Netflix series Unorthodox’s exploration of one woman’s journey out of her insular ultra-Orthodox community in Brooklyn in search of a life of her own choosing in Berlin has captured the hearts of viewers around the world — a fact highlighted by the series’ 8 Emmy nominations and director Maria Schrader’s win for “Outstanding Directing for a Limited Series.” Many binge-watchers were left wondering about the real life “Estys” out there; what happens to the women who make the courageous choice to leave the world they know in search of an authentic, self-determined life?
Their paths often lead to Footsteps, the only organization in North America providing comprehensive services to those who choose to take the journey out of ultra-Orthodoxy. Nearly 2,000 individuals have become Footsteps members since Malkie Schwartz, who left her own ultra-Orthodox community at the age of 19, founded the organization in 2003.
What are some of the obstacles that women like Esty face after they leave ultra-Orthodox communities?
- Divorce and Custody:
At 18, Rachel had known for years that the ultra-Orthodox community she was raised in was not right for her. But even though she objected to the match that was arranged for her, she was married the day her class graduated from high school, and she was pregnant before her friends came home from summer camp.
In many ultra-Orthodox communities, women marry in their late teens to early twenties and have children soon after. Because of this, many of those leaving ultra-Orthodox communities are already married with children. If their spouse remains within ultra-Orthodoxy, their leaving is usually considered an irreconcilable difference; when children are involved, a protracted and expensive legal battle over custody may ensue. Their former community (and even their own family) often rallies around their spouse, raising money for legal fees and pressuring them to return to the fold or relinquish custody. Some report that these tactics can even escalate to physical threats and stalking. Additionally, family court precedent often unduly favors the parent who will maintain “status quo” for the children with regard to their religious upbringing.
Miserable in her marriage, living a lifestyle she did not connect with, and unsure what to do, Rachel describes the woman who first told her about Footsteps as “an angel.” When she left her husband and her community, Footsteps found her a lawyer and provided emotional support throughout her long divorce process. Today, Rachel has full custody of her 2 children.
- Education and Job Readiness:
Growing up in a Hasidic community in Brooklyn, Shayna dreamed about becoming a doctor, but knew that it would not be considered an acceptable path for her. After she was expelled from high school for being seen talking to a boy, she decided to take matters into her own hands and start studying for her High School Equivalency exam.
In 2019, a long-delayed report on ultra-Orthodox schools in New York City found that only 2 of 28 schools that were investigated offered secular education “substantially equivalent” to public schools. As in Esty’s Williamsburg, Yiddish is the primary language in many ultra-Orthodox communities, with English and secular education given lower priority than religious studies (although girls often receive more secular education than boys). Depending on the community, secular higher education may be limited to specific options, discouraged, or completely forbidden. This, and a lack of exposure to secular culture and norms, can make it difficult for those leaving ultra-Orthodoxy to find work.
Shayna came to Footsteps once she turned 18; she had heard negative rumors about the organization from her community, but also that Footsteps can help with educational matters. At Footsteps, she received educational counseling and a scholarship to attend college. Last summer, Shayna also participated in Footsteps’ career fellowship, where she received a stipend to complete an internship at a local hospital and was connected with a mentor in her field.
- Loss of Community:
“When people leave, they often lose their family and their extended community,” says Chavie Weisberger, Director of Community Engagement at Footsteps. “There’s also a false narrative around people who leave ultra-Orthodox communities; that we fail in the secular world, that we fall into negative habits, that we are miserable people. By building our community and providing support for those seeking to build new connections, Footsteps is not only countering loneliness, but showing our members that they are surrounded by others who are not only surviving in the secular world, but thriving. Anyone who is out there in the world and just living their life can be a role model.”
In spite of these obstacles, those leaving ultra-Orthodoxy show tremendous tenacity and resilience in overcoming the barriers that stand in their way. While Footsteps offers tremendous support, it is up to the individual to succeed — which they do in droves! Footsteps members include actors, lawyers, doctors, Fulbright Scholars, authors, activists, artists, social workers… and so much more. But in order for Footsteps to provide the resources and support that helps our members thrive, we need help from people like you.
How you can help:
- Visit Footstepsorg.org to learn about what we do, donate, and get involved.
- Follow us on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter, or join our mailing list to stay up to date on what’s happening at Footsteps.
- Watch One of Us, a 2017 Netflix documentary following three Footsteps members on their journeys out of ultra-Orthodoxy and into the secular world.
Yael Reisman is the Director of Field and Movement Building at Footsteps. Yael grew up in the Orthodox community herself, and her own personal experiences there inspired her lifelong commitment to advocating for those who are forging self-determined paths.
Photo by Sarah Goldstein