Chassidim Who Opt Out: the Netflix Documentary

If you accept some of the reviews and the conversations with the filmmakers, “One of Us,” the Netflix documentary released late last week is an artistic failure. Watch the film for what it seems to say, however, and you have to be more favorably impressed.

“Harrowing look inside the hasidic community,” screamed one headline. The interviewer of the filmmakers, on his reaction to the Citifield internet event, said: “As a rabbi decries the horrific and enticing dangers of the internet to a packed baseball stadium, we become fearful of religious leaders who are as much mentors as they are ranting demagogues.” After those introductions, you sort of expect an over-the-top hatchet job.

It wasn’t. The film explores the experiences of two men and one woman who leave NY Chassidic communities. It does not attempt to look inside, explain, or understand the community as a whole. It just tells the story of those who wanted to leave, and the price that each had to pay. The filmmakers could have gone for the jugular. They didn’t. They admit that the vast majority of the community is happy, and share a supportive communal life that so many others don’t have. The visuals of the Chassidim back up that contention: lots of smiling husbands and wives. (Credit for some of this apparently goes to my good friend Rabbi Avi Shafran, who made the recommendations after viewing an earlier cut.) They are not portrayed as luddites. The kids act like kids, and Chassidim of all ages show enough cultural literacy to demonstrate that they have absorbed a good deal of America. Despite the searing criticism of the way those who move away from the demands of the community are treated, the film shows Chassidim who continue to accept the pariahs as human beings, maintain old friendships, and offer heartfelt guidance. Even the single explanation (which can easily be questioned) given by a Footsteps counselor as to why the rules of the community are so strict and draconian comes across sympathetically, rather than as a corrupt and cynical exercise of power. This is a community that lost everything in the Holocaust, we are told. Children are its most precious asset and its investment in a Jewish future. The Chassidim will go to great lengths to ensure that they stay in the fold. People are not acting this way to line their pockets, but because of commitment to an ideal.

So we can all let out a sigh of relief, right?

No way. Watching it was extremely painful.

First and foremost, it was painful because two out of the three Jews who are followed claim to be victims of abuse. One is a mother of seven children who was abused for years by her husband, and is now being abused by a combination of the NY legal system and the determination of the Chassidic community not to allow children to have a relationship with a mother whose practice no longer accords with their expectations of proper chinuch. The other is a young man who was abused in a summer camp. In both cases, the attitude of the community was to deny the abuse, refuse to act against it, and punish anyone who would go to the authorities for help.

It was painful, because whatever the facts in these two cases (we do not get to hear the “other side,” if there is one), we know that abuse does in fact take place, that the reaction to it is insufficient, and that the community will turn on any accuser who goes to secular authorities.

It was painful, because we realize that the subjects of the film are not the only victims of abuse who are suffering, contemplating leaving, and often contemplating worse. It was painful to watch as an entire group of ex-chassidim gather for a seudas Shabbos together, and clearly get into the mood and the zemiros. You realize that they may think they have severed relations with Yiddishkeit, but their neshamos still cry out for it. Why, we think, did we have to lose those precious souls?

It was painful to watch as one of the men goes to an avuncular mentor/guide in the community to explain his decision. The young man talks about all his unanswered questions about G-d. He avers that if someone had been willing to give him answers, he would still be in the community. The mashpia is left almost speechless. The best he can up with is that Chassidim don’t deal with whys and wherefores (he claims), but in how to lead one’s life. He seems entirely incapable of offering even elementary explanations to common questions about Torah life. It was painful to watch because it is not only in Williamsburg that some of our children find their questions suppressed, or are given insufficient or silly answers because much of our world refuses to take these questions seriously.

It was painful to watch as there was apparently no group that suggested to the three protagonists that there are other forms of adherence to Torah and mitzvos that might work for those who have gone “off.” It is as if, to the community, there is a binary decision to be made. You are either “one of us,” or it really doesn’t matter what you do with your life. So one of the three is shown exploring a church service (albeit as part of a drug rehab program), while another explores a Jewish Renewal service, rather than exploring a different frum group. [Correction: It was later pointed out (and I should have remembered) that the ever-resourceful Allison Josephs did create an organization, Project Makom, to do just that!)

