On Thursdays, the nonprofit organization Footsteps hosts a drop-in group for its membership of formerly ultra-Orthodox Jews, who mostly refer to themselves as “off the derech.” “Derech” means “path” in Hebrew, and “off the derech,” or O.T.D. for short, is how their ultra-Orthodox families and friends refer to them when they break away from these tight-knit, impermeable communities, as in: “Did you hear that Shaindel’s daughter Rivkie is off the derech? I heard she has a smartphone and has been going to museums.” So even though the term is burdened with the yoke of the very thing they are trying to flee, members remain huddled together under “O.T.D.” on their blogs and in their Facebook groups, where their favored hashtag is #itgetsbesser — besser meaning “better” in Yiddish. Sometimes someone will pop up on a message board or in an email group and say, “Shouldn’t we decide to call ourselves something else?” But it never takes. Reclamations are messy.
At the drop-in session I attended, 10 men and women in their 20s and 30s sat around a coffee table. Some of them were dressed like me, in jeans and American casualwear, and others wore the clothing of their upbringings: long skirts and high-collared shirts for women; black velvet skullcaps and long, virgin beards and payot (untrimmed side locks) for men. Half of them had extricated themselves from their communities and were navigating new, secular lives. But half still lived among their Hasidic and ultra-Orthodox sects in areas of New York City, New Jersey and the Hudson Valley and were secretly dipping their toes into the secular world — attending these meetings, but also doing things as simple as walking down the street without head coverings, or trying on pants in a clothing store, or eating a nonkosher doughnut, or using the internet. They had families at home who believed they were in evening Torah learning sessions, or out for a walk, or at synagogue for evening prayers. On the coffee table were two pizzas, one kosher, one nonkosher. The kosher pizza tasted better, but only a couple of people ate it.
The group was facilitated by a Footsteps social worker, Jesse Pietroniro, soft-spoken and kind, who had told me that he had his own conflicted religious upbringing. He allowed the attendees to democratically settle on a loose theme for the evening. One woman in her early 20s brought up sexuality. She had started to date and wasn’t quite sure what the norms were. A young man talked about how hard it was for him to interact with women casually outside his community, since he was taught that sexual desire outside the intent to procreate means that one is a sexual predator, so anytime he was attracted to someone, he worried he was going to do something untoward, or that he was a kind of monster. The young woman who had suggested the theme said she didn’t know when exactly to submit to kissing — the first date? The second? Is she a slut if she kisses at all? Is it still bad nowadays to be a slut? She’d heard girls talking on the subway and calling each other sluts, and they were laughing. Are there rules for this? A few of them made sex jokes. The O.T.D.ers, newly alive in a world of puns and innuendo, love a junior-high-grade sex joke. The social worker narrowed his eyes and pursed his lips and tapped a finger to his chin and nodded and opened the question up to the group. (I was allowed to document the meeting on the condition that I wouldn’t publish anyone’s name or descriptive information.)
Another woman in her early 20s, sitting on the sofa in jeans with one leg slung over its arm, told us she had spent most of her life being molested by her father. She told the group that recently she had taken to advertising online, saying she followed the laws of family purity — going to a ritual bath after menstruation, not having sex during her “unclean” week — and that she was available for sex in exchange for money. Ultra-Orthodox men visited her at all hours, and they cheated on their wives, having sex with this ritually pure young woman in her apartment. When the men finished, they told her what a shame it was that she was off the derech, that she seemed nice, that she should try again at a religious life.
A man, 30ish, still with a beard that he now trimmed closely to his face, talked about staying with his religious wife, who knew he was no longer religious but wouldn’t join him on the other side. He knew the marriage should be over, but he wouldn’t leave, and he couldn’t bring himself to cheat on her, and he wanted to know if he was unable to cheat on her because he was bound up by his religious values or because he was innately a good person. Another married man said that you don’t need to be taught in a religious context not to cheat on your wife — it’s a tenet of secular marriage as well, and what the whole operation often depends on.
“I guess I just don’t know if I’m a good person because I’m a good person,” said the guy who wanted to cheat but might not, “or if I’m a good person because I was taught to be a good person.”
They went around in circles for many minutes, most of them summoning scriptural sources on whether morality is inherent, then other sources to make or disprove that point, then laughing at the fact that they’d summoned Scripture. The married man who was deciding if he should have sex outside his marriage put his head in his hands, then through his hair and made a great, guttural noise of frustration.[...]
Footsteps was started in 2003 by a college student named Malkie Schwartz, who grew up in the Lubavitch sect in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, and who knew after high school that she wanted to step off the community’s moving walkway to marriage and motherhood. She moved in with a grandmother who wasn’t religious and enrolled at Hunter College on the Upper East Side.
But just because she left her community didn’t mean that she felt part of the secular one. She started Footsteps as a drop-in group right there at Hunter and told a couple of formerly religious friends what she was doing. About 20 people showed up to the first meeting. Soon they had a G.E.D. study group — and a human-sexuality-and-relationships group, so that they could learn about sex education, which was normally taught to the ultra-Orthodox only in the days leading up to their weddings. Footsteps became a chrysalis for them through which they would leap into their new lives, just as soon as they figured out exactly how to live them.
Schwartz eventually left the organization in the hands of nonprofit professionals — Footsteps was a chrysalis for her, too — and went to law school. Today, Footsteps is a 501(c)(3) with an executive director, social workers, scholarships, court-companion programs and special events like fashion nights, at which members learn about modern style outside the realm of black-and-white dresses and suits and hats. Ultra-Orthodox communities, whose leaders stand vigil against outside influences, know about Footsteps; about half the people I met in Footsteps first heard of it when they were accused by someone in their family of being a member.
It’s hard to talk about O.T.D.ers as a group, because like the rest of us, like ultra-Orthodox people, too, they are individuals. No two people who practice religion do it exactly the same way, despite how much it seems to the secular world that they rally around sameness; and no one who leaves it leaves the same way, either. In the region of New York City, New Jersey, and the Hudson Valley that Footsteps serves, 546,000 ultra-Orthodox Jews live in one of about five different sects. With a few exceptions, like the Skver sect in New Square, N.Y., which has actual boundaries and operates its own schools, the ultra-Orthodox live not in cloistered neighborhoods, but among secular America in Crown Heights, Flatbush and Williamsburg, Brooklyn, and beyond. Perhaps it’s easiest to think of them as living in a different dimension — occupying the same space but speaking a different language (Yiddish, for the most part), attending different schools, seeing their own doctors, handling judicial issues among themselves and eating their own food from their own markets.
So once they leave, if they leave, they learn how ill equipped they are for survival outside their home neighborhoods, and that has a lot to do with the ways that ultra-Orthodox communities are valuable and good: the daily cycle of prayer and school and learning; how people share goals about family and values; how neighbors support one another during times of need. Once that’s gone, and all a person has is her mostly Judaic-studies education and little familial support and no real skills, life gets scary. For those who leave and are married with children, the community tends to embrace the spouse left behind and help raise funds for legal support to help that person retain custody of the children. You could be someone with a spouse and children one day and find yourself completely alone the next.
I learned about Footsteps in 2015, after the very public suicide of one of its young members. Her name was Faigy Mayer, and on a hot night in July, she went to the top of 230 Fifth Avenue in the Flatiron district, where there’s a rooftop bar, and jumped. In death, she became something of a brief symbol (and also a lightning rod) for the O.T.D. movement, with her story plastered across local papers, many illustrated by a Facebook image of her holding a paintbrush and standing in front of a newly painted mural that said “Life is Beautiful.”[...]