In a recent discussion with an acquaintance, the issue of the Zev Brenner interview with the founders of Footsteps came up. Unsurprisingly, my friend expressed his disapproval of the organization and its goals. The objections he raised are ones I've heard many times in the past, and I'd like to publicly share what I told him in response.
While I find it entirely understandable that most chareidi people would be opposed to an organization which has as its mission the goal of assisting people who no longer want to be religious, I think that there is a very fundamental issue that needs to be addressed in regards to the chareidi world's attitude towards people who are no longer frum, and by extension towards the organization of Footsteps itself.
In my opinion, the chareidi world has refused to directly address the important question of "How should we deal with people who do not want to be frum?" I'm not referring here to the issue of people who are "questioning," but rather those who have clearly made a decision that they no longer want to practice Orthodox Judaism. The typical approach that one finds towards this predicament is for the frum person to reach out and make efforts to get the person to come back to being frum, or at the very least, to try to stanch the person's progress in that direction. But rather than concretely addressing the question, this approach simply avoids the issue, because ex-frum people don't want that kind of "help". The've consciously made a decision that they don't want to have anything to do with frumkeit, or with those who think it imperative that they follow halacha. They have no interest in being "helped" by someone with an agenda of trying to keep them from pursuing the life they want. Most formerly frum people would abruptly end all contact with a frum person "helping" them once they detect the ulterior motive at work. Offering support that is in any way tinged with kiruv is not an answer.
The fact is though that many of the people who decide to abandon religious life are wholly unprepared to step out of their protective shtetl and into the wider world. They desperately need assistance so that they don't end up falling into a degenerate and unhealthy lifestyle. So what does the chareidi world propose should be done about these Jews, those who have no interest in being frum, yet are in desperate need of assistance?
As far as I know, they don't have any practical and real answer for this dilemma. The chareidi world will never support, let alone encourage, a person in a path that leads them further from torah observance. By helping the person in any way they would be tacitly approving of the persons actions, and they couldn't ever condone such a choice. Yet, by not providing any assistance they are, in effect, condemning the person to face all the dangers that stepping out unprepared into general society brings with it. By their inaction they are, in effect, saying that they prefer such people be left to fend for themselves, and whatever may happen as a result... well, that's their problem. When a frum person expresses his indignation at the very existence of a venture which is dedicated to assisting people in their pursuit of a non-frum lifestyle, they are basically making the following statement: They prefer that ex-frum people struggle alone with all the challenges of leaving the frum world and of building a new life, and thereby inviting into their lives all the attendant risks that come with that path, rather than possibly succeeding on their journey out of the frum world and developing a healthy, independent non-frum life.
This is where Footsteps steps in (no pun intended). Footsteps exists to help and support a person who wants to pursue a path in the wider world, irrespective of where it may lead religiously, as long as it is based on some sort of healthy idea of self-development and growth. They take no position on the validity of those choices, as long as they are within the range of a healthy lifestyle. They just want to help the person get to where they'd like to be, and to do so with a minimum of pain and frustration. If the person wants to go to college, they can help with that. If the person wants to stop feeling guilty about driving on shabbos, they'll try to help with that. If the person is struggling to redefine his relationship with Judaism, they'll try to help with that. They don't ever make a judgement about the person's choice. They only say "if we are able to, we'd like to help you pursue your goal."
The chareidi world can wail and cry about how terrible Footsteps is - and I truly understand their ambivalence - but the fact remains that Footsteps is filling a need which the frum world refuses to address. There are people out there that desperately need help, and would love someone to offer it. That the chareidi world might be diametrically opposed to what it is that these people want assistance with is something that they have to deal with. But don't blame other people who see someone in trouble and try to lend a hand to ease their suffering. Unless of course, you'd like them to be suffering. Do you?
I really think this is a fundamental problem with the chareidi world's position towards Footsteps. Either they step up to help these people or they let Footsteps do the work. But if they aren't doing either of those then they should just be honest and openly state what their actions are implying: We don't want you to succeed in life if you're not going to be frum. That even though we do in some sense care about you, as long as you are pursuing a path contrary to torah, we will oppose anything which helps you succeed in the life you are choosing. And if this means objecting to something which helps you get your life on track so that you don't end up homeless, on drugs, and depressed that you made a horrible choice in life, we will be against that too, because if your life would have failed in that way it would have made you realize that you never should have left the torah path.
This is really what the chareidi world is saying by their opposition to Footsteps. That if the person is not going to be frum, they'd prefer if his life ended up a flaming wreck of despair, rather than him growing into a healthy, independent, successful, and confident person.