I wrote this originally for the Footsteps 10th Anniversary Gala journal, but because I rambled on for too long, it didn't make the cut.
“He’s a great kid, but a little too independent.” – My rebbe, at age seventeen.
“Your problem is, you always ask too many questions.” – My mother, when I told her I was an atheist.
One late Friday afternoon - as I did every erev Shabbos - I left work and drove to Finkelstein Memorial Library in Spring Valley, NY. I didn't have a lot of time to waste; it was almost Shabbos. I had to run in, grab all the books on my list, and make it home before the zman, but I wasn't overly concerned, I had it down to a science. Entering the public library for a Chassidic man (or woman, or anyone Chassidic) is a big no-no, so I purposely timed my visits for right before Shabbos and Yom Tov, so that my chances of being seen coming or going were lower. I would prepare a list of books I wanted, run in, grab everything from my list, and then rush home.
Growing up in a family of bookworms, we managed to work our way through both Frum libraries in town where all the books were written by and for a Frum audience, and were inspected for anything even remotely risqué. I could recite entire paragraphs of 'Bakers Dozen', 'The Cheery Bim Band' and 'The Lost Children of Tarshish' from memory. Eventually I graduated from those and started reading Avner Gold, Hanoch Teller and my favorite 'Go, My Son' by Chaim Shapiro. We read and reread that book so many times that it fell apart. As a Chol Hamoed Pesach trip one year, my entire family traveled to Flatbush to meet the author. It was a bigger hit with us that Six Flags ever was.
By the time I was eighteen and married, I had outgrown CIS, Feldheim and Artscroll, and I wanted more options and better material, so I decided to sneak into the public library. The first "treif book" I ever read was actually a year or so before, when a brother of mine let me in on his little secret. Underneath the porch, hidden in a black garbage bag, was the first volume of 'Harry Potter'. I snuck it into yeshiva, and hid in an abandoned office to read it. To my luck the Mashgiach decided to check the room, and busted me with my contraband. I can still hear his voice yelling "Herry Paatter?!" in his Yiddish accent. He then went through all of our drawers to see if we had other illegal material, and sure enough, there buried in my sock drawer was my idea of pornography - a Sam Ash catalogue. Page after page of nothing but gorgeous musical instruments…. Needless to say I was severely punished.
'The Da Vinci Code' was brand new at the time. I had heard Sean Hannity railing against it on the radio as “anti-Catholic” and “total nonsense”, which only served to make me curious. The mix of truth and fiction and historical references were very exciting to me, and I enjoyed what was to me a brand new style of story telling. It also made me wonder about the actual history that the novel was based on, how much of it was real, how much of it was not? And what about this Jesus fellow? Growing up he was rarely mentioned, and when he was he was called "Yushkeh", and I wondered what was the Jewish side of the story, what was our perspective on the guy. So the following week I looked up a bunch of books on the subject and brought them home for Shabbos. ‘The Da Vinci Code’ was the last book of fiction I read for years after that…
I was raised in a very tight bubble, and I was incredibly naïve and oblivious of the world surrounding mine. The more I read, the more the curtains around my eyes began to slowly be pulled back. Each time I would encounter a new idea; I would take out a pile of books on that subject and research it. I couldn’t get enough of it; I was hooked. I was driven by curiosity, and a thirst for knowledge. I didn’t have a goal in mind or a certain kind of information I was seeking out, I was just following my curiosity wherever it led me. Eventually though I started bumping into problematic information, information that directly contradicted what I knew to be true. You mean evolution isn’t a joke? The Big Bang isn’t a punch line? History is nothing like what we were taught? Not everyone takes the Torah to be the literal word of god? So I read more books. I knew that I was correct in my beliefs, I just had to find the right book that would clear up all the misconceptions all these other authors had – it was so obvious! But instead of clearing up my newfound questions, I kept finding more questions and problems.
It was around this time that I arrived at the library for my weekly rendezvous. I was walking passed the “New Releases” shelf, when out of the corner of my eye I noticed a book that seemed to have a Chassidic fellow on the cover. I went over to get a better look, and sure enough, the entire cover was a picture of a Chassidic man, wearing a shtreimel/bekishe, walking across the Brooklyn bridge. “Unchosen – The Hidden Lives of Hasidic Rebels” by Hella Winston had my instant and undivided attention. I grabbed it off the shelf, got the rest of the books on my list, and raced home – all the while thinking about that book. I was aware that there were others out there who thought like me, but I had only read their anonymous blogs, and I never dreamt it was enough of a phenomenon to warrant a book. Hasidic Rebel, Shtreimel, Da'as Hedyot - they were all amorphous enigmas to me, brilliant people who expressed what I was feeling, but I’d certainly never met or spoken to anyone who thought or felt the way I did. The only book on the topic that I’d read was ‘Off The Derech’ by Faranak Margolese, which I found very disappointing.
It’s not a terribly long book, but I would’ve stayed up all night reading it if it were six volumes – she was describing me! I wasn’t alone; I wasn’t the only crazy person to have doubts and questions. As I was reading, I got to a story about a woman named Malkie Schwartz, who left Lubavitch at a young age, and had gone on to start an organization for people who wanted to leave the ultra-orthodox community, or already had left. This intrigued me, so I waited until everyone in the house was asleep, pulled out the laptop (computers are off-limits on Shabbos), and searched “Malkie Schwartz”. The name of the organization wasn’t mentioned, and her name was all I had to go on. It wasn’t easy finding her, but I finally did. It took me almost a week to muster up the courage to call the number, and when I did I got an answering machine. All I could bring myself to say was “my name is Ari, and I’m calling for Malkie, please call me back”. I was just pulling into a parking spot in front of Zisha’s Bakery on a Friday afternoon when Malkie called back. “Is it safe to talk?” she asked. It was a valid question. I had to make sure no one heard what I was saying, lest my terrible secret get out. I walked to the edge of the parking lot, and said, “yes, I can talk now”. Thus began the journey of a lifetime…
Footsteps is many things, but to me, Footsteps is a community first and foremost. We are social animals, we thrive on interaction with like-minded individuals. For those of us raised in closed insular communities, it is even more important. Losing that close-knit feeling is devastating, and can have detrimental effects. Footsteps fills that gap. I didn’t end up sticking around for very long afterwards, I decided that I couldn’t live a double life, and I couldn’t shut my brain off, so my only choice was to be open and honest about who I was. A few months later I joined the US Army, and I was effectively gone for five years. Throughout that time though, wherever I was on earth, I continued to keep up with Footsteps through the emails I received. I got to keep up with the growing organization and it’s expanding membership, Thanksgiving parties for those of us who never celebrated Thanksgiving, graduation celebrations for those whose families couldn’t care less about a GED or a degree, the first camping trip, the new space, the ups and the downs. I was away, but never gone, and once back, I instantly had a whole new set of friends and a community to join.
Contrary to what the Frum community likes to say about Footsteps, they do not do any sort of “kiruv” (outreach), they are there for people who choose to reach out to them. They do not have any sort of position on god or religion, they do not require their members to be atheists, or to eat treif, and they do not encourage people to leave their community or their family. Every Footsteps gathering is either fully kosher, or has kosher options, and the membership runs the gamut from completely non-Frum people like myself, to people who are still very much in the community with no plans of ever leaving, and everything in between.
We can’t choose our family, but we can choose our friends, and I think Footsteps is the greatest group of friends anyone could choose to be a part of. I will forever be grateful to Malkie, the past and present Footsteps staff, the board, and to each and every Footstepper.