Oprah Magazine has a new story about Footsteps, the organization that helps people transition from the Ultra Orthodox world into the secular world.
On my tour, we often get to see why it is so hard. We discuss the many facets of economic life in the Hasidic community: the community growth rate means a lot of new internal jobs in specialized fields like the Hasidic schools, the kosher food, the modest clothing, the kosher technology, the censored entertainment, and on and on and on. I can list hundreds of economic opportunities that exist within the Hasidic community for its members: from matchmaker to sofer to hotline maker to music sensation to being hired by a sibling into real estate to B&H Photo — the list (which I’ll put together one day) goes on and on. Yet when you leave, you lose all of these opportunities. Pretty much all of them. But if you want to try to get in line for the opportunities in the secular world, good luck. You have very little of the “vocational training” (ie college) that we need to do anything in our degree inflated western world. So as a Hasidic Expat you are so far behind in the pipeline, you’ll never get a chance. I think this economic factor is the biggest reason people don’t leave.
There is a tremendous need for support. I cannot overstate it. I’m nine years since leaving and I still feel like the ice could crack and I could fall through into the freezing darkness any minute now. And when I first left, I thought that Footsteps would be the answer. In fact, in this video produced by Footsteps, you’ll see me tell about my experience — which was of course for the donors: we did this with the expressed understanding that we were helping the cause and that with our telling our stories, Footsteps will get the money to be able to make the journey for others easier.
By the way, that art piece on the wall of the pregnant woman is mine! It’s called The Scarlet Letter A, I believe. I made it for a Footsteps Art Show (another project I believed would somehow help the cause) and never picked it up afterwards.
Over the years, I got to know Footsteps really well. I came to understand how their funding model works and who their donors are and what the donors want to see. This was because I did quite a bit of the same speaking for them. In the first few years, I would take a babysitter and pay for the trip to the city and not get paid for the time and effort, but eventually I worked with them through my tours and then I’d be a contractor and send them an invoice. Over time I came to feel very frustrated with how concerned they were with impressing their donors, and how little it was about tangible assistance. I slowly started to hear less and less from them, and I haven’t given a tour for them in a long time. Last I spoke to Lani Santos (the executive director) she said something to the effect of “tours in Williamsburg is an extremely important component of our donor education and since you’re such a difficult and negative biatch and don’t fargin us our big fundraising dallas, we might just set up a competing tour shop in Williamsburg so we can take our gasping rich ladies through the street and show them how nutty it all is.” Hah! It wasn’t like that, but I think we both understood we had competing priorities in our work: I sought to educate, she sought to fundraise, and my tours were not working for them.
Still, I have seen people go through the organization in their transition and I remain concerned. Who is there to make sure that what they do with the money they fundraise is well-spent?
The members certainly cannot speak up. First of all, Hasidic charity is real and generous and it takes many years to unravel the faith in purported charity which is really modern philanthropy. Also, people don’t want to see the negative in Footsteps because they feel loyal to the side that is speaking up against the religious community. That, however, doesn’t mean that there isn’t plenty to be critical about. There is a very blatant quid pro quo and members who praise them get attention, awards, jobs, media engagements. I have no doubt that if I kept saying the right thing then they’d connect me with so many tour opportunities, I’d never even have time to write these silly posts. I definitely believe I’ve been punished and suffered losses as a result of my asking hard questions about if Footsteps focuses its efforts more on impressing donors and building their brand than actually helping members.
Who else is to look under the hood? It won’t be the donors. Why would they care? And it obviously isn’t the media, which writes the same thing every time: the story of the oppressed person who fled, the before and after pictures, the Footsteps space. This is the closest the Oprah piece came to asking hard questions:
Footsteps is infamous among the hundreds of thousands of Haredim in the U.S., regarded by some as a dangerous influence, by others as an insidious evil. (When someone leaves the community, the ultra-Orthodox sometimes say the person “joined Footsteps.”) The organization has been accused of actively tempting people away from their comfortable Haredi lives. In fact, the group does no advertising or proselytizing in the community and doesn’t require members to renounce religion in order to use its services or participate in get-togethers. “We don’t care if people just come in for a scholarship,” says Friedlin. “We don’t care if they go back to Hasidism afterward. We don’t have an agenda. And contrary to the rumors, we don’t force men to cut off their peyes [curly sidelocks], nor do we feed anyone bacon as part of an initiation rite,” she says with a laugh. “We just want people to have choices.”
Essentially, it’s a preemptive defense, but a weak one at that. Footsteps has told a very dark story about Hasidim, and it’s branded itself as the panacea to the challenges of leaving, so Hasidim do think they are the link between worlds. Some resent the organization for it, true, but some — those who want to leave — put all their hopes on them too. This is a problem in its own right. Essentially, the organization tells donor facing stories without reckoning with how these stories impact those in the Hasidic community who hear it.
I think the important questions to ask are how the organization delivers. In 2017 it reported on its 990 to have raised 2.28 million dollars, and spent pretty much the bulk of it on salaries and compensations. $393,410 went to direct client compensation; a pittance.
My concern, at its core, is not so much in how the funding is spent as in what it means to be so completely donor facing. A lot of things the organization does seems to me to be for the purpose of impressing donors and brand building more so than helping people not sink in this horribly hard world.
A common theme we discuss on the tours often is how surprising it is that Hasidim don’t ask hard questions about why customs are practiced. For those of us who leave, asking hard questions is everything, and blind faith just won’t do. I think it’s important to keep asking hard questions, especially uncomfortable ones.