In the beginning

In the beginning

Leaving the chasidic fold, but finding a family

“One of Us” talkback features filmmakers and subjects. Colleen Brennan
“One of Us” talkback features filmmakers and subjects. Colleen Brennan

Now that the new documentary “One of Us” has been released on Netflix, many people around the world have likely seen the painful stories of three young people who left the chasidic world. And many may be watching it in secret, on smartphones not allowed inside their ultra-Orthodox homes. 

Directed by the Oscar-nominated team of Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady, “One of Us,” which inspired a lot of buzz over the summer when it premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival, opened in New York on Oct. 20 at the IFC Center, followed by talkbacks with the actors and directors. 

At the sold-out sneak preview for members of Footsteps — the organization that provides counseling and assistance to individuals who have left chasidic life or are considering leaving — the audience was filled with people in various stages of exiting their former lives. The atmosphere was similar to a family reunion: For many Footsteps participants whose relatives no longer accept them, Footsteps is their family. But next to me during the film, two young women wept, understanding firsthand the wrenching stories they were watching.

The film follows the story of Luzer, now an actor, who lost contact with his children and all of his family when he left; Ari, a young man who was raped in summer camp and later questioned how God could let terrible things happen; and Etty, a mother of seven who was abused by her husband throughout their 12-year marriage. She sought divorce and ultimately protection from her husband, and was shunned for turning to outside authorities. Her story is perhaps the most difficult to watch, as she loses her children in a custody battle, when her husband has the community behind him and the resources to find the legal loopholes to win everything in court.

Following the screening, Lani Santo, executive director of Footsteps, moderated a panel that included Luzer, Ari, Etty, and Ewing. She explained that Footsteps carefully guards the privacy of its members and that it was only after many months of discussion that they granted the filmmakers access to the community. Santo asked the panelists what gave them the most pride.

For Ari, it was the fact that he was “clean for 11 months,” following a cocaine addiction, and that he had just begun his first day of college. “I have the chance of a better life,” he said.

Luzer, who left the fold nine years ago, said, “I’m proud of my career and new possibilities. I’m most proud of still being here.”

Etty, whose face isn’t seen for the first part of the film, explained that it’s hard to use the word proud as she has so much pain. She recalled once telling Santo that she felt like a strapless dress — not that she’d ever worn one. “You don’t know how it stays up. I remember the feeling that I didn’t know how I would walk out the door.” She adds, “Perseverance held me together.”

In an interview a few days after the preview, Santo said that Footsteps has had an influx of donations and offers to help since the film opened, with the largest donation in recent days coming from a Footsteps member.

“I think there’s a lot of pride among Footsteps members in seeing their own stories validated. At the same time, for them, it’s a moment of reliving the trauma they have moved beyond. Yes, there’s a lot of heaviness around it, and also a lot of hope in moving forward, that this community can not only survive, but thrive.”

In the film, there’s a rare moment of beauty: Several young men and women who have left get together for a traditional Shabbat meal, a freeform version of what they left behind, with a large table covered with a white cloth, set with good food and wine. Several sing the soulful melodies of their childhood, from their hearts, still able to feel the majesty.

“One of Us” will play at the JCC of Manhattan on Nov. 14 and on Nov. 13 and 16 at the DOC NYC Film Festival.

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