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 about the lives of three members of the Footsteps organization. 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.