Program Aids College-Bound Hasidim

By Nate Sugarman

Published August 13, 2008, issue of August 22, 2008.
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Young men and women raised in Hasidic communities face unique challenges if they want to attend college: Their devoutly religious primary and secondary schools often avoid secular subjects, and many of these schools teach classes in Yiddish rather than English. Students who wish to leave their insular religious communities to study at a university often find themselves ill prepared and unable to gain admission.

Footsteps, a Manhattan-based organization, seeks to ease the burden for young Hasidim who want to attend college. Malkie Schwartz, who was raised in a Hasidic community, launched Footsteps in 2003 as a monthly support group; today it offers GED programs, as well as assistance with college essays and applications. It also offers full scholarships to a limited number of students.

Footsteps is not in the habit of “recruiting,” but the organization does make itself available to those who seek assistance. The membership is made up of a diverse group of young men and women, ranging from those who would simply like to relax the rules of religion just a little bit to those who, in the words of one Footstepper, “go out to McDonald’s and eat cheeseburgers.”

Yanki, a 21-year-old Hasid from the Boro Park section of Brooklyn (like most Footsteppers, he asked to be identified by a pseudonym), said that he came to the program because he wants to “remain religious, but be able to live in the real world.” Yanki realized when he was around bar mitzvah age that although he loved his religion, a life of seclusion within a Hasidic community was not for him. He has since shaved his beard and cut off his peyes, but he still wears a yarmulke. He admits that he doesn’t know what career he is seeking, or even what he wants to study in college, but insists that he will “figure it out when he’s there” and that he wants to go to college mainly “for social reasons.”

Chaim, who grew up in Brooklyn’s Crown Heights Lub-avitch community, had “an exposure to college campuses through Chabad.” He said that though this exposure “enforced” his religious belief, he ultimately decided that he wanted to attend a secular university. Chaim said that Footsteps “focuses on education and not on religion.” In addition, he acknowledged that most Hasidic students have to overcome a great deal of pressure to make a transition to a life of secular education. “Most parents,” he said, “do not approve of organizations like Footsteps.”

The hurdles facing Hasidic students aren’t merely academic. In her book, “Unchosen: The Hidden Lives of Hasidic Rebels” (Beacon Press, 2005), Hella Winston touches upon Hasidim’s frustrating transition into the secular education system. She observes that these young adults are particularly at risk for a variety of destructive actions, such as drug abuse, alcoholism and excessive sexual behavior. Winston also concludes that they are at higher risks for suicide. Footsteps’ Schwartz, having grown up in a Hasidic community herself, is in a unique position to help these young adults avoid this path, providing social advice as well as academic training along the way.

Despite the difficulties they face, Hasidic students may also draw positive lessons from their upbringing when they consider college. Pearl Gluck, who directed and produced “Divan,” a documentary that explores her Hasidic roots in Europe, was raised in a Hasidic community in Boro Park. She attended Brandeis and became a Fulbright scholar, beginning a life that was tremendously different from those of her contemporaries. At first, when she attended college, “the cultural and secular references were completely foreign to me, and I was like an ex-pat in that world,” she told the Forward. “But I learned that my rich Hasidic background is a strength moving forward in my academic career, not a hindrance.” Gluck stressed that though young Hasidim are not necessarily taught secular subjects, nor are they encouraged to go to college, they are trained with sharp, talmudic and inquisitive minds. On top of that, many of them are bi- and even trilingual. “These are all strengths,” she said, “and should be stressed on their college applications.”

During the 2007-2008 academic year, Footsteps awarded college scholarships to 11 participants and has helped many others earn a GED. These young students now have the opportunity to utilize their religious learning and talmudic minds — ironically, to begin their secular education.

And the program doesn’t end when the students matriculate. Naftali, who grew up Hasidic, is now in college, and Footsteps has helped him network and assisted him with his medical care and financial aid. He still attends the weekly meetings at Footsteps — not so much for assistance, but rather because, he said, “It’s comforting to meet people like me who have left so much behind.”

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