A New Life, One Footstep at a Time

The decision to leave their communities for the wider world is a difficult one for members of ultra-Orthodox groups.  Even more difficult is making the actual transition. Most have little or no experience with mainstream society, and their schooling has been severely limited by the strictures of their sect. How do they get jobs without a real-world education? Without work, how can they survive?

Fortunately, there’s a dedicated, highly effective support group to help answer those questions. It is called Footsteps, and it was established at Hunter College by a courageous young woman named Malkie Schwartz during her undergraduate years.

Malkie’s own journey into mainstream society was aided by a secularized grandmother who took her in and exposed her to everyday experiences like going to the movies. She encouraged Malkie to attend Hunter where she encountered several other students who also had left the Orthodox world but were extremely reluctant to discuss it, often out of a sense of shame. Convinced that they needed to form a support group, she organized a meeting, using campus flyers and word of mouth to promote it.

That first gathering in 2003 attracted only 20 students, but the news “spread like wildfire,” in Malkie’s words. The response became so great that she eventually took the group citywide and gave it its name, Footsteps. It now has some 1,100 members across North America and offers help to the hundreds of men and women who each year leave ultra-Orthodox communities. The services range from social and emotional support, to educational and vocational guidance.

We at Hunter are proud to be Footsteps’ birthplace. We’ve maintained our ties and taken important measures to sustain its work, providing the students who are making this difficult transition with stipends, mentoring, tutoring and every other form of assistance that we can.

The experiences of two Hunter undergraduates describe it best. Solomon Feuerwerker is the youngest of 11 children from an ultra-Orthodox family in Brooklyn.  As a youngster, he decided he wanted to become a doctor, but that meant leaving the only life he had ever known to join the secular world. That difficult journey brought him to Footsteps, which helped him enroll at Hunter where, at age 19, he was overwhelmed by how much he didn’t know.  “I had absolutely no knowledge or understanding of algebra, biology, chemistry, physics or history,” he said. “I did not even know that all living things were made up of cells.”

He started out as a C student, but persistence and hard work eventually earned him As. He graduated with a degree in sociology, a 3.4 GPA and a position teaching organic chemistry at Hunter – a subject he’d learned only four years before. Now he is enrolled in the Thomas Jefferson University Medical School and on his way to becoming a doctor, just as he once dreamed.

Deena Chanowitz grew up in a Hasidic household in Jerusalem. Her girls school education covered just two subjects: religious studies and homemaking. Her family eventually moved to New York where she was given a choice: Conform to the Orthodox life or leave. And so at the age of 14, knowing no one in the outside world, she left, a homeless high school dropout. Yet by age 17 she was managing a restaurant. By 20, she co-owned one. By 25, she had become a private chef. That’s when she enrolled at Hunter and discovered the Footsteps support network. When she graduated last January at age 33, she was one of three valedictorians with perfect 4.0 GPAs. She, too, plans to become a doctor and is enrolled in the Vermont College of Medicine.

Malkie Schwartz, by the way, has gone on to become a lawyer and now serves as the Director of Community Engagement for the Institute of Southern Jewish Life.

In any large, complex society there will always be people who feel trapped in a life they want to leave. To do so, they often need help from groups like Footsteps.  That’s why Hunter takes such pride in having fostered this organization and in nurturing students like Malkie, Solomon and Deena. And that is why it is so important to tell their stories:  All the others like them need to know that they are not alone.