Stranger In a Strange Land

BY LENORE SKENAZY | Sol Feuerwerker grew up as an alien. Not “alien” as in “undocumented immigrant.” Alien as in someone from another planet.

That planet was Williamsburg, Brooklyn.

While many people in Williamsburg lead lives most of us can relate to, Sol was the youngest of 11 children in an ultra-Orthodox Jewish family. The religious sect he grew up in, a group called the Satmar Hasidim, believes in large families and distrusts the modern world. Members wear distinctive clothing — the men are in black suits, white shirts, and side curls — and speak Yiddish. They do not mingle with outsiders. They do not watch any media. Boys like Sol go to sex-segregated schools and are forbidden to study almost anything other than religion.

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No algebra.

No biology.

No non-Jewish studies beyond what a fourth or fifth grader would get at public school.

Which is why it is all the more remarkable that about a week ago Sol stood up in front of a crowd of 300 and announced he had been accepted to medical school.

The crowd went wild. This was the annual downtown gala sponsored by Footsteps, the organization that helped Sol and hundreds of others find their way out of ultra-Orthodoxy to lead lives of their choosing. Footsteps is not anti-religion, it is pro-freedom. Its slogan is “Your life, your journey, your choice.”

“Our core value is choice,” explained Lani Santo, the executive director. “We really help people think through the consequences of their various decisions.”

Because people leaving ultra-Orthodoxy are often shunned by the community they left behind, including their own families, Footsteps provides counseling, practical help, and a home base for those who lose their entire support system.

The gala was organized to celebrate the milestones in the lives of Footsteps participants, since few had family members to cheer them on. Instead, the audience of Footsteps supporters whooped for a member who just got her first tech job, and another who just became an Uber driver. Several members had become engaged, provoking joyous applause. Then Sol took the stage as the evening’s keynote, and the audience sat in stunned silence as he told his story.

“You need to understand just how insane it is for me to be here,” the 26-year-old began. “I grew up in a typically sized family in Williamsburg: I have 10 siblings. Exposure to the mainstream world is almost non-existent. Some people say I’m an immigrant in my own country, but I prefer ‘alien.’ An immigrant might know about science and history and politics — an alien doesn’t. An immigrant has read books and watched television — an alien hasn’t. An immigrant has spoken to people of the opposite sex without feeling like the world is about to end. An immigrant might be culturally unaware, but at the same time be an informed citizen of the world. An alien is just an alien and let me tell you, if an alien is going to successfully transition to immigrant, they need Footsteps.”

Sol heard about Footsteps through the grapevine as a teen. By then he’d already been sneaking off to the DVD store in the Puerto Rican part of his neighborhood and voraciously renting action flicks. These taught him colloquial English and gave him direction: He wanted to be a cop, just like the guys in the movies. But then he went on a tour of Hunter College sponsored by Footsteps and his life changed.

Classes in art and sociology! Laboratories! Students of every stripe talking, studying, laughing together. Footsteps was founded by a Hunter student, Malkie Schwartz, who’d made her way out of ultra-Orthodoxy and wanted to help others who chose that path. Sol enrolled — and immediately floundered.

“I had never tackled the concept of the atom, or seen a periodic table of the elements,” he later recalled. “I did not even know that all living things were made up of cells.”

He had to make up for lost time and, at first, he couldn’t. He was in danger of failing, but reached out for help. And by the next year, he rose to the top of his class in chemistry.

He continued to climb, getting A’s in his coursework while working part time and becoming a mentor to others following in his –– well –– footsteps. He began volunteering at Morgan Stanley Children’s Hospital of New York-Presbyterian and doing genetics research.

And last year, he did it. He graduated with a degree in sociology. He put off applying to med school, however, to stay on for a year at Hunter… teaching organic chemistry.

Now Sol is heading to Sidney Kimmel Medical College at Thomas Jefferson University in Philadelphia. Yes, he will be an immigrant from New York.

But not an alien. 

Lenore Skenazy is author and founder of the book and blog “Free-Range Kids,” and a contributor at Reason.com.