The Hasidic Jewish community in New York City is one of the most visibly religious communities in the world. It is also one of the more insular and secretive.
Hasidism is a pietistic, ultra-Orthodox Jewish movement with dozens of sects. In recent years Hasids have come under scrutiny due to the testimony of those who’ve left the fold. As individuals leave the Hasidic world and tell their stories, “Off the Derekh” memoirs (based on a Yiddish phrase meaning “off the path”) have proliferated, like Deborah Feldman’s Unorthodox and Shulem Deen’s All Who Go Do Not Return.
A new Netflix documentary, One of Us (directed by Jesus Camp’s Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady), takes us into this world through the eyes of Etty, Ari, and Luzer, three individuals who have chosen to leave their Hasidic communities and tell their stories.
Three Painful Stories
“It wasn’t my choice, this marriage,” laments Etty, a mother of seven, as she describes how her arranged marriage to a stranger quickly dissolved into an increasingly controlling and abusive environment. “I’m invisible. . . . I was trained for motherhood only and the human being behind fell apart.”
Etty’s situation leads her to seek help from outside the Hasidic community. When she does, her community turns on her.
We first meet Ari as he sits down in a barbershop to cut off his payos—the side curls Hasidic men wear in front of their ears. The act is more than just a haircut; it’s a symbolic step away from the way of life that has defined him. As a teenager Ari discovered the internet, forbidden to Hasidic Jews. “Wikipedia was a gift from God,” Ari explains as he describes the minimal secular education he received in Jewish religious schools, where non-religious subjects are often neglected and students may never learn basic math or reading.
“I don’t know anything,” he says in the film. “I have to start learning new things . . . how people live in the world.”
Finally, we meet Luzer in Los Angeles, where he’s creating a new life for himself as an actor. He describes how he used to sneak into Blockbuster to rent movies and secretly watch them in his car. These were his gateway to the secular world. When his wife saw he was moving away from Judaism, however, she divorced him. His move away from Hasidism cost him his wife, his children, his family—everything he knew.
Lessons From the Leavers
The stories of these three young adults—both before and after leaving the Hasidic community—are fraught with trauma and pain. Within the community, each endured significant abuse—but leaving also brought harassment and ostracism. In an insular group, secrecy serves as a means of control, as does the pressure placed on those who opt to engage with or leave for the secular world. Less than 2 percent of those born within these communities ever leave.
One of Us does not attempt a balanced view of the Hasidic community. For Etty, Ari, and Luzer, there is no balance. They carry deep wounds that lead them to depart, and the film focuses on their perspectives. The stories of the many others who choose to join and choose to stay are not represented here. In a closed community, the accessible stories are of those who leave, not those who stay.
But stories of “leavers” are important and instructive. The testimonies of those who leave religious communities—and the reasons why—can shed helpful light on the failings of religious communities that must be grappled with.
By illuminating the abuse within the Hasidic community, as well as its separation from the non-Hasidic world and cold rejection of members who leave, One of Us underscores the community’s misunderstanding of God and the world he created.
Hasidic Judaism has beautiful aspects and is attractive to many, including some Christians. But at its core, there is a problem: “They have a zeal for God, but not according to knowledge. For, being ignorant of the righteousness of God, and seeking to establish their own, they did not submit to God’s righteousness” (Rom. 10:2-3).
Crushed by Legalism
This exchange—trading God’s righteousness for self-righteousness—ultimately crushes individuals in the community and leads to the pain we see in this film.
One of Us discusses how the Hasidic communities arrived in the United States after the Holocaust and created a tightly guarded community to protect themselves from the dangers of secularism. Much has been written about the dangers of expressive individualism and the ruinous effect on religious life. As Christians we may envy the devout community the Hasidic world has achieved and preserved.
But isolated, untainted-by-secularism community is not the silver bullet.
Legalism is not only a Jewish problem; it’s a human problem. Law, not gospel, is our default religion. As we try to work out how we should relate to a secular culture, it’s easy to forget that it’s God—not the communities we build—who saves us. Community is an idol when we ostracize individuals who ask questions, admit doubt, reveal moral failings, or report abuse.
When individuals in our communities ask hard questions, we don’t have to respond with fear. Because of the gospel, we can have confidence in the truth. We should strive to cultivate faith communities that embrace doubters and skeptics, because God’s truth isn’t fragile.
Ultimately, One of Us doesn’t villainize Hasidic Jews so much as it humanizes them, reminding us of their desperate need for the good news of the gospel. These people are among the descendants of those Jesus wept over and longed to draw near to himself (Luke 19:41–44), a people God still longs to reconcile.
The pain and hope in the stories of Etty, Ari, and Luzer remind us that true freedom and meaning are found neither through insular community, nor individual autonomy, but through Israel’s Messiah, Jesus.