Malkie Schwartz, founder of an organization that helps haredim who decide to leave ultra-Orthodoxy, is named to prestigious NY Jewish Week list, as is Beejhy Barhany, the founder of BINA, Beta Israel of North America (Ethiopian Jews of North America).
36 Under 36 2009: Malkie Schwartz, 27
by Sharon Udasin, NY Jewish Week
When Malkie Schwartz first decided to leave behind her native Chabad-Lubavitch community in 2000, she had a strong network of support in secular New York — something that she realized most formers chasidim have difficulties finding. Three years later, she decided to change that by founding Footsteps, a comfortable learning and social environment where people can adjust to their new lives and discuss their decisions. "Unlike a lot of the people who leave, I had a support system and I obviously experienced challenges of my own," she says.
As a teen, Schwartz was able to move in with her secular grandmother, who introduced her to elements of mainstream culture frowned upon in Crown Heights – like television and movies – and encouraged her to
enroll in Hunter College in 2001.
At school, Schwartz gradually began to meet other students who had just joined the mainstream community and left behind their ultra-Orthodox families and friends. But there was no comfortable setting where she could introduce all these lone people, who often felt shameful for leaving the fold, and therefore kept their identities secret, according to Schwartz. "It dawned on me that here were amazing people who could be helpful to me and to one another," she says.
So Schwartz decided to bring these people together, by starting a student group that began with five or six people. "The next thing I knew word spread like wildfire," she says. "I’ll never forget the energy in the room," at the early meetings.
Once the group was large enough, Schwartz decided to transform her small group to a citywide support organization called Footsteps, where formerly ultra-Orthodox Jews can socialize and take computerized GED, reading and writing skills courses donated by Instructional Systems Inc. Since founding the program, Schwartz has garnered financial support from the Charles and Lynn Shusterman Foundation, Bikkurim, and another anonymous source.
Footsteps is what Schwartz calls a "safe place," where people can watch their first movie and learn with social worker Michael Jenkins how to create a basic resume.
"We have seen people go from a fourth grade reading level to enrolling in graduate school programs and people who, facing a slew of potential consequences, reveal to their friends and families who they are and what they are seeking from life."
Still tethered to the law: Schwartz will soon be leaving her executive position at Footsteps to focus on her studies at Cardozo Law School, where she is a second year student. Favorite authors: Phillip Roth and Walter Mosley.
36 over 36 2009: Beejhy Barhany, 33
by Carolyn Slutsky, NY Jewish Week
By the time she was 7, Beejhy Barhany had fled her native Ethiopia, walking with her family and 300 villagers to Sudan, where they started a new life. After a few years they left again, this time taking a Jeep through the jungles of Kenya, on to Uganda, France and finally to Israel, which even at that young age she remembers was "like fulfilling a dream after exile."
She quickly made the transition into Israeli life, and at 22 visited New York, where she also felt at home. But when she moved here, she searched for agencies to help Ethiopian Jews making the transition and found nothing. So in 2003 she founded Beta Israel of North America (BINA), a cultural organization for Ethiopian
"The idea behind BINA is to empower Beta (Ethiopian) Israel Jews and teach about the rich culture of Ethiopian Jews," says Barhany. She would like to educate the Jewish world at large that there is more than one shape and color for Jews, and see members of the diaspora interacting as equals.
"It’s always ‘how can we help them?’" she says of the attitude of many in the Jewish community. "It should be ‘how can we help each other.’"
BINA has a speakers bureau and educational workshops, the Sheba Film Festival (which opens Sunday) and social services for the approximately 500 Beta Israel living in the New York area. The group hopes to develop a curriculum around the Ethiopian Jewish experience, and continue its outreach to the Jewish and black communities.
Barhany says she is inspired by the recent election of President Barack Obama. "As a black Jewish woman it’s a good change. Eventually the U.S. can be a role model to other countries, opening people’s minds," she says, adding that Israel still has further to go in accepting Ethiopian Jews as fully integrated members of society. "If we empower each other we can learn and be stronger," she says of the world and her own little community within it. "That’s the best help you can give."
Barhany has a passion for exploring different ethnic groups and diversity, and has journeyed to the Inca trail and Machu Pichu.
[Hat Tip: Joel Katz.]