Sunday, February 08, 2009

Dispelling some myths about Footsteps

Last night on the radio (and online) was a talkshow in which Zev Brenner interviewed Malkie Schwartz, the founder of Footsteps. Also present was Michael Jenkins, director of programming at Footsteps. Footsteps is an organization designed to assist people who have left the ultra-orthodox world and are trying to integrate into the general mainstream society. They provide educational resources, such as GED and college tutoring, scholarships, assistance with the college application process, and more. Another area they help people with is employment assistance (interview workshops, resume writing assistance, job placements, etc.). They also provide social services, such as support groups, counseling, mentoring, referrals, etc. Most importantly, what Footsteps provides is a new support structure that helps people whose traditional familial and communal network no longer exists to assist them in undergoing what can be a most traumatic and trying time in their lives. The list of services they provide is too long to go through here; you can check out their website at, or give them a call to find out more. If you'd like to listen to the entire interview with Brenner, it is available to be downloaded here.

At the start of the interview, Brenner immediately asked them the commonly heard question of "Why don’t you have someone on staff who is presenting the religious argument to the people who come to you? Why only have non-religious people?" Although Malkie tried explaining that Footsteps does not push any agenda either way, neither to leave religion or to stay, Brenner kept getting all hung up on that, repeatedly harping on the fact that if they are truly neutral then people should be presented with a religious perspective when coming to discuss their situation with Footsteps.

What Brenner, and the frum callers (and I imagine, most of the frum world), seem unable to appreciate is that while Footsteps does have a clear agenda (which is to assist those who are trying to leave religiosity), it can still be, and most definitely is, neutral in regards to whether people should leave or stay in the first place. Frum people need to understand that unlike kiruv organizations that attempt to persuade people to become (or stay) frum, Footsteps simply does not take a position on that issue. They do not encourage people to leave. Nor do they encourage people to stay. What Footsteps is designed to do is to try to help those people who have already decided to leave get whatever help they need to achieve that. So if the person is seeking to leave, then Footsteps has a whole host of resources that are there to help the person achieve this successfully. However, if the person wants something else, something Footsteps isn’t designed to do, then they will help the person find the right resources to achieve that goal, wherever that may be. The primary goal of Footsteps is that, if you have already made the decision to leave, then there is an organization designed to assist you in accomplishing just that. But they will not advise you one way or another to take that step. Therefore there is no need for any kind of rabbi or religious figure to be present in order to present the "other" side. There simply is no need for an "other" side because there is no "initial" side being foisted on anyone.

I think that frum people have a particular hard time comprehending that because in the frum world everyone is actively, and unabashedly, trying to win over converts all the time (yes, I know, not actual non-Jewish converts). Aish Hatorah, Ohr Somayach, and all the countless other kiruv programs out there all go to great lengths to win people over. All the "kids at risk" programs (by the way, we hate that appellation) don't ever present the option of being non-religious to the individuals they are reaching out to. Although they might at times be tactful enough not to say it outright, everyone knows that there is ultimately an unambiguous agenda at these institutions, which is to make as many people as they possibly can frum (preferably the black-hat, yeshivish kind). So it’s understandable that a frum person would think that an organization that helps people leave frumkeit is operating under the same assumptions, just in the other direction. But this notion is simply wrong.

That being said, there are admittedly people who come to Footsteps who may not yet have come to an absolute decision that they will permanently leave the community. They may feel they want to leave but are wracked with guilt about how it will affect their family. Or they may face social pressures which obligate them to stay. It may simply be that they believe a lot of the propaganda that they have been told about how anyone who leaves is destined for a life of unhappiness (this sentiment was echoed by a number of the callers). Even in such situations, Footsteps does not encourage the person to leave, but what they instead do is to try to help the person come to a clearer decision if this is what is right for them. Obviously, there is no denying that the atmosphere at Footsteps is going to be more conducive towards leaving the community, but this is not because of any overt pressure or coercion to choose that path. There is in fact effort made to do just the opposite, to ensure that the atmosphere at their programs is not overtly hostile towards those who have not fully committed to the path that most of the participants have already embarked on. Admittedly, sometimes it may be difficult to maintain this tone (considering the feelings and experiences of most of the participants), but it is always something that they as an organization strive for. Indeed, as Malkie mentioned in the interview, there are a small number of people who have decided to return to (or remain in) the religious community after being involved with Footsteps, and I can attest to this fact. For those people who want to maintain aspects of religiosity in their life, Footsteps is more than happy to help them do so. For example, I have a friend from Footsteps that expressed an interest in finding a nice shabbos meal to go to, and efforts were made to set them up at a nice, "open-minded", frum family that would be ok with their level of religiosity.

