Interview'People leave the community and die all the time'

Saga of former Hasidic Jews starting afresh exposed in Netflix film

In their documentary screening Friday, Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady show that in the insular Satmar sect, losing religion has consequences — especially for parents

Rachel Grady, left, and Heidi Ewing, filmmakers behind 'One of Us.' (Courtesy Netflix)
Rachel Grady, left, and Heidi Ewing, filmmakers behind 'One of Us.' (Courtesy Netflix)

NEW YORK — A documentary called “One of Us” debuts on Netflix this Friday.

It will cause heated discussion and perhaps make some people uncomfortable. It may be met with some defensive arguments and perhaps some of its more damning accusations will be scrutinized and debunked.

Nevertheless, if half of what’s shown in this motion picture is true (and I suspect it’s much more than that), it’s still something that needs to be addressed.

“One of Us” exposes the measures of control the Hasidic community in Brooklyn has on its members. Documentarians Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady, whose previous work includes a not-dissimilar “Jesus Camp” and more lighthearted profile of Norman Lear, detail the methods this insular group uses to maintain its power over individuals. The levers pulled when someone within the group begins showing signs of desertion are terrifying.

There are three subjects, each on different stages of their journey.

Earliest in the process, and most heartbreaking, is Etty, a mother of seven whose husband is physically and psychologically abusive. Etty was told to marry him, a near-stranger, when she was just past the age of consent.

At this point she was condemned to a life as a baby factory.

“One of Us” follows Etty as she first makes contact with the group Footsteps, which helps introduce ultra-Orthodox people to the outside world. We then watch in horror as her children are taken from her by cruel courts and lawyers who exploit “status quo” loopholes.

Ari is a teen survivor of sexual assault who is about midway to gaining independence. He’s cut his hair, he’s starting to learn math and how to use computers. His existential crisis has also led, however, to an early drug problem.

Luzer gives all appearances of being successfully “out.” He’s moved to California and has made some in roads toward an acting career. (Perhaps you saw him in the movie “Felix et Meira”?) But “One of Us” shows that while settings may change, identity does not.

I had the good fortune to sit with Ewing and Grady recently on a sweaty October morning in Manhattan. The following conversation has been edited.

When did you first meet?

Rachel Grady: Very young. We both got jobs in the late 1990s at a production office working on a two hour special on the Church of Scientology. Which is not an irrelevant detail.

Heidi Ewing: Despite everyone saying “don’t do it, they’ll sue you!”

First and most importantly, how is Etty doing right now?

RG: It’s day-to-day. She’s still in the middle of it.

HE: She’s picking her life up in an admirable and brave way, she’s trying to get an education, she’s studying criminal justice. She wants to have her life have meaning and to help other women who lose their children.

She sees her kids one hour a week, individually, and with supervision, right?

RG: No. It has gotten worse.

She has seven children she loves, where does she get the strength to leave her entire family, her abusive husband, and the larger community?

RG: She wasn’t trying to leave the community. She was trying to get out of a marriage. Somehow she had convinced herself that she was going to be able to maintain her religious lifestyle and the relationship with her kids. Even though she saw what happened to other women.

She didn’t quite realize how difficult it would be.

RG: Correct. Plus, they gave it to her extra bad. They have a checklist of things to do, and she got everything.

Simply because of the quantity of children?

RG: Yes. It was an all hands on deck. “We’re about to lose seven.” People with seven children don’t get divorced. But she was desperate. She really thought she was going to die if she stayed. And she was certainly dying inside.

In the film you don’t defend the community, and certainly not the horrible tactics they use, but you do explain that this is a community born out of the Holocaust, and that does at least offer a bit of shading as to why they are so insular.

But you also show how they use mind control. The biggest question, then, is how did these three characters even know that they could get out? The kid, Ari, he doesn’t know math, he doesn’t know how to Google.

RG: That’s exactly why we wanted to make the movie. The nature/nurture thing that a community like this can provide storytellers is extraordinary. It’s sealed. These are themes we always come back to. In a family of 10, why is one different? They were all raised exactly the same. Is it genetic? What is it?

HE: Hardly anyone leaves groups like this. We have a self-selection of people that were going to Footsteps. So these are people with a deep curiosity, or independence. Or desperation. As Ari says, “a combination of stupidity and guts.”

It’s that black sheep that we’re fascinated by. Because there is, actually, no good reason for anyone to get up and leave this community and think that they are going to have a regular or happy life. There were six suicides that happened over our production.

They leave and die all the time. You look at someone like Etty, whose entire family is now against her, she has no one. She wasn’t trying to leave, she just wanted to escape abuse.

Yet they pushed her out and took her kids, even though she said she would raise her children religious. “I’ll keep kosher, I’ll keep Shabbat,” but they say “your children will know, just by looking at you, that you don’t believe.” And that is too dangerous to have the kids exposed.

And the master plan for all this? The reason the men in charge keep these intense measures?

HE: They cannot afford a crack of light.

RG: It’s not worth it, get rid of that person – cut it off!

Let me ask a basic question. We look at the books from the schools and they are all terrible. Ari says he never learned math. There has to be some education? Some of these people work in business? Right, diamond shops? They live in the world, they do math. Where is the money coming from?

HE: It’s also by design.

RG: Essentially there is a percentage of people in the community that float everyone else. They pay for the yeshivas and everything else.

Plus some New York taxes, as many are on the dole.

HE: Most everyone is on the dole.

RG: At least half on public service. Some in the community are the grant-makers. They figure out every dime they can get for everyone else. Figuring out how to get Pell grant money for your eight kids even though you have zero intention of ever educating them. There is no stone left unturned.

