Returning to Footsteps

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My partner and I recently attended a retreat organized by Footsteps, the organization that supports (mostly) Orthodox Jews leaving religion, especially in the New York area.

The retreat was wonderful, and I am grateful to the organization for creating such an enjoyable experience, with a lot of generosity, abundance, and acceptance, all traits that I was sorely lacking during my upbringing.

I learned to juggle. I taught acro yoga. I played laser tag for the first time in my life. I hosted the largest ever game of Kiruv vs. Orthodoxy, and shepped loads of nachas as people laughed at the cards.

Below are some additional observations, in no particular order.

How lucky I am

I had a fucked up childhood, and yet other people’s lives are so much worse. People at the wrong end of a custody battle, with little access to their children, and no support from their families. Contrast that with my partner leaving religion like I did, our aligned values around raising our kids together, and the partial acceptance my parents have shown.

The more conservative your upbringing, the more fucked up you’ll be

I was fortunate to be raised with fluent English, with secular education being celebrated, to a degree, even if as a means towards an end. You can see the difference in how messed-up Yeshivish/Lithuanian families are compared to the far-worse Hassidic families are. The latter gives you even less education and marks even the English you speak with a distinct accent that sets you apart.

The predominance of Queer and Neurodivergent People

It’s hard to know if this is the cause or the effect, but it was clear that religion becomes a whole lot less tolerable if your sexual preferences are different, or if your brain works differently than others on an intellectual, emotional, or social level. Footsteps also probably disproportionately attracts these types of individuals, because of the extra support and community they feel they need.

The presence of trauma

Trauma is everywhere, right beneath the surface. It’s in the lack of eye-contact and the nervous mannerisms. It’s in the laughter around dark personal stories that aren’t funny. It’s in the rampant sexual abuse that is implied and almost explicit in some people’s journeys. It’s in the costumes many people put on as they prepare to get on a bus back to their closeted Orthodox lives.

How far I’ve come

I was at the last retreat, pre-covid, four years ago. It was interesting to have a milestone to see my progress since then. How much I’ve healed from my traumatic past. How much I’ve moved on from my identity as an ex-religious person. How much my social skills have improved. I saw some people I recognized from four years ago, and not all of them have fared as well. For my growth too, I am grateful.

Never was it more obvious that the more religion equals more pain than at the Footsteps retreat.

Fuck religion. Thank god for Footsteps. They may not be perfect, but their heart is in the right place.

I don’t think I’ll be going on another retreat, because of how far I’ve come. But I’m grateful for the experience and what I learned in this one.

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