As a former member of the chasidic community with a Ph.D. dissertation on those who leave the fold, I note at the outset that the protagonists in “One of Us,” the recently released Netflix documentary, do not represent the majority of those who exit the chasidic or ultra-Orthodox community (“Leaving The Chasidic Fold, But Finding A Family”).
The three people portrayed are extreme cases, both in terms of the trauma they suffered before deciding to leave and the trauma they suffered while trying to leave. This, of course, is part of what makes the film so captivating. The struggles, commitments, heroism and beauty of the three protagonists, Luzer, Ari and Etty, are laid bare in this masterful work of art.
Ari alleges he was raped as a child by a camp staff member; Luzer says he was abused as a child; and Etty says she suffered for years with an abusive husband. As he distances himself from the community, Ari struggles with a cocaine addiction and his parents pay for him to go to a drug rehabilitation program far from home, but seldom call to speak to him. Luzer feels forced to cut off all contact with his two children inside the community, doesn’t speak to his parents for seven years and at one point tries to commit suicide. Etty, the emotional engine of the film, fights to retain custody of her seven children, while her family and the rest of her community support her husband’s claim for sole custody. These are deeply painful experiences, and these individuals are exceptionally brave for appearing in the film.
The filmmakers Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady are not new to documenting intense religious communities. Ten years ago, as I watched their previous film, “Jesus Camp,” about a group of Christian children attending an evangelical summer camp in North Dakota, I marveled at the odd similarities and differences between it and the Lubavitch summer camps of my youth. Likewise, I have no doubt that viewers who are strangers to chasidism and even Judaism will find entry points for empathy, connection and identification with the complex subjects of “One of Us.”
To understand the variety of experiences among chasidic exiters, it is important to note that the film speaks of “the community” and “chasidic” as if these terms refer to a monolithic entity. In truth, there are multiple, distinct communities that make up the chasidic world. My research, in interviewing some 75 people who left their communities, distinguishes between exiters from Lubavitch, based in Crown Heights, and those from Satmar, based in Williamsburg and Kiryas Joel, as well as exiters from smaller sects that are closely associated with Satmar. Lubavitch is noted for its outreach work around the world and, compared to Satmar, has a more flexible approach to dealing with those who have exited the fold. We are not told the exact sect that the three film subjects originate from, but it is clearly from a group similar to Satmar in its handling of exiters.
Across the various sects, some exiters have a history of emotional, physical or sexual abuse. But this is by no means the experience of all or even most of those who flee. Further, among Lubavitch breakaways, it is rare for them to experience their family, much less their community, using the court system to try to take away their children because of their religious exit, as the film portrays in excruciating detail. This is in part because while Satmars tend to marry much earlier than Lubavitchers, and tend to have children by the time they decide to leave, Lubavitchers, in contrast, tend to leave before having children. But in part, the experience of these devastating custody battles that Satmar exiters endure is due to the stricter and more punitive nature of Satmar’s attitude towards religious exit.
Likewise, those who leave the Lubavitch fold generally do not describe being cut off from their families completely because of their lifestyle choices. Sometimes there is a temporary break of communication with their family after the initial shock of their exit, but Lubavitchers usually reconnect eventually, typically within a year, according to my research.
Even among Satmar exiters, some do manage to leave the community with their children. In at least one case among my research subjects, the family of a Satmar breakaway sided with the young person in this process. In fact, it is rare for even those who flee Satmar backgrounds to be completely cut off from their families.
None of this means that Lubavitch and Satmar breakaways don’t suffer, sometimes terribly, from the exit process. To use the film’s language, every one of them “pays a price” for leaving. It’s just that the price is not necessarily custody of their children. Family relationships, even if not cut off, are always changed by the process and the outcome of the religious exiter’s move away from the community. Those who leave endure painful negotiations and compromises. But in the end, they usually find a way to stay connected with their families.
“One of Us” provides the public with a wonderful opportunity to learn about the experiences of some of the people who leave the ultra-Orthodox world, and to follow the emotional, thought-provoking and inspiring journey of three brave souls. But viewers should also know that these experiences are only those of “some of us” who break with their chasidic upbringing.
Zalman Newfield has a Ph.D. in sociology from NYU and is a lecturer for NJ-STEP, Rutgers University’s college program for New Jersey state prison inmates. He plans to publish both his dissertation on chasidic exiters and his own memoir.