And it’s not diamonds, it’s real estate. They own Brooklyn and they have a shit-ton of money.

HE: It’s a handful that have the money, and their children are expected to marry into an impoverished family. The daughter of a wealthy family should go to a learned student who prays all day and is pious and not-worldly, whereas she comes from a worldly family. So you have status through education.

Ironically is that the girls get about a sixth grade education. They can balance a checkbook and keep a household together. They actually get more education before they are unleashed to get married at 18.

RG: The boys stop getting secular education in fourth grade.

HE: And even though they have English class by law, but oftentimes people don’t care.

Are all the Hasidic sects in Brooklyn operating the same way?

RG: All of our people are from the Satmar group, the largest and and most powerful. Very conservative.

HE: And the judges are all elected, not appointed.

This maintains the “status quo” issue in the divorce courts, and the city has its hands tied. They have their own infrastructure, ambulances, security, they have their own guy on the assembly –

RG: Dov [Hikind].

HE: There is no incentive for a city council member or any politician in New York to go up against the Hasidic Jewish community.

Of course not, you’ll look like an anti-Semite.

RG: Right.

HE: They’re too small, why bother?

They keep to themselves and they pay their taxes.

[Rachel and Heidi flash a look.]

Well, they pay their taxes as much as any other rich, secret society pays their taxes?

[Rachel and Heidi react in non-verbal ways.]

Okay, so someone in a very non-Jewish place watches this movie, they think “Oy, all the Jews who wear the black hats are the same.” Do you say they’re all the same?

HE: Well, Chabad-Lubavitch have different practices. They evangelize. They talk to Reform Jews and are much more worldly.

RG: They are all over the world and, therefore, they have to interact with modern people all the time. And don’t speak Yiddish.

HE: Then there’s the Zionists and the anti-Zionists, and then of course there are many who are very happy.

RG: We could never say they are all the same, and there are families that are more conservative than others.

HE: Right, and Luzer was raised Belz but chose to become Satmar as a teen, but Etty’s husband was Satmar but began following a Ger rabbi, which is even extra conservative, so suddenly they were under the very severe Ger laws of purity and sexual practices. People do choose a rabbi, it isn’t all down-the-line, it’s a little messy.

But you decided to leave this all out of the movie.

RG: It’s too complicated. With this story there’s a thousand roads we could have gone down. It’s a complicated community with thousands of layers of nuance.

Yeah, I was waiting for something about the string –

HE: The eruv, the eruv, yeah.

RG: Once you know about it, you see it everywhere.

Your three subjects don’t wish to stop being Jewish.

HE: No, not at all.

RG: I think they are more into the identity than the religion. The customs. It’s part of their DNA. It’s like being from Chicago.

Correct me if I’m wrong, or feel free to say it’s none of my business, but you [Rachel] are Jewish and you [Heidi] are not?

HE: Raised Catholic, non-practicing. I’m a goy.

RG: I am Jewish. Secular Jew. I do the highlights. I went to temple on Yom Kippur.

HE: You did?

RG: This year, yeah. And I have a six year-old, so we are doing Hanukkah candles now.

So how did this movie change your relationship with the Jewish customs you partake in?

RG: I thought about it more than I’ve ever thought about it in my life.

One could understand if, after living with this film for so long, you might find yourself less observant.

RG: It was the opposite. And it was the opposite after “Jesus Camp,” too. Strangely, I became more tolerant of religion after that film. When you spend time with people and you see how connected they are to this belief system, you start thinking about your own belief systems. And you think, “who are you to fucking judge?”

In this case, I didn’t see the more negative aspects of the story as a Jewish thing. It’s a social control thing.

Observing this community made me more aware of why I am who I am, who my relatives are, made me think about what Jews have in common. I became less ignorant.

You did “Jesus Camp,” you did this. When are you gonna do the Muslims?

RG and HE: We did the Muslims!

RG: We did a TV project in Saudi Arabia for six weeks and did an hour for MTV on Saudi teens and a half an hour on the rehabilitation of terrorists.

HE: We also did a 40 minute film for HBO called “The Education of Mohammed Hussein” about a madrassa in East Detroit, and the Pakistani and Bengali and Yemeni Muslims. We spent a year in the school there. So, honestly, we’ve run out of religions. The Mormons have been done.

RG: Hindus and Buddhists!

HE: Hindus are cool.

Well, you get some violent Hindus in India, unfortunately.

RG: And now you’re seeing in Burma, the Buddhists are getting violent. You know what they all have in common? People. Human beings.

HE: We’re fascinated by religion, but we have no problem with religion. Practice and believe what you want, but when you have a community like a large portion of the Hasidic community that goes unchecked and has its own laws, it’s a witches’ brew – a recipe for disaster. This happens across all religions. No judgement until there is a poisonous element, when misogynist faiths run by men get twisted.

RG: And someone like Etty is trapped or Ari is abused and nothing happens to the abusers.

HE: Every subject in our film has an insane sexual abuse story. We only get into it with Ari, but there’s more.

A documentary film can make real change. “Blackfish” closed down Sea World –

HE: This isn’t Sea World.

RG: It ain’t going anywhere.

Are you worried about any pushback?

RG: I’m more worried about our subjects than ourselves. I’m hoping more people learn about Footsteps, which is growing its fundraising exponentially each year. But let’s be clear: it’s a niche population. Yet it’s a population that Jews should be concerned with and take care of. Because there aren’t that many Jews. Jews are niche.

When we show this movie to Jewish audiences they ask “what is worse for Jews? This population or showing a movie where we see how bad Jews can be?”

I get it. It’s not “Good for the Jews” as we say.

RG: Right. But it’s also not good to have Jews that are not okay.

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