What We Should Do About Netflix's "One of Us"

What We Should Do About Netflix’s “One of Us”


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Years ago, as I was boarding a plane in Sydney, Australia (after a whirlwind speaking tour), I saw a very hasidic looking man sit next to a woman who was dressed in typical secular summer-wear, and I thought to myself this will never make the news. All the normal and positive things which come out of the hasidic community go unreported and unacknowledged and are essentially unknown to the outside world (including even the Modern Orthodox world!), while all the extreme and crazy stuff gets mentioned again and again.

Now there’s a reason for this: “normal” is not news and crazy needs to be fixed. Which brings me to Netflix’s new documentary One of Us. I have never lived in the hasidic community, so I can’t say I know it from personal experience. But I have numerous hasidic friends who are happy, normal, open-minded people who live good and fulfilling lives. Their positive experiences do not negate what is shown in this film. The heart-wrenching stories we see are also part of this world.

While it is true that there is dysfunction everywhere, at the end of the day, this is our dysfunction. I don’t know how one community’s dysfunction differs from another in terms of breadth or depth, but that’s not really so relevant. What is relevant is that we must own up to and fix the problems in our midst, wherever we find them. For observant Jews, we believe that we were put here to be a light unto the nations, to be a holy people who bring goodness into the world. That must be the goal of the religious lives we lead or else we have missed the point.

Jew in the City was founded to spread kiddush Hashem and show the positive side of the Orthodox community that goes unreported by traditional media. But what are we to do about the negative side? How do we make negative into kiddush Hashem? My rabbi is a big believer that the greatest kiddush Hashem you can make when it comes to a problem is to acknowledge it and fix it. And that is how we must respond to the pain we see on the screen (and off). I hope that will be our take away from this film.

Besides the media not reporting on the good and happy people of the hasidic world, there is one more part of the story they leave out which is troubling, and I would like to suggest that this be the take away for the media. I’ve been told by some reporters explicitly that they are purposely not telling the stories of the people who leave the ultra-hasidic world and find a new observant Jewish community which fits them better. Just as the Orthodox community cannot ignore the bad, so too the media must not ignore this inconvenient truth. For some people who leave the hasidic community, their happiness is within the Orthodox world – not the secular one.

These are the people of Project Makom, an initiative of Jew in the City which helps former and questioning charedi Jews find their place in Orthodoxy. Their voices also deserve a chance to be heard. Their stories can give hope to those who are struggling to find a place outside of their communities of origin while still being able to enjoy the incredible benefits of observant Jewish communities. These are some of the words of our members who have struggled no less than the people in that film:

Just finished watching the movie. No words. I feel like they were saying my story. Tears. Although I’m pained that it puts a stereotype on the chassidic community as a whole, I feel a tremendous feeling of overwhelming love and compassion for Ari, Etty, and Luzer. It’s not fair though to take their stories and depict that this is everyone’s story in chassidish society. Many have grown up in loving and stable homes and they have no need to change since that kind of lifestyle works for them. My heart bleeds for Etty. I’ve always been raised that the children’s souls are first and foremost and should be taken from the non-religious mom. Ironically, when a chassidic kid goes to rehab they say his mental and emotional state trumps yiddishkeit and they’ll go to the other end of the world to get the best medical care putting his spirituality on the back burner because his life is at stake. How stupid is the judge not to be able to understand that the children’s health and well-being are at stake? I think Etty is an incredible human being and an exceptional mother. The love and sacrifice that she has for her kids is so apparent. She is so strong for her kids. Couldn’t stop the tears at the end. So powerful and courageous. In the non chassidic world where I [now] live, my rabbi stresses that the children should always stay with the mom regardless of her religious observance due to the emotional and mental well-being of the children.

Another Project Makom member wrote:

After watching this movie I felt sad and it bothers me a lot that they focus a lot on the hardships it is challenging but the outcome can be wonderful! Now I am tempted to make a new movie of my own life! It is very hard with a lot of struggles, but life could be so beautiful!  I liked that they spoke about community because it is very important, we are kind of trained to survive with the support of our community, I feel project Makom is my new community a place where I am always accepted and can always ask any question without being judged! I found myself and learning to live the live I yearn for!

We must help fix the problems, but please Netflix, NYTimes, NYPost and every other outlet that has told the typical ex-hasidic story and passed our members over: give our community a voice. They are ready to be heard.

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  1. The problem here is that there’s no right or wrong in this situation, but as an Hasidic Jew it hurts me that someone portrays us, the normal typical Hasidic Jew as some cult following child molester. There are so many normal people in the so called ultra-orthodox community, if you had a bad experience with one of them it doesn’t mean the community as a whole is bad, as a kid in Williamsburg I was beaten by some black kids and had my bike stolen from me in broad daylight, do I think they’re all bad? No! these documentaries are creating the label Ultra-Orthdox = bad guy, dare I to say That all black guys are criminals because of the experience I had with some when I was a kid, we are adults and we know that people are bad regardless of the religion.

