One of Us — The Takeaway

One of Us hit everyone hard. I’ve been compulsively reading the online comments and Facebook conversations and it doesn’t seem like anyone made it through that documentary unscathed. I know that if I’d watched the film five years ago, my reaction would have been one of defensiveness. I would have been on the side of people asking, “What was the point? Why did they need to air all that dirty laundry and turn this into a public spectacle?” I would have shaken my head at the filmmakers and assumed that their motivations must have been subtly anti-Semitic. I might even have quietly judged the subjects of the documentary and thought to myself, “There’s got to be more to the story. No one just takes seven children away from their mother.” But I’m not the same person I was five years ago.

Now, I’m deeply saddened by those reactions. It breaks my heart that religious people are watching the film and the only takeaway that they can come up with is that the Chassidic community is being unfairly targeted and painted in a malicious and negative light. I’ve seen rants against Footsteps, painting it as a devious and selfish organization that deserves to be shut down. I’ve seen the credibility of the film subjects be questioned for the silliest reasons and I’ve seen a five second clip of one filmmaker making a careless and historically inaccurate statement be used as a reason to undermine the whole project. But I understand that the reaction comes from a place of fear and self-preservation. An “us vs. them” mentality keeps insular communities alive.

I’ve been on both sides. I’ve been securely on the inside, dismissive of “exposés” and memoirs written by people who’d left. It was easy to dismiss those people as bitter, mentally ill, or otherwise predisposed to unhappiness; I mean, surely it couldn’t be that forced religiosity was the root of their life problems. And now I’m solidly on the outside, while still loving many people who hold those beliefs that I use to have. Now I personally know the people that I previously wrote off as disenfranchised. Now I know people who work at Footsteps and have friends that have been treated horrifically by religious institutions and I admire so many men and women who have stood up for their truths because they knew that what they were doing was right for them and they wouldn’t allow themselves to be bullied or beaten into silence.

So, please, with the knowledge that I understand both sides, I ask that you put aside your personal opinions and consider this fact: The irrefutable truth of the film is that in many cases, the Chassidic community is threatened by and can be aggressive towards those who try to leave. Of course there are exceptions. I’m sure your cousin’s neighbor’s Chassidish brother in law was once nice to his nephew who was going off the derech. But that’s not the point. In order to survive, the Chassidish community has to act this way. If they were open and accepting of variety and individuality, they wouldn’t exist in the way that they do. But the purpose of the film isn’t to attack the frum community. It’s to highlight the fact that those who leave need our help.

The education system, Yiddish as a first language, the lack of exposure to secular society, and the active non-reporting of sexual abuse puts those trying to leave the Chassidish community at a huge disadvantage, greater than those who try to leave yeshivish or modern orthodox communities. They are ill-equipped to obtain jobs, seek higher education opportunities, seek effective mental health counseling, and pursue romantic relationships. And maybe if they could maintain the familial and community relationships that they enjoyed their whole lives, this transition would be easier, but that’s most often not the case. There is brutal disconnection. There is community pressure to sever family ties. There is an exceedingly narrow range of acceptable attire, entertainment, and social activities, so it’s easy for the person leaving to transgress and cross into unforgivable territory. As Footsteps staff so eloquently states in the film, no one leaves without paying a price.

The plight of the individual leaving the Chassidish community goes so much deeper than the external and visible changes. Usually, there’s been serious emotional turmoil prior to taking the steps to leave.  As with leaving any rigid, religious community, there’s often a disconnect between the beliefs of the community and beliefs of the individual. Being forced into an incongruent or incomprehensible value system takes a heavy toll. These people may have experienced or witnessed abuses, which were then disbelieved and swept under the rug. They may have been brave enough to ask questions and challenge the status quo, only to be told off for being disrespectful, heretical or crazy. They may simply not want the lifestyle that was forced upon them. They may not want the early marriage and multiple children. They may know in their hearts that their path is meant to be different. And so they are fed a steady diet of, “You are wrong. You are flawed because of your thoughts and beliefs. You are not a good person. You need to change. And if you refuse to do so, you are no longer one of us.”

No one leaves without thinking it over and no one leaves without experiencing pain. There’s the pain of losing everything you love and know, the pain of rejection from family, friends and neighbors. There’s the pain of judgement and disapproval and there’s the pain of assumption: “He was probably molested. She was always mentally unstable. He just wanted to eat a cheeseburger. She’s an addict, what do you expect?” There’s a reason so many spiral into drug addiction. And it’s connected to the mental torture that takes place when you are viewed as an embarrassment, a problem, and a burden, simply for seeking your own truth.

What came first – OTD people being drug addicts or religious people putting OTD people through hell, to the point where escape through substance abuse is the only sensible option?

What came first – OTD people being mentally ill or religious people invalidating and persecuting OTD people so vehemently that even someone with the healthiest psyche will start to crack?

What came first – OTD people being bitter and hateful towards the religious community or religious communities waging war on those who try to leave?

We are not each other’s enemies. This doesn’t have to be a war. When it comes to people wanting to leave the religious community, stop with the defensiveness and finger pointing. The Chassidish community has to have realized by now that not everyone will want to stay. They can clamp down and further isolate themselves, but there will always be people who question, always people who don’t fit the mold. There will always be people who try to leave.

The question that needs to be asked after watching One Of Us needs to be this: How can we support those who want to leave?

Follow up questions include, how can they be supported so that they aren’t destined for a life of heartache and struggle? How can religious people support them without having the ulterior motive of wanting them to return? How can religious people support them without feeling like they are sacrificing their own religious beliefs? How can families remain as intact as possible, so that more children don’t needlessly suffer?

To the religious people in my life: Those questions aren’t a threat to you. They don’t require you to step outside of your foundational beliefs. They do require you to stop excoriating OTD people for wanting better treatment. They do expect you to be compassionate, kind, and loving, which I’m pretty sure are beliefs you value.

This hatred and vitriol within the Jewish community needs to stop. If we are all brothers and sisters then our family is hurting and this is a time to help each other. This is a time to love, fully and unconditionally, even if it takes you outside of your comfort zone.

Stop worrying about what the rest of the world thinks. Right now, they don’t matter. After I watched One Of Us, I posted the following on my Facebook page: Watch this. Keep an open mind. I had a million more thoughts to share, but that was my starting place. Lower your defenses. We are on the same side here and we are all part of the solution.

About the Author
Shoshana is an author and social worker living in South Jersey. She works primarily with teenagers and has mostly worked in urban environments. In her spare time, she can be found rock climbing and drinking iced coffee, occasionally at the same time.
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