It was painful to contemplate that the very insularity that works to keep the majority of the community in the fold essentially guarantees (in a world in which the “outside” world cannot be fully kept out) that a substantial number will drop out – and that there is still no program to maintain those dropouts as halachically observant Jews and functioning human beings when they leave. It was painful to realize that so many people still don’t seem to understand how much the world has changed, and how new tools are needed to face new challenges.

Most of all, it was painful to witness the deep pain and suffering of three human beings, all the time realizing that there are many more whose stories are still untold.

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38 Responses

  1. Raymond says:

    I have said elsewhere on here, although I don’t think that my words were properly understood, that I think it is a huge mistake for the religious Jews world to treat the matter of being religious as being a black-and-white issue, that either one is religious or one is not, and there is no in-between. For one thing, given that approximately only 10% of Jews are Shomer Shabbat, that then excludes out 90% of all Jews. Our enemies have done a really efficient job of getting rid of so many of us. Must we help them along by excluding those Jews who, for whatever reason, are not completely religiously observant? Besides, who is to say who the truly religious ones are, anyway? Our Torah sages have told us that according to the effort is the reward, and so really, the Only One who can measure our efforts into doing what is right, is G-d Himself.

    Another point to be made here, is the vital importance of doing what is necessary to keep Judaism from becoming some kind of mindless cult. I think that having a Torah-only approach to one’s life, shutting out the rest of the world, helps foster such a cult-like mentality. I don’t think it is an emotionally healthy thing to do, nor is it good for one’s intellectual development. It probably makes employment a more difficult goal to achieve as well.

    The Middle Path seems to be the way to go in most avenues of life. Living a religious Jewish life within one’s local religious Jewish community is great, just as long as it is balanced out by also striving to be a good citizen of whatever country one happens to be living in.

    • Alexandra Fleksher says:

      Regarding your Torah only approach to life as not being an emotionally healthy thing to do, I have had such thoughts as well in terms of the intensity of such a lifestyle. Not everyone can live with such intensity, practically, mentally and emotionally. While certainly there are segments of chareidi and chassidish society that live this way, I am concerned about those that simply can’t handle it and yearn for some fresh air and downtime (and exploration of kosher secular outlets) without feeling that they are treif.

      • dr. bill says:

        i must tell you a true story involving a current well respected Gadol be’Yisroel. he has a busy life giving shiurim, answering important sheailot, and publishing seforim of lomdus, teshuvot and hashkafa. surprise, surprise, he needed some downtime and went fishing with a gvir and two budding talmidei chachamim. after a brief period fishing, he was back discussing divrei torah. i have seen the pictures; i wonder what reaction posting or tweeting about them would have.

      • Bo says:

        Surely you would ask him permission first!

      • Raymond says:

        Your comments reminds me of a teacher I had in the private, Orthodox high school that I attended too many years ago. The teacher in question was most definitely a Chareidi Rabbi, and quite intensely so. One of the things he would not allow himself to do, was to watch any television at all, other than one hour per week devoted to a show called Kojak. I must say that I question his taste in television! In any case, one need not go to any extreme in this idea of avoiding being too narrow in one’s religiously Jewish lifestyle. For example, one fairly kosher way to do this, is to make sure that one studies Torah from multiple, Orthodox perspectives. So, for example, if one is Chabad, it would probably be a healthy thing to do to sometimes study Torah books written by, say, Sephardic Rabbis, or even a Satmar Chassidic Rabbi. Anything to break the monopoly that one particular Rabbi or approach has on one’s mind and/or lifestyle, is I think a psychologically helpful thing to do.

        Also, one should always keep in mind that nobody is born a great Torah scholar or pious Jew. Those who accomplish such lofty things, have spent a lifetime working very hard at achieving it. To treat such a person with such a degree of reverence that it borders on a kind of idolatry, is I think a mistake. Perhaps a far more constructive use of one’s time and energy is to at least attempt to do whatever is necessary to become as great as the Rabbi whom too many are practically worshiping.

  2. Lesley says:

    Spot on.
    And it was painful thinking about those 7 children suffering without their living mither in their daily lives. Who thinks there is a chance that these kids’ neshamot which the community is so worried about will remain chassidic after going through such a visceral trauma

  3. joel rich says:

    1. “The kids act like kids, and Chassidim of all ages show enough cultural literacy to demonstrate that they have absorbed a good deal of America. ”

    me-If these kids are representative, then is the system not working as hoped for by community leadership?