    The problem is that we keep on labeling people like ultra-orthodox, OTD or MO orthodox, we should be judged based on who we are as people and not on religious affiliation. It simply hurts to be labeled because some other people who look like me are bad.

    P.s. I know Ari personally, he’s a wonderful person and like me I know a lot of so called ultra-orthodox people who have helped him since he was 15 years old, even after he cut off his Payis I’ve seen him in shul and people where very friendly and accepting. I did not see this being mentioned in the documentary. When he told me 2 years ago about the documentary he helped me reach out to the producers, I offered my help in getting the true side of chasidic jewdaism, but I never received a response. As you said the normal is not interesting.

    P.p.s. What the producer said on the Charlie rose show about the holocaust, is simply disgusting. and untrue, hearing that makes me think that she has an anti-religious agenda. And not simply sharing a sad story.

    Again I’m not taking sides here, I’m simply sharing my pain on how it feels being portrayd by the media, because of what some animals did.

    • Agreed. I think we all feel the same way. I don’t know about the Chassidic community, but my community (non-Chassidic chareidi) is pretty open about our problems and tries it’s best to deal with them. If you tune in to the Motzai Shabbos radio show, they are always discussing different topics that people in the community are struggling with. Whether its molestation, porn addiction, other addictions, abuse, science vs Torah, etc, there is awareness and discussion about causes and solutions. The new fad in the secular media (enthusiastically endorsed by secular Jews) of caricaturing “ultra orthodox” Jews is annoying at best and offensive at worst. It is not authentic and it is obvious that it is agenda driven. It is annoying to many people, because those of us who work with non-Jews have to deal with the new misperceptions that they get when they watch/read ex-Hasidic stories. I end up getting crazy questions. It is not fair that the media, whether it’s CNN’s Reza Aslan show, the NYTs, the daily news, gets to treat us as if we are all a monolithic brain washed oppressed group.
      I recently met a reform woman. She wanted to learn more about Judaism. She didn’t know a thing about her history. Never heard of the five books of Moses. The only thing she knew about Judaism was, as she kept on exclaiming to me “if your an orthodox woman, you must be oppressed.”
      I saw her face when she was exposed to the other side of orthodox Judaism, the side that the media won’t show anyone.
      She was crying.

    • Moshe, what you write about Ari did come through in the film, at least to me. The scene at the wedding reception — where Ari looks a bit out of place yet clearly accepted by those around him — was heart-warming, as were his conversations with the community leader (whose name I forget). I had the same reaction when Luzer encountered his old friend in Monsey and the man was accepting of his lifestyle choice, saying his only wish was for Luzer to be happy.

    • You clearly took a side here. Saying you didnt and then writinv what you wrote is contradictory and manipulative. Adress the problems in your community if you feel so steongly instead of saying “we arent ALL like that.” Take a stand against inequality, bullying, and abuse that happens instead of just distancing yourself from said abuse. Til then, your words are empty.

  2. Does Project Makom provide legal services for parents who are fighting with their former communities for custody of their children?

    • Allison Josephs Allison Josephs : October 26, 2017 at 12:18 pm

      Thanks for your question, Eliana. We began case management in January and are up to 85 full members. We build our programing around the needs of our members. So far this issue has not arisen, but if/when it does, we will look into a solution.

      • If Project Makom is not providing all of the services that the formerly Chassidic community needs, then why is it reasonable to expect parallel coverage for Project Makom as Footsteps?Project Makom could not have helped Etty, and is not set up to help someone in a similar situation to Etty, so why is what you do *at all* relevant to Etty’s story? You are discussing two different populations: Etty and her ilk have legal (as well as political) needs that your organization is not addressing, so why are you trying to make her story about people who don’t have her needs?

        • Allison Josephs Allison Josephs : October 26, 2017 at 3:58 pm

          Thanks for your comment, Eliana. If Etty had come to us, we would have worked on a solution. Many of our members were abused, are cut off from their families, have not enough secular ed to make it in the larger world. The comment to the media (two reporters have already reached out to us since I wrote this, btw) is not about this film per se. It’s for ex-hasidic coverage in general to show different directions ex-hasidim go. Some go to Renewal services and some go to Modern Orthodox ones and some become Buddhist. The amount of ex-hasidim who want to find a new observant Jewish group is not a small one and they should be part of the coverage.

        • Allison Josephs Allison Josephs : October 26, 2017 at 3:58 pm

          Thanks for your comment, Eliana. If Etty had come to us, we would have worked on a solution. Many of our members were abused, are cut off from their families, have not enough secular ed to make it in the larger world. The comment to the media (two reporters have already reached out to us since I wrote this, btw) is not about this film per se. It’s for ex-hasidic coverage in general to show different directions ex-hasidim go. Some go to Renewal services and some go to Modern Orthodox ones and some become Buddhist. The amount of ex-hasidim who want to find a new observant Jewish group is not a small one and they should be part of the coverage.

          • Would the terms of your solution for Etty have been “if you remain Orthodox, we’ll help you keep your children, but if you decide to become a Renewal, we won’t help you anymore”? Because if that’s the case, then you’re part of the problem, and not part of the solution.

