When Lani Santo ’02 was thirteen years old, her mother came out as a lesbian. The news, shared only with close family, remained a carefully guarded secret in their Modern Orthodox Jewish circle. “I was in a community where the veil of conformity was strong. Everyone pretended that they were the same, even if they weren’t,” she says.
Now, as executive director of Footsteps, North America’s leading organization supporting people who choose to leave Hasidic and other ultra-Orthodox communities, Santo provides hope to those who find themselves out of step with their religious peers. (A documentary following several members of Footsteps, One of Us, will be released on Netflix this fall.) Reasons for leaving include changes in religious belief, instances of abuse, conflict over traditional gender roles, and issues of sexuality. When these individuals leave, they risk losing the strong base of support that their communities provide. Footsteps offers them a path to self-acceptance and a new community of people with whom they share a common culture and the profound experience of leaving ultra-Orthodoxy.
Santo, who grew up in Kew Gardens, Queens, enrolled at Barnard in 1998. Surrounded by a diverse group of students, she told her story. Rather than the rejection she feared as a child, she found acceptance and began to explore her passion for social justice and her desire to help others express their “authentic selves.”
In 2010, Santo graduated from New York University with an MPA in nonprofit management and began working at the American Jewish World Service, an organization which promotes human rights and sustainable development in developing countries; a mentor there recommended she apply for a position at Footsteps.
Founded in 2003, the organization offers a range of services, including social and emotional support, educational and career guidance, access to legal services, and social activities. The year before Santo joined, the organization served 35 people. Last year, it helped more than 600, and under her leadership, continues to grow. More than 540,000 ultra-Orthodox Jews reside in the New York City area, according to a New York Times article. And a 2016 study found that an estimated 10,000 of them will consider leaving their communities at some point in their lives.
As it happens, after discussing their options with a Footsteps counselor, many individuals choose not to leave their communities after all. “These communities are warm,” says Santo, who currently identifies as a post-demoninational Jew. “They take care of people; they are there for each other. But they are there for people who are able to conform.”
Though Footsteps’ work focuses on those leaving ultra-Orthodox communities, the group has also collaborated with and assisted organizations that support individuals questioning their place in other fundamentalist faiths.
Santo says, “I think helping people understand how to be in the world, how to live a life that is authentically yours, and be supported by the people around you, that is universal.”