Chavie Weisberger is the Director of Community Engagement at Footsteps, GesherEU’s American sister organisation. We spoke to her about her life, her role and what our organisations can learn from each other.
When Chavie Weisberger came over to the UK to visit GesherEU in the summer of 2023, she hoped to find fresh energy and inspiration for her work in the US. Like GesherEU, Footsteps supports people who were raised in the ultra-orthodox communities, and are looking to leave it for a life of their choosing. It currently has 2,500 members across the US, and some who live around the world, and helps people with education, career guidance, community connection and finances.
She says she was pleasantly surprised to see how similar the two organisations are: “I felt like you could transplant everybody from one place and put them together in a room, and the conversations would be the same,” she says. “The trip helped me to regain my perspective of how important community is and how universal the experience of leaving fundamentalist religion is – how the experiences of our friends in London are the same as the experiences of folks here in New York.
“People are struggling with custody of their kids. People are struggling with relationships with family. The world needs to know that these injustices are happening to people all over. It gave me fresh fire under my loins, a desire to make global change and to bring global awareness of the issues we’re facing.”
“I needed to figure out who I was, what I believed, and how I wanted to raise my children.”
Chavie, now 41, was raised in a Chasidic community in Monsey, Rockland County, in the state of New York. The fifth of 10 children, her mother’s family came from the Emunas Yisroel sect, and her father, the Klausenburg sect. Engaged at 18 and married at 19, she had her first child at 20. By the time she’d had her third, at 24, she’d realised her husband wasn’t a ‘good fit’.
“I built up the courage to ask him for a divorce,” she says. “I was 25 when I left him and became a single parent to three children. I was still in the community, still religious, but I needed to figure out who I was, what I believed and how I wanted to raise my children.”
As she struggled to raise her children alone, Chavie also began to wrestle with her sexuality: “I was trying to reconcile my queer identity with my religious identity. Over the years, I met different people and had different experiences, and I realised that there was no room for me in the Chasidic community as my true, full self.”
At 30, she came out both as queer and an atheist. One day, for the first time, she walked out of her apartment wearing jeans, without her wig. “That got the biggest shock reaction. And once people started to learn more about the intimate details of my beliefs and my values and my lifestyle, they started to get upset about all of it. Internally, it was a long process. But externally, for everyone in the community, it was a bombshell.”
No sooner had Chavie come out publicly than her ex-husband took her to court to fight for custody of the children, then aged five, seven and nine. She reached out for legal support to a non-profit organisation called Unchained at Last, which was run by someone who was also OTD (had left the community). For the next 10 years, she was in and out of court, fighting for custody of her children and struggling financially.
“It was an awful, awful process,” she recalls. “My family shut me out of their lives, I lost my friends and I lost the ability to give my children what every child needs – a larger network of support. The whole community ganged up against me and I felt there was no way I was going to make it out of this with my children intact. Finding Footsteps and Eshel, an LGBTQ Orthodox Jewish Organisation, helped me to build a new social support structure.”
In 2016, the worst happened: she lost custody of her children. She immediately appealed the decision and, in 2017, won her appeal: “I won the right to raise my children as my full self. It was ruled unconstitutional that I would have to hide any parts of myself from my children. And so, I was able to share my values and raise them as the person that I am.
“Fast forward to today, and my children are now 20, 18 and 16, and they’re all thriving. My two older ones graduated from a secular high school, and one of them is in college and the other one is in art school. And my youngest is a junior in high school. I’m doing really well and it feels like I’ve made it to the other side.”
“When you leave the community, so much is taken from you.”
Her career at Footsteps began in 2015, in the midst of her court battle. Previously a school teacher, she had also been the editor of a Chasidic women’s magazine – which fired her when she came out – and then worked in real estate. “Footsteps offered me my first job outside the Charedi community, as an entry level associate for the community engagement team. A year earlier, they’d honoured me for my achievements – I had already been hosting Shabbat dinners, Mother’s Day picnics, holiday events, so that my children could feel connected to others. The job felt like a continuation of what I was doing, allowing me to follow my passion. But it enabled me to do it with more resources, and to create new programmes.”
Chavie says Footsteps gives people the ability to access and make choices: “When you leave the community, so much is taken from you, and we want to ensure that people have the resources they need to live by, whatever choices they want to make, wherever they land. There’s no one specific pathway for people to take.
“A big part of our programming has been focused on supporting other non-profits who are doing the same work we do. In my particular role, I’m less focused on the immediate crisis and more about providing spaces for people to connect with each other. Right now, I’m working on a big member weekend retreat getaway at a hotel for 200 people. It’s not just about a pampering time, although that’s important, but about providing moments of engagement and connection. We want people to leave the weekend feeling they’re not alone, and maybe even having made lifelong friendships – a family of choice – which is so vital when you leave the Charedi community.”
Chavie is also busy planning Footsteps’ annual winter party and then their Purim and Peach events:
“There’s always something we’re doing. We have a mentorship programme, which we call Connect Over Coffee, which allows newer members to connect with established ones. It’s kind of fun, almost like a matchmaking process. We look at all the people who are interested in making a connection, find whether they live near each other, have similar interests, or come from a similar background, and we connect them with each other so they feel less alone in this process.”
When Chavie came to visit GesherEU, she was on a three-month sabbatical from Footsteps – something awarded to all staff after seven years employment. “I’ve been friends with Emily for several years and, wanting inspiration, I reached out to her asking if I could come over, so I could witness how things are done in the UK,” she recalls.
She says the trip did just that: “It really did revitalise my energy and give me fresh perspective. The issues people are dealing with are so similar and the language is the same. The key difference is that GesherEU is smaller. And there’s something beautiful about witnessing a smaller, more intimate community, which Footsteps used to be more like. We’ve grown so big that we’ve had to get a little bit more structured, and that in turn has caused it to feel a little colder and a little less hamish, less cosy. On the other hand, we are more financially solvent and able to offer more resources to our members.”
“There was something special being in Emily’s living room with a core group of people that seem to be so deeply invested in each other’s wellbeing. I overheard people talking. Someone was discussing planning her daughter’s batmitvah, and everyone was coming up with suggestions for how they’d support her. It was so special, like a real family, a special sauce of ‘we’re all in this together’.”
Chavie says she now wants to work out how Footsteps’ programming can better support GesherEU. “For example, we run support groups for parents, but because Gesher is small, there are not enough parents to warrant running a whole support group. But I’m wondering if there are ways that we can invite our friends at Gesher to participate in the groups we run, perhaps via Zoom.”
“There are so many different ways our two organisations can support each other. We can be stronger together.”