September 16, 2019

‘One of Us’ Reveals the Bitter Consequences of Leaving Chasidic Community

Fewer than two percent of Chasidic Jews ever leave the fold. The documentary “One of Us” reveals why, telling the stories of three people who have left — and paid a high price for their personal freedom.

Etty, a young mother of seven, walks out on her abusive husband and loses custody of her children. Luzer, an actor, struggles with depression and his decision to leave his family. And Ari battles addiction as he comes to terms with the trauma of childhood sexual abuse.

“Coming from a community where the collective is all that matters, these people had a ‘me’ inside that needed to have a voice,” said Heidi Ewing, who co-directed the film with Rachel Grady.

The filmmakers met in 1999 while working on a TV documentary about the Church of Scientology. “We’ve been able to build a career digging deep into subjects that interest us,” said Ewing, adding that filmmaking is “an opportunity to go into unknown worlds, ask questions and put together a story.”

Among their successes was the Oscar-nominated 2006 documentary “Jesus Camp,” about a charismatic Christian summer camp.

For their sixth film together, the filmmakers sought to crack open a window on a world they knew little about, one hidden in plain sight in their Brooklyn neighborhood.

“We were no experts on the Chasidic community before we started doing this film,” Grady said. “As outsiders, we will never truly understand.”

Grady, a nonreligious Jew, and Ewing, a non-practicing Catholic, found their way into that world through Footsteps, a support organization that helps Chasidic Jews who want to leave.

There, they found Etty, the young mother, who agreed to participate, Grady said, “with a lot of caveats,” such as hiding her face until she was ready to reveal it. “This is not someone who seeks attention,” Grady said. “She would never have chosen the spotlight had she not been in these circumstances.”

The film chronicles Etty’s custody fight amid ostracism and a smear campaign by the Chasidic community. “We couldn’t even grasp how difficult it was for these people to exit and start over — especially in Etty’s case,” Ewing said.

“She’s considered a turncoat, a traitor, because of the suspicion is that she won’t raise her children Chasidic,” Ewing said. “The way they look at it, these are the community’s children, to make up for what was lost” in the Holocaust.

Grady finds it ironic that Jews, who have a long history of facing religious oppression, would persecute their own. The Holocaust, she said, “gives you some context for this extreme behavior — things start to make sense, like why they hate the police, why they hate dogs,” she said.

Another of the film’s story lines follows Ari Hershkowitz, a young adult who as a boy was raped and beaten by a counselor at a Chasidic summer camp. He has struggled with anger, resentment and substance abuse, and is now working to stay clean and make up for lost time. “I was robbed of my life,” he says in the film.

Luzer Twersky has his own painful story. After an abusive childhood, he married at 19, fathered two children, and then walked away from his life. “Depression is something I’ll probably deal with for the rest of my life,” said Twersky, now 32. “There are issues that I deal with that have a lot more to do with how I was raised than religion.”

Describing himself as “genetically and psychologically Jewish,” Twersky said that now, “I’m not religious at all — I’m not even culturally Jewish.” He is in contact with his parents and some of his 11 siblings, but not with his ex-wife or children.

Though Twersky misses the food, the music and the sense of community, “I don’t miss the rules or the dogma or any of that, not for a second,” he said.

He drives for Uber to pay the bills, but his acting career is picking up. He often plays Jewish characters, as he did in three episodes of “Transparent” in 2015. Twersky recently shot an episode of HBO’s “High Maintenance,” and is rehearsing for a stage production of “Awake and Sing,” among other projects.

Hershkowitz is currently studying for his GED. Etty is planning to appeal the court’s custody decision. “A woman in Etty’s situation won on appeal,” Grady said, “so there’s a precedent now, a glimmer of hope.

Grady and Ewing have stayed in touch with their subjects, as the film’s release approaches. “Our main concern is preparing them for what’s coming at them,” Ewing said — including both national exposure and the Chasidic community’s potentially negative reaction.

“One of Us” has played at a handful of film festivals, before mostly New York secular Jewish audiences, who Ewing said were “outraged and offended by some of the things they saw.”

The filmmakers are currently developing several projects, including one about “fundamentalists, not necessarily religious” ones, Grady said.

As for “One of Us,” the directors say the film is less about religion than the universal theme of individuality. “I feel that it’s better to shine a light on a community that has been unchecked for so long,” Ewing said, “and have a productive conversation among Jews about these issues.”

“One of Us” opens at Laemmle’s Music Hall in Beverly Hills and starts streaming on Netflix on Oct. 20.