intellectual and artistic infrastructure, with bloggers such as Shmarya Rosenberg ( and Shulem Deen (, memoirists like Deborah Feldman (“Unorthodox”) and Shalom Auslander (“Foreskin’s Lament”), and the cartoonist Frieda Vizel (

By now, the movement even has its own name and proper noun: Off the Derech. The Hebrew word for “path” or “way,” derech carries an even more specific religious connotation. In the synagogue and yeshiva, it means the correct way, the observant way, the devout way, the only way.

One of those who stepped off it in the early 2000s was Malkie Schwartz, the eldest child from a Lubavitcher family in Brooklyn. In 2003, she began what would become Footsteps as an informal drop-in group for people like herself trying to exit from stringently Orthodox society.

“Malkie wasn’t going to try to influence anyone to abandon the Hasidic community, or the Jewish religion, for that matter,” the sociologist Hella Winston wrote in her book “Unchosen: The Hidden Lives of Hasidic Rebels.” “And she wasn’t going to go into Hasidic neighborhoods and advertise or recruit. But, for people who might otherwise be at risk for all kinds of serious problems, she was going to offer a safe and supportive environment in which to ask questions, explore their options, and make their own decisions.”

Since its founding, Footsteps has grown into an organization with an annual budget of $850,000, most of it from foundations and individual donors, according to its director, Lani Santo. It has served about 800 people, with the annual number of intakes steadily growing. And it has offered programs that virtually any Jew not from the Hasidic or Yeshivish subcultures would take for granted: classes in math and evolution, lessons in how to flirt, workshops on preparing a résumé, camping trips, Thanksgiving dinners, art exhibits.

Speaking of art, Ms. Erenthal’s solo show included a fabric portrait of a woman clad in a kerchief, apron and drab dress buttoned to the neck and wrists. Ms. Erenthal thinks of it as the person she would be, had she submitted to the arranged marriage. Escaping that destiny cost her a family — she said that she never hears from her father and resists her mother’s attempts at contact — but gained her something else.

“I’ve been through so much, but I’ve put myself out into the world,” she said. “I want to show people, especially as an artist now, that you can push hard and despite everything, get someplace.”

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