A scene from One of Us (Toronto International Film Festival

With One of Us, Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady go farther into observing the closed, Hasidic, ultra-Orthodox Jewish community in the United States than any other nonfiction film. While the secular may think that all the long-bearded men with black coats, black or fur hats, and payot curls are all of the same movement, there are a dozen major Hasidic sects. (The differences go further, because not all are conformists.) The directors followed over three years conflicted individuals who are struggling to emigrate out of the tight-knit, rules-bound community.

Even a tentative exploration of leaving the way of life is difficult. In Brooklyn, each sect controls its adherents and limits their contact with the non-kosher society (including the use of the Internet). Yiddish is the lingua franca, and some can’t read and write in English. Their private religious schools barely teach secular subjects or skills, despite rising complaints about the lack of the city’s education department oversight from those who have left. Marriages are arranged for 18-year-olds, and large families are encouraged. (Not mentioned here is that an apostate in the family could harm the marriage prospects of siblings.) A few of those who have left have successfully published memoirs, but there have also been tragic news reports of suicides among them. The organization Footsteps, founded in 2003 with funding from the larger Jewish community, provides guidance, counseling, and support groups.

Over a year, Ewing and Grady met with participants from these groups to find those willing to go public with their struggle, honing in on three. One has already been very public. Luzer Twersky is a 31-year-old actor who over the eight years since he left the fold seems to have a lock on Hasidic roles, in Eve Annenberg’s Romeo and Juliet in Yiddish (2010) and Maxime Giroux’s Félix & Meira (2014), on TV in Transparent and HBO’s High Maintenance, and in Yiddish theater. But here, more than in his promotional interviews, he goes deeper than the usual bicoastal difficulties of an actor’s life and lays out his wistful hopes to reconnect with his estranged family. His children live with his ex-wife and her second husband in one of the Hasidic enclaves in Rockland County, where he has to duck from being seen by his nearby ex-father-in-law.

The travails of the other two are more heart-wrenching. Ari is turning 18, but his maturity is thwarted by the lasting effects of sexual abuse by a teacher (still working in the community, to his disgust), which mired him in drug abuse. His father pays for a stint at a Florida rehab facility, but Ari can’t and doesn’t really want to fit in anymore. Still, he is drawn back for exuberant family and holiday celebrations, though now he stands out by looking Modern Orthodox. Unusually, he benefits from a kindly older advisor, who meets with him in what looks like a rabbi’s study and who is sympathetic to Ari’s complaint that the community doesn’t do enough to punish abusers and help victims.

The extensive time spent with Etty, a 30-something mother of seven, is the most intimate and revealing. She says her husband abused her and is violent to their children. Her ties to the community fray when she divorces him and fights for custody. Transcripts of testimony reveal how courts accept the community’s insistence on enforcing the “status quo” for the children’s religious lifestyle. Though the family court judges are appointed, there are implications of the community’s political clout by how the judge keeps siding with the husband’s team of lawyers.

As relatives and neighbors turn against her, the camera is there when she receives a threatening call from a community leader, negotiating on behalf of her ex-husband. (However, the caller insists on “Yiddishkeit” for the children, which the subtitles surprisingly translate as “Judaism,” when the caller really means Hasidism.) The intense, drawn-out community and legal pressure has the opposite of the intended effect: it drives Etty further from the communal restrictions, and she tearfully opens up before the camera, revealing her face to the camera about half way in the film. As discouraging as her custody fight is, she sticks to the frustrating rules of the court in order to preserve her right to appeal.

With their observational approach, the directors include passing scenes of warmth and affection within the Hasidic community, but the emotional pain of those trying to leave its control tugs more at the heart.

Directed and Produced by Heidi Ewing & Rachel Grady
Released by Netflix
English and Yiddish with English subtitles
USA. 95 min. Not rated