    2. ” In both cases, the attitude of the community was to deny the abuse, refuse to act against it, and punish anyone who would go to the authorities for help.” and “It was painful to contemplate that the very insularity that works to keep the majority of the community in the fold essentially guarantees (in a world in which the “outside” world cannot be fully kept out) that a substantial number will drop out

    Me- One explanation would be that leadership does not see a win/win solution and has determined that this approach offers the highest return on investment given the overarching goal (e.g. keep the most group members in the fold)

    • Bo says:

      me-If these kids are representative, then is the system not working as hoped for by community leadership?

      “Have your kids aim for the stars. This way at least they’ll be out of the mud.”
      What the system says and what it wants aren’t always the same.
      As you write later, the leadership looks for the highest return –but they don’t officially *say* that.

  4. Alexandra Fleksher says:

    Rabbi Adlerstein,
    I have seen people saying that it is a must see for frum Jews. Would you agree? (Or maybe just for those who already have a Netflix account?)

    • Seeing inspires people to action. The gemara says that people should go out of their way to watch a royal procession, because by doing so, they might get a better idea of the much greater honor Hashem will bestow upon his tzadikim. In that sense, the film is a must-see. It can and should motivate us to to be more vigilant and concerned about abuse, more determined to end cover-ups, and much more focused on creating resources to meet the needs of those at risk of leaving the Torah community

  5. Jonathan says:

    In actuality, all three subjects claim to be victims of abuse, although Luzer does so only in passing. See the 47th minute where he says, “I have my childhood, which was very abusive and very dark…”.

  6. Mark says:

    The Amish have a practice called “wilding”, where their young people leave the community for a year and are allowed to do whatever they want, include engage in behaviors that many would consider immoral. The point is that they want their children to see what life is like in the “real world”, and then make a rational, deliberate decision if they want to be part of the Amish community, or not. If they leave, there is disappointment, but no other ramifications. Their families still accept them as they are. The point is that the Chasadic communities need to have something similar in place. No one should be forced or pressured to live a lifestyle. It should be voluntary, done out of a true desire of the heart to live as a frum Chasidic Jew. Not by force, not be coercion.

    • David Z says:

      Many Lubavitcher teens go through something similar. Why is it that regular Orthodox don’t need this? Can’t we raise our kids with balance? Isn’t that what Judaism is all about?

      • dr. bill says:

        i witnessed an interesting discussion between Rabbi Aryeh Lebowitz and Prof. Marc Shapiro concerning young men and women who attend secular colleges. to a large extent both agreed based on their experience, to which neither attributed the certitude of a scientific study, that students from MO homes who go off the derech, so to speak, do not do that because of their secular college attendance but were inclined in that direction even before they stepped foot into the university.

        that university attendance may result in some temporary lapses, minor or major, perhaps. but here is where they differed. as a historian prof. shapiro looking only at the longer term saw no residual negative impacts when they marry and live as a part of the jewish community. they continue to function as part of the MO community. Rabbi Lebowitz, however said, that as a Rabbi he cannot be as sanguine with even temporary non-normative behavior.

        i hope to remember to tell prof. schapiro that the gedolai ha’amish seem to agree with him. 🙂

      • tzippi says:

        I don’t know what you’re referring to re Lubavitch but the Amish model doesn’t seem so healthy or integrated.
        I guess I might not be the best person to comment, being “out of town yeshivish,” with outlets in my and my children’s lives.

  7. Shimon Pepper says:

    Painful and said- but documentary could have been much more: a call to action to parents , the community, teachers , schools , and abusers. Not sure what the goal was- and that in itself speaks to the weakness of the documentary . It was almost an info mercial for Footsteps

  8. Rivka says:

    Your point about all or none still stands. Yes Project Makom exists, but it’s not like those who don’t want to be so Ultra are told about it.

  9. Beverly Beard says:

    Excellent article and I agree with everything you have said. One point that was not made clearly in the film was that Luzer had been sexually abused when he was young. The filmakers obviously chose not to dwell on it,but I think that it is a very important point to make as apparently a very large number off people going off the derech had been abused at some point in their lives.
    Here is a link where he talks about it: Warning: bad language.

  10. David z says:

    The woman admits she was hospitalized for mental illness. Perhaps the court considered that in conjunction with stability for the children.

  11. Ariella Chase says:

    Maybe the issue is trying to find a balance between continuing to enable “a supportive communal life that so many others don’t have” while avoiding alienation for ” those who move away from the demands of the community”.
    Support, warmth and community embrace are good for the conformists in the community. However, loneliness is not just the result for non-conformists. For people with mental health and challenges, the pressure to conform and live up to unrealistic ideals can aggravate issues that people already face. Loneliness should not be engineered into the frum world. Here is a good exposition on the issue of when the community creates loneliness:

  12. lea smith says:

    Mental illness does not indicate that she can not be a good mother. You would know that if you bothered to be a little more educated. the fact that these poor children are not living together indicates that the father is not a very capable person. frum, but not together, mother mentally ill caused by an abusive husband, but was able to keep the kids together, even under extreme duress. I wonder how the judge was so stupid to allow this. Status quo will have to be demolished if it is a religious form of abuse. Chassidim is a cult, now how do I know? I am a single mother, formerly a part of that cult. I was abused in school, in camp, at home and all for the name of god. now you tell me, is this what GD wanted? like all the divorced or separated mothers I suffered and was afraid, by my very own mother and by the community. there is no help, only more expenses. Getting a Get is a struggle, your parents abandoning you cause you want something more, is also a painful. MY parent abandoned me when I chose to leave my husband, not because I chose to leave the community, cause I made an effort to leave abuse. as a woman it is not allowed freedom. As for sexual abuse, yes it is happening all the time and some have very powerful positions in yeshivas. As for education, there are none, being acclimated to the secular world is not enough, a proper education is important. Very important for a single mother that needs to pay tuition, pay for food and more. the reason why there are so much fraud and drug abuse is that of the lack of education, even the men suffer from not having an education. Men are instructed not to pay for child support. now, take this film and use it to fix your system. denying the truth won’t help. I hope that this will do something, it is a pity that “One of Us” did not say all the truth they were very careful about exposing it all. Mental illness is not a shame, ignorance is…

  13. Eli Willner says:

    Why do you label as “abuse”, “the determination of the Chassidic community not to allow children to have a relationship with a mother whose practice no longer accords with their expectations of proper chinuch.”

    • We don’t. The abuse she suffered (or claimed to suffer – we can’t know from the film) was at the hands of her husband.

      • Eli Willner says:

        How am I misreading the following quote from your article: “One is a mother of seven children who… is now being abused by a combination of the NY legal system and the determination of the Chassidic community not to allow children to have a relationship with a mother whose practice no longer accords with their expectations of proper chinuch. “

      • Simple. The abuse is NOT in trying to ensure that the kids get the best possible Torah chinuch. That they spend as much time as possible in a Torah environment, and that conflicting life-styles should not be introduced by the non-observant parent. But – and this is a very, very big but – divorce is never a lechatchila. You aim to leave as little collateral damage as possible. Kids need two parents in their lives. That is an important priority. If one of them is no longer observant, you try to engineer a way in which they do as little direct damage as possible. Moving them entirely out of the lives of their children, according to the (frum) experts is more damaging. I believe that it is a form of abuse.

      • Eli Willner says:

        I would be interested in learning which frum experts recommend that young children have a relationship with an off-the-derech parent. I doubt, in any event, that this would be a blanket recommendation. If so it seems presumptuous to declare, without knowing all the facts, that this particular OTD woman is being “abused” because her former community wishes to keep her children away from her.

      • Wonderful suggestion! Why don’t you speak to five PhD therapists with experience in the community, and report back to us. We’ll probably get more mileage out of that than just entertaining your doubts.

  14. Chad T. says:

    Lea, you and I both know there are two sides to every story. There are plenty of children with terrible childhoods, including experiencing all manner of abuse, at the hands of a mentally ill parent. There are mentally ill people who make good parents. You are not giving this subject a fair treatment if you employ shaming language to counter David Z’s comment above, which cannot be construed by a thinking person to be statement on all mentally ill people. How about a little more nuance to your thinking? Every family’s situation is different, and this film clearly fails to turn its spotlight on key personal issues the protagonists experience, that may have impacted upon their life trajectories, apart from their problems with chassidism. The result is a likely incomplete picture.

    • Bob Miller says:

      This is not the only instance in the Jewish spectrum where insistence on positive community PR at all costs impedes the resolution of serious internal problems. Every large community is likely to have its own form of this issue. Unless we can prove we’re all perfect, claims of perfection don’t fly anyway and can create or aggravate cynicism.

  15. New concepts take time to be assimilated and accommodated into the community psyche. Although OTD kids (and adults) have been considered “pariahs,” that is slowly changing. My experience in Retorno has shown me that the same is true for addicts in the frum community. Whereas in the past addicts were often blamed and shunned, now the community is beginning not only to acknowledge that addiction exists in all sectors of the community but that it is possible to find solutions within the community as well.

    • lacosta says:

      whereas the MO community has unfortunately had to come to terms with large segments of irreversible OTD’s [ unlike the haredi community which claims that given time and love theirs most always Come Home ], and in israel the DL communities likewise[where it seems the best parents can hope for post tzahal is dati extra-lite] , I don’t envision the hassidic communities can ever come to a modus operandi for dealing with happily-ever-after OTD offspring…..

  16. Jacob Bel says:

    I always relied on a simple solution for when people say that they have unanswered questions or that their Rabbi doesn’t answer them correctly. Find a new Rabbi and quit complaining.

    • tzippi says:

      Not so simple if you are in a very insulated community. It’s not so simple to pick up and leave and find a community within the rubric of authentic Yiddishkeit if it means leaving family and infrastructure.

  17. R. Adler says:

    Rabbi Adlerstein, I have avidly read your writings here and love the balance and thought involved. This post though lacks that because in your sympathy to these three people featured in the film, you cannot really examine their stories with balance. This fault is not your own at all, but the fault of the film itself which presents ONLY their side to the story. We all know that there are cases of real abuse, disfunction and injustice but there are even more cases of dropouts of the community who make it their goal to plaster the community with all sorts of claims. I know people who publicly tried to point out and write about lies in books like Devorah Feldman but no one is interested. People are more interested in reading salacious details than examining if these words are true. Feldman gets to go on television and splatter her failed marriage across the screen (ironically blaming the lack of respect for her privacy her ex-husband’s family had) but no one ever questions what the other side of the story was or if what she is saying is even true.

    I recently saw Menashe, another film about the chassidic community in Borough Park. This was not meant in any way to be negative and in some ways was really human and sympathetic. Yet the whole premise of the story, a widower who is forbidden to raise his own child without a wife, is just completely wrong. Yes, I know that the real life Menashe had some similar experience in New Square, but New Square is unique in this view, no other chassidic group I have ever heard of does such a thing. Certainly no rebbe in Borough Park would prevent a father from raising his son. Yet the film makes this appear as completely normal and thus paints all Borough Park in this light. Yitta Halberstam wrote a review on the film and she pointed out that EVERY chassidic character in the film is mean spirited (from the rebbe, to the brother-in-law and the boss of the store) the only kind characters are the Latino store workers. Watching the interactions with the rebbe, the date scene and so many others left me cold. I–a woman–have stood before a rebbe and felt only warmth, humanity and sympathy and a real interest. I have dated in the chasidic community and never heard anyone say that there is nothing to life except marriage and babies for us women. I had a neighbor who is a chassidic widower raising his two sons, and everyone in the community does nothing but rally around to help him–he is never without a place to go for Shabbos and Yom Tov. Why in Menashe do we never see him invited by practically strangers for a Shabbos meal? Why do we never see his neighbors bringing over meals? This is STANDARD is our community! Instead Menashe is just a shlemazel who is denied all sympathy by any chasidic character in the film. I have never heard of anyone in the chassidic community being ‘forced’ into a failed marriage like Menashe says he was in the film. I went to a yiddish speaking school and never met a mechanech/es that denied my questions and said thinks like the mentor in the Netflix film said. Even if such things did and do happen, why must the film see us ONLY in this light. Even in this genuinely humanizing film, they cannot but portray chassidic as completely lacking warmth.

    So getting back to the Netflix film: Here we have three people who makes claims about their lives in the chassidic community. They could be true, they could be false or greatly dramatized but they certainly should not be used to castigate a whole community across the globe. Incidentally, I have heard from a relative of one of the woman’s ex-husband that they were horrified watching the film because the amount of distortion and even outright lies and claims of abuse involved. They denial ALL claims of abuse, blame her mental illness and say this is all a grand act of attention getting delusion. Maybe the husband’s relatives are biased in favor of their side, maybe the truth is elusive and hard to determine but the protagonist was also certainly biased to her own story and it is a great injustice to the family that she went on television and was given the ability to say whatever she wants without any accountability or balance.

    Rabbi Alderstein’s words are true, that there is abuse, that there are these people in pain and that this needs to lead to soul searching. But in the midst of that pain is intermingled the pain of the chassidic community who has suffered not only the loss of these children but has seen them seek to present what they abandoned in a terrible light, even through outright distortions and lies.

  18. David F says:

    As someone who is not Chassidish, yet has lived in a predominantly Chassidish community for a good part of my adult life, I’ve picked up a few things that escape a lot of folks who discuss the problems in the Chassidish community and potential solutions:
    Most notable is that although we all worship the same G-d and observe Shabbos on the same day of the week and share many other similarities, a Chassidish community is fundamentally different than anything else. It bears little resemblance to a standard-issue Litvish/Modern Orthodox community. This is a reality and explains a lot of things, but first we must accept that this is the reality. The more Chassidish and insular the community, the greater the divergence from Litvish/MO, and the less capable we are of evaluating their strengths and weaknesses.
    Consequently, things that would appear to be problematic, and in our communities may be indicative of serious problems, may well not be problematic because of their different dynamic. I shudder at the thought of an 18-yr old boy marrying a 17-yr old girl, and for good reason. I doubt my kids would succeed at that. They embrace it and have enjoyed tremendous success [with obvious failures too – but that may not be related to the ages of the bride and groom.]
    Things that we might perceive as indicators of great success, they may discover to be ruinous in their setting. Too many examples to list.
    I’ve davened, worked alongside, learned together with, and partied with so many Chassidim and I’ve learned that their lifestyle must be seen in its totality before one can truly appreciate the strengths and weaknesses inherent.
    I don’t say this to excuse them, but rather, to offer a fuller picture than anything being offered here on in a documentary. More importantly, as I’ve learned, sometimes change is possible, but almost never when it comes from an outsider who never took the time to really learn the community and understand why things are as they are. I’ve tried to influence them and found that my greatest successes at the personal and at the communal level, have only been as a result of the deep familiarity I have with the system and the respect that they sense I have for it, even though I so clearly don’t practice as they do.
    All the magazines, newpapers, blogs, and do-gooder’s, can continue to write stories, documentaries, articles, and blogs and it won’t have a fraction of the success that someone with a comprehensive working knowledge of the community can achieve.

  19. Asher says:

    Luzer Twesky is also featured in Penn Jillette’s (of Penn and Teller fame) book “God No!” where he is described as trying to convince others to leave the fold. If what Penn writes is true, then he has the Halachic status of a Meysis Umediach and it is assur to be merachem on him at all! No matter how much abuse he received.
    I’m also surprised that R Adlerstein would recommend a film which will likely result in many other chassidim leaving the fold cha”v. Unfortuantely the fil is already being forwarded on all the chassidic chats and channels on Telegram.
    Just like suicide increases when publicized, so too more people go off when it’s publicized as an option.
    (As an aside, the film is quite boring as well. Unless you’re really into closeups of peoples eyes.)

    • 1) I didn’t recommend anything.
      2) I did think that the film was not boring at all, and done very well.
      3) People who think that every mention of a film, book, or idea on some blog is going to turn people’s heads from emunah to kefirah need to do a serious reality check. No one is going to go off by watching the film. Aderaba. They may think twice about the price they will have to pay.
      4) I approach anything in media with ample skepticism. Penn and Teller get skepticism by the truckload
      5) The only verified impact that my review had was one person who had previously determined to leave his community decided to try Makom, BH, rather than Footsteps. That makes all the agmas nefesh I’ve gotten over it worthwhile

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