          • Allison Josephs Allison Josephs : October 26, 2017 at 4:30 pm

            Thanks for your question, Eilana. If someone doesn’t want to stay Orthodox, Footsteps has a host of services to offer. But they don’t offer getting into new Orthodox communities and the ex-chasidic community who wanted this choice had nowhere to go. So we built Makom to fill in that gap. Let me clarify something – I am a proud Orthodox Jew. Torah and mitzvos enhance my life. I had a beautiful secular Jewish life as a child and when a father in my school killed my classmate, her bother and himself, I was launched into a deep crisis realizing I would die one day and that there was nothing in my life that would come with. I never in a million years thought the answers might be in the Torah. I hated Orthodox Jews because I only knew them for their problems. Then I met open-minded, educated, non-judgmental Orthodox Jews (and this is not just MO, I have met Jews that fit that description in every community). I saw they had something I was lacking – belief in something bigger than myself. I started JITC so that other Jews who might be struggling for meaning would know that you don’t have to become a rock throwing abuse-covering up extremist to be Orthodox. You can be a productive member of society and live life with more spirituality. The thing about Makom is that the message I was trying to get out to non-Orthodox Jews (who had been judging my for my ridiculous decision) got to unhappy charedi Jews. And they approached us to find out how to live an observant but open-minded life. So while this is meaningful to me – I don’t get to choose how other adults live. I want every Jew to know what’s out there, but ultimately, everyone gets to choose their own path in life. At least I hope they do. So back to Etty – our mission statement is to help former and questioning charedi Jews who want to find their place in Orthodoxy. If Etty wanted what we offer, we would have gladly helped. If she said she no longer wanted to explore Orthodoxy and wants to go OTD (and this has happened) we would say “Good luck. We’re here if you ever need us.”

  3. Yasher Koach, Allison! What I admire about you (and this article) is instead of heaping out criticism about “look how bad this or that community is”, you’re focusing on reality. And actively helping a certain segment of the population who want to navigate from their Chassidishe enclaves. I’m in the midst of a long winded thread on Facebook with a whole group of people who presume this film is “Daas Torah” about Chassidim, and they’re accusing me of “white washing” these situations. I just posted a link to this article and told them that instead of just preaching to the choir and blaming people they don’t even know, they can roll up their sleeves and help people. Like you, I don’t live in a Chassidic community, and wouldn’t want to personally. But there are so many good people in those communities that how can one presume some bad apples are the whole bunch? Aren’t we, as Jews, supposed to look for the good in people?

  4. Why don’t you be your communities voice? Why is that the medias reaponsibility? You want people to know the good in your community? Tell them. This documentary wasn’t meant to portray the good. Clearly.

    • Allison Josephs Allison Josephs : November 3, 2017 at 9:21 am

      Thanks for your comment, Katie. We are talking about our community. They didn’t need to be in this film, per se, it’s more that when the media covers the ex-hasidic phenomenon, our people should be part of the larger story. They have gone through nearly every struggle you saw in this film, but in the end they chose to stay observant. It’s not a small group that is doing this. It’s a sizable portion of those who leave struggle very hard to find a new place to join. And not sharing the full story is not the best journalism. And I have been told by reporters that they don’t agree with the outcome to stay observant and therefore they won’t include our people.

  5. If you only help the “observant,” then you are a hypocrite. Help all of your people, and then I might listen to you. Shalom.

    • Allison Josephs Allison Josephs : November 4, 2017 at 10:06 pm

      Thanks for your comment, WJ. Our organization was founded because there was a need not being filled. There already is an organization that helps people who don’t want to be religious. There is no need for us to duplicate that work. We created this program because nobody was helping people who wanted to stay religious.

  6. Allison: While I appreciate your desire to fill a void, your comments seem to reflect some ignorance about the problem that women in Etty’s situation face. There are likely (understatement) many people in Etty’s situation that aren’t making a decision to stay vs leave orthodoxy—its not even on their mind when they start the decision to leave their husbands. But do face the daily looks and comments that their neighbors make. Word travels fast across many of these communities and lies about them do spread. I imagine that many can’t even conceive of the question “do I want to remain orthodox,” when they have pressing issues at their doorstep. So, making legal services contingent on orthodoxy does seem to me to be a very taxing and, quite frankly, non-supportive request.

    You mentioned that your organization has not yet had to help with such legal services. I strongly suspect that some of your comments are made out of ignorance on how powerful the community can be, even when the person intends to remain orthodox. I knew of many devastating cases.

    • Allison Josephs Allison Josephs : November 19, 2017 at 8:22 pm

      Thanks for your comment, AReader. The people who are coming to us specifically DO want to remain Orthodox. They have self-selected. If people come to us with issues that are more pressing than religion then we refer them to social service organizations. We don’t believe religion is the right thing to worry about if your basic stability is not in place. If and when someone wants to ask questions about Judaism, explore frum communities, then that is the time they we seek us out. There is no need for us to duplicate the work of other orgs. We have established our initiative to specifically serve a population that up until now had no services.

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Allison Josephs

Allison is the Founder and Director of Jew in the City. Please find her full bio here.