Footsteps is a Jewish organization that helps Hasidic Jews wishing to leave their ultra-orthodox community become integrated members of secular society and work through the profound difficulties of leaving behind their past and, in most cases, being disowned by their families.
PBS and A Journey Through NYC Religions report the varying responses of current members of the Hasidic community and individuals who have chosen a new way of life.
Sol Feuerwerker is glad he left.
I think that’s what surprises most people, you know, most outsiders, is that how can something this insular be happening right here in the middle of New York City. You know, as I’ve moved farther away from it, it kind of shocks me too actually.
There’s this whole, like belief or narrative in the community that if you, if you try to break away or change you will fail and you won’t be happy and you’ll just end up on drugs.
“Their structured lifestyle,” says Lucky Severson of Religion & Ethics NewsWeekly, “seems to work for the majority. But, for some, the lack of choices is too rigid . . . Hasidic groups remain some of the most insular religious sects in the U.S.”
Of course, many outsiders view the Catholic and Protestant churches, and even not-so-orthodox religious communities as “insular.” Any group that asks certain loyalties of its members and sets itself apart from the rest of the world is in some way “insular.” By this definition every sovereign country is “insular.” And the idea that a member who leaves “will fail” and “won’t be happy” holds much truth. The kind of suffering caused by such a break is no small matter.
As Samuel Heilman, a Jewish scholar at Queens College, notes,
They have everything that makes up a culture: social norms, language, a career pattern in life. Even the ones who leave say that there are aspects of their lives that they left behind that they miss. To go to a Hasidic gathering and to sing the songs and to dance in the circle and to be enfolded into the community, and to hear your voice in a chorus of other voices. This is a tremendously exciting experience . . .
The organization was founded “not to proselytize but to provide counsel and support to those who want to explore life outside the confines of the world in which they were raised.” One need not think ill of hasidic Judaism to see the value of such a service for those who find it necessary to leave.
Footsteps says that it has assisted “over 700 altogether so far, a majority are young men.” Yet compare this trickle with a 60 percent increase in Hasidic membership overall in the U.S. and Canada and it begins to seem that the majority are quite content in their confines.