Another important point that was only touched on in their discussion was that the people who come to Footsteps are not kids. They are all adults, at least 18 years of age, and most are probably in their twenties. More importantly, almost all these people have already extensively been through the exercise that Brenner is suggesting Footsteps provide. These people didn’t just wake up one day and decide to suddenly call Footsteps because they were having a particular frustrating day in yeshiva. They have already been through months, if not years, of agonizing deliberations on this decision. They’ve had heartfelt talks with friends and family, been brought to top rabbis who were supposed to enlighten them to the truth, been sent to Israel to be "fixed up", been forced to sit through Discovery programs and other kiruv efforts. They've been threatened, cajoled, and even bribed. They’ve already had countless discussions with religious figures presenting "the frum side" of this choice. There is nothing to be gained by having them go through another frustrating, demoralizing experience of being told that they should still try to remain religious.

Amazingly, Brenner spent almost 20 minutes obsessing about the fact that Footsteps provides non-kosher food, even claiming that it would be more neutral to provide only kosher food than to give people a choice. I’m not sure why he thinks that presenting only one of two options is more fair than presenting both options but it seems clear that he’s missing the point: people who come to Footsteps don’t come because there’s kosher or non-kosher food. They come mainly because they are seeking an environment which will allow them to freely explore the option of leaving frumkeit, free of any judgmental attitudes towards that choice, and likewise free of any pressure to necessarily take that route. Providing kosher food at their venues allows people to feel comfortable that they are not being pressured to do something that they are not yet ok with. (Also, they didn’t get to address it in the discussion but the email which mentioned the pork and matzah thing was absolutely wrong. That "event" is NOT a Footsteps thing. Although there is some such gathering every year among certain people, Footsteps has nothing to do with that whatsoever.)

Another detail which was not fairly addressed was that a caller took them to task for coming on to a frum station, saying that an organization such as theirs has no place reaching out to the frum community. The truth is that Malkie was asked by Brenner to come on the show and not the other way around. Brenner should have corrected this misconception instead of letting Malkie take the brunt of it.

Just for the record, I want to clarify that I am speaking here as a private individual and not in any way as a representative of Footsteps, so if I have misrepresented something about Footsteps here it is my own error. I do not work for Footsteps in any official capacity and do not pretend to speak on their behalf in any way. All of the above is merely my opinion, from the perspective of a long-time, and immensely grateful, participant in the organization.


Update: Here are two related posts which provide a counterpoint to some of the misconceptions that Brenner and the frum callers seem to subscribe to: Pen Tivokeish, Chassidic Whistleblower.


rubecube said...

Well written sir. I just wrote a bit on this topic and then read yours and liked the way you tackled the "agenda vs. impartiality" topic. I took a more politically correct path and am now considering your writing as well. Some good stuff here and thanks for the upload. Perhaps a separate one for the "Best of the Commercials & News."

Chaim Gravitzer said...

Social workers are trained not to be fully human. This is a horrible diss to all the wonderful Footsteps staff, but it's true. You'll notice how they always laugh at your jokes, even if they're not funny, and always try to make you feel good, no matter what. These professionally trained social workers just help you do whatever you're trying to do and never pressure you to do anything.

I certainly feel pressure from the Footsteps participants to leave the community, but never from the staff.

RE having a rabbi on staff: Ha! Anyone with a minimal understanding of how Footsteps works would understand how that's completely unfeasible. We aren't little kids who would change our mind with a little more exposure to frumkeit. We've had more than enough exposure, thank you. We know very well what the rabbis have to offer us. We know where we want to go and only need help getting there.

Just picture if there were a rabbi/religious social worker in the Space. The Footsteppers would try to have ahavas Yisroel and just ignore the poor guy.

Chaim Gravitzer said...

Before I joined Footsteps, I did a lot of Googling, and all I found was Malkie-is-whore-who-had-a-bad-childhood junk. One good thing about this Zev Brenner show and the ensuing discussion, is that there will now be a lot more stuff about Footsteps online. So go us! Keep this discussion going!

Unsure Unfrum said...

If your gonna go fry and you have noone els in your group of friends that are heading in that direction then footsteps is worthwhile pursuing. Zev Brenner is frum, Frum people believe that those who aren't Frum are "less" people and not as good as those who are Frum. Therefore there is no discussion as per the open mindedness of Zev Browner.

The Hedyot said...

> I certainly feel pressure from the Footsteps participants to leave the community, but never from the staff.

I'm curious as to what kind of pressure you are referring to. Do you mean there is some sort of active attempt by participants to get you to choose a certain path, or are you just referring to the general attitude that some of the people there have which is overly dismissive and critical of the religious lifestyle?

Chaim Gravitzer said...

I meant the latter. Nobody ever tells me, "Hey! Why do you still have a beard?" But I feel that I don't fit in with everyone else as long as I'm still (pretending to be) frum.

Also, in Footsteps there's the meme that frying out is moral, because it means you are living according to your true beliefs.

Again, nobody ever says to me, "It's immoral and dishonest for you to lead a double life." I just think they would respect me more if I "took the plunge" already.

Baal Habos said...

Hedyot, nice post. I was going to post about this but you but you stole most of my thunder.

The Hedyot said...

> nobody ever says to me, "It's immoral and dishonest for you to lead a double life." I just think they would respect me more if I "took the plunge" already.

That's what I suspected. Like I said in the post, it's difficult to maintain a fully balanced atmosphere considering all the negative experiences so many of the participants have suffered through, but it's important to keep in mind that:
a) the attitude does not at all come from the staff, or is a result of any policy of the organization,
b) the staff makes efforts to overcome it, and
c) there is no one actually directly pressuring anyone to make any changes.

Dave said...

So, I'm curious. Has Zev Brenner ever asked Orthodox groups which cater to "kids at risk" if they have a non-religious staff to provide the option for those who are considering leaving religion?

The Hedyot said...

To be fair, he did address that point (it was in one of the emails) by saying that frum groups don't ever claim to be impartial, so there's no need to present both sides of the issue. Although I'm not quite sure if pointing out that yeshivas and kiruv organizations are not objectively honest and fair really is such a great defense...

Dave said...

But if he wants Footsteps to be "impartial", by that logic shouldn't they also include staff from a variety of religions?

The Hedyot said...

By that logic, yes, but I don't think it too wise to follow the logic of Mr. Brenner too far...

Anonymous said...

a Frum therapist- hahahahah! I went to a Frum therapist once and all I heard was "well according to the Torah you have to do this but as a therapist I would suggest that"

Frum therapists have a frum agenda and is thus rendered useless as a therapist. (unless of course you want to stay frum, which in that case therapy is not needed in the first place, because if someone finds out....... you may have to settle lol)

Anonymous said...

Brenner clearly has an agenda. They had to know that going in. He doesn't hide it. The interviewees, on the other hand refused to admit that they have an agenda, they were circumspect and purposely vague. For instance, the whole kosher food thing that Brenner spent 16 hours on started with Jenkins saying:
"Every event we have, we serve kosher food." What he didn't say was that they make kosher food available to those who want it along side the treif food. That's certainly their perogative but being so vague made them look nefarious when the caller called in about the Matzah and Ham (I think) event which they didn't deny.

There's no question that Footsteps has an agenda, that's not the problem. The problem is that they try to make to seem as if they don't. They are as slick and underhanded as the kiruv places they decry.

Baal Habos said...

> The interviewees, on the other hand refused to admit that they have an agenda, they were circumspect and purposely vague.


> That's certainly their perogative but being so vague made them look nefarious when the caller called in about the Matzah and Ham (I think) event which they didn't deny.

Double bingo!! That was very stupid of them. They lost all credibility after that faux pax.

>There's no question that Footsteps has an agenda, that's not the problem.

Agreed. Everyone has an agenda. They want to help people break away from their former lives. I don't see a problem with that.

>The problem is that they try to make to seem as if they don't.

Triple Bingo!!! They should just come out and say it.

>They are as slick and underhanded as the kiruv places they decry.

I don't know enough about it to agree with that. They don't seem to go around prosletizing, at least not that I'm aware of.

What I do know is that if I'd be in need of their services, I'd be mighty greatful they were around to provide it.

Dave said...

Sorry, but this claim of equivalence doesn't make sense to me.

"If people are looking to transition out of Orthodox Judaism, we are here to help them to the degree that they want our help."


"Every Jew should be Orthodox. We're going to convince you that we have the only path to real Judaism, and by virtue of heritage, you need to come this way."

These are not even closely comparable agendas. One is based on telling you what you need to do, and the other is based on helping you as you decide what to do.

Then again, I fail to see how offering Kosher and Treif food is less inclusive than offering Kosher alone, so I may just be irrevocably confused.

[Full disclosure: I have donated to and volunteered with Footsteps. The above is purely my opinion, not representative of the organization, etc, etc, etc]

[Edited slightly and reposted]

Anonymous said...


I should have played Bingo this week, I would have hit the jackpot. :)

The Hedyot said...

> The interviewees, on the other hand refused to admit that they have an agenda, they were circumspect and purposely vague.

I happen to agree that it would have been better had they been more forthright, but I don't blame them entirely. The reason is that Brenner focused the conversation onto a specific issue, one that I'm sure they didn't care to discuss too much but because he kept harping on it, they had to keep saying the policy they had on it.

If the conversation would have been about “Does Footsteps help people who are trying to leave?”, Malkie and Michael would not have sounded vague in the least. They aren’t trying to hide that at all. They want as many people in the frum world to know about them as possible. But Brenner turned it into a conversation about “Does Footsteps help people actually become non-religious? (or rather, why don’t they help people back to religion?)”, and on that they kept insisting that they take no position one way or another. Which is absolutely true. So yes, it sounded like they were hiding something when they refused to just come out and say “we help people leave”, because in the context of that questioning it would have sounded like they actually encourage people to stop being frum, which they are staunchly against.

> There's no question that Footsteps has an agenda, that's not the problem. The problem is that they try to make to seem as if they don't.

Again, as to the agenda of helping people who want to leave, they are unambiguously open about it. But they are not out to get people to stop being frum (in the way that kiruv places definitely want non-frum people to become frum) and it’s not unreasonable that they don’t want people to mistakenly think that they do.

laura said...

Okay, I didn't hear the interview and don't have time to hear it now, so I'm not commenting on that. What I do want to say is that though I believe that Malkie undoubtedly established Footsteps with the simple agenda of helping those who already made the decision(and continues to abide by this agenda), it is inevitable that the Footsteps members will each initiate and push for their own subjective agendas. It's just the way organizations work. No matter how pure the initial motive, organizations tend to take on a life of their own. So what Gravitzer claims stands to reason. If one were to ask me whether it takes more courage to leave or to stay, I'd say that if one has kids, it takes more courage to stay. But that's *my* subjective opinion. Obviously, people who have left will feel exactly the opposite. Whatever the motivation--whether to justify their own actions or otherwise--they will tell you it takes courage to "take the plunge." So if you go to Footsteps, you have to accept that you'll feel the pressure. However, this is not in any way the fault of Footsteps the organization.

Mike said...

If Brenner and friends are so worried about Footsteps influencing impressionable people, why don't they open their own centers to help these people create new lives? Then they can do it any way they choose?

I think he was pathetic, and together with his callers, made it very clear why people go to Footsteps.

Metal head said...

Amazingly enough about 4 weeks hen Zev had Ruchie Frier from "bederech" on his show, he never asked if she has a non frum therapist on staff or about food.

Anonymous said...

Do these people and organizations that support Footsteps KNOW or would support an organization that eats pig and Matzha or eating in restaurants that serve Bacon and Ham? I TRULY WONDER!

Here are the Orgnizaions that support footsteps(Which eats Matzah and Ham):

Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation
Jewish Foundation for the Education of Women

Alan B. Slifka Foundation
Independence Community Foundation

Bikkurim: An Incubator for New Jewish Ideas
Chais Family Foundation

United Way of New York City
Dobkin Family Foundation

Buchman Foundation

Jewish Women's Foundation of NY

The Hedyot said...

> organization that eats pig and Matzha...

Just for the record, I know I already said it in the post, but since the canard is being repeated - This pork and matzah thing was never anything that Footsteps was associated with.

The Hedyot said...

Oh, and yes, those organizations all know exactly what Footsteps does and what its goals are. They've even come to Footsteps events and met many of the participants. They're proud to support the organization and it's members.

The Hedyot said...

Oh, and another thing that seems to have been forgotten about the interview. What about the way it ended with her brothers email? I thought that really underscored what she had been saying that she doesn't tell people how to live their lives. It really showed the lie of those who claim that she (and by extension Footsteps) is against people being religious.

1000 kefira points to the first person who can find me a chassid who was supportive of their sibling when he or she was becoming no-religious!

Anonymous said...

To Hedeyot,

Thanks for making it clear, It is interesting to hear that Jewish organizations and Jewish people fund an organization that has events in treif restaurants that also serves pork and ham in those establishments, I was just curios cause this is something I have never ever heard of before and please don’t tell me they choose restaurants that don’t serve pork!!!...

In fact it is very logical to support anyone who wishes to get a GED and further their education that is not an Issue.

I don’t think any of the callers had a problem with Footsteps it just got heated about the trief food that is going on at footsteps.

Dave said...

Anonymous, you do realize that the overwhelming majority of American Jews eat pork, right?

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