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 www.footstepsorg.org, 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.