The ultra-orthodox Hasidic community has designed itself to remain distinctly separate from the rest of the world. They dress, speak and act in accordance to the traditions and laws established in the shtetls (small Jewish villages) of Eastern Europe and reject all forms of outside influence. Those who choose to leave these types of Jewish communities face an abundance of roadblocks on their way — their families may reject them, their English and secular knowledge may be next to nothing, they are often dealing with unaddressed trauma and they suffer from existential angst and unanswered questions.
“One of Us,” a new documentary on Netflix, follows three individuals through their struggles with finding their way out of the Hasidic community which they have known and discovering their identity beyond the isolation of the Hasidic world. Etty is a mother fighting her abusive ex-husband for custody of her children. Ari is recovering from addiction and unspeakable trauma, caught between two worlds. Luzer is coping with unaddressed pain from his past and discovering what he truly wants from his new life.
Footsteps is a not-for-profit organization in New York City which helps those who have left or are thinking about leaving the Hasidic fold. They provide mental health support, economic and educational empowerment, family support and a community of individuals with similar backgrounds and stories. Footsteps worked closely with co-directors Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady (“Jesus Camp”) to do justice to the stories of Etty, Ari and Luzer (all members, past or present, of the Footsteps community). “One of Us” gives a closer look at three personal stories of survival and recovery, but it is opening up Pandora’s box and looking in at a formerly closed-off world. The documentary is creating a space for dialogue and education and highlights the incredible work that Footsteps does as an organization.
I sat down with Sam Langstein, Program and Operations Coordinator at Footsteps, to speak about the film and the work Footsteps does with the OTD community (Off The Derech: A term for those who leave the ultra-orthodox community). Langstein hopes the film promotes awareness about the issues facing those who leave the ultra-orthodox Hasidic community. Langstein recalls a friend asking for “no spoilers” about the documentary. How odd, he thought, that the people he has worked with over his time at Footsteps have been characterized by the film. Etty, Ari and Luzer have been immortalized as representations of those who leave the Hasidic community. Yet, those characters have opened the eyes of strangers and natives alike to their stories. Those who attended the New York premiere of the film or have seen it on Netflix can identify with the universal element of what Langstein calls a “search for identity and belonging.”
Langstein reports that these stories are typical in a lot of ways and they are “representative of a larger problem.” Still, he admits, “no two journeys are the same.” He recalls a Footsteps member at the premiere saying, “after my divorce I was Etty; When I was struggling with addiction as a teenager, I was Ari; Now I am Luzer, trying to figure it out nine years after leaving.” The stories in “One of Us” are giving Footsteps members an opportunity to “see themselves in the characters on the biggest stage yet.” More than acting as a mirror, the documentary is empowering Footsteps and other organizations like it to share their goals with the greater public.
Langstein says the documentary is enabling real change through awareness. The more people know about the struggles the ex-Hasidic community face and the immense control the Hasidic world has over individuals and institutions alike, the more change that can take place on a grander scale.
“Hopefully the film will be a force of pride for those who left and a force of pressure for the court systems and the way the ultra-orthodox community deals with abuse and addiction,” Langstein said.
In the eyes of the Hasidic world, Footsteps is the devil. However, for those who have left the strong grasp of the powerful Hasidic community, Footsteps is an angel in disguise. Etty is doing well in school and hopes to become a lawyer to help people in similar positions as her. Ari is sober and just started a program to get into college. Luzer won a best actor award at the International Toronto Film Festival for his role in “Felix and Meira” and has appeared in several episodes of Amazon’s award-winning “Transparent.” “These three stories show what incredible odds these people are up against,” Langstein said. “They have had harrowing lives, but they are survivors, they are getting through it.” And with the help of Footsteps and the new exposure from “One of Us,” they are not just surviving, but thriving.
If you are interested in learning more about Footsteps or how you can make a difference, visit their website here.