by Sharon Udasin
When Malkie Schwartz first decided to leave behind her native Chabad-Lubavitch community in 2000, she had a strong network of support in secular New York — something that she realized most formers chasidim have difficulties finding. Three years later, she decided to change that by founding Footsteps, a comfortable learning and social environment where people can adjust to their new lives and discuss their decisions. "Unlike a lot of the people who leave, I had a support system and I obviously experienced challenges of my own," she says.
As a teen, Schwartz was able to move in with her secular grandmother, who introduced her to elements of mainstream culture frowned upon in Crown Heights – like television and movies – and encouraged her to enroll in Hunter College in 2001.
At school, Schwartz gradually began to meet other students who had just joined the mainstream community and left behind their ultra-Orthodox families and friends. But there was no comfortable setting where she could introduce all these lone people, who often felt shameful for leaving the fold, and therefore kept their identities secret, according to Schwartz. "It dawned on me that here were amazing people who could be helpful to me and to one another," she says.
So Schwartz decided to bring these people together, by starting a student group that began with five or six people. "The next thing I knew word spread like wildfire," she says. "I’ll never forget the energy in the room," at the early meetings.
Once the group was large enough, Schwartz decided to transform her small group to a citywide support organization called Footsteps, where formerly ultra-Orthodox Jews can socialize and take computerized GED, reading and writing skills courses donated by Instructional Systems Inc. Since founding the program, Schwartz has garnered financial support from the Charles and Lynn Shusterman Foundation, Bikkurim, and another anonymous source. Footsteps is what Schwartz calls a "safe place," where people can watch their first movie and learn with social worker Michael Jenkins how to create a basic resume.
"We have seen people go from a fourth grade reading level to enrolling in graduate school programs and people who, facing a slew of potential consequences, reveal to their friends and families who they are and what they are seeking from life."
Still tethered to the law:
Schwartz will soon be leaving her executive position at Footsteps to focus on her studies at Cardozo Law School, where she is a second year student. Favorite authors: Phillip Roth and Walter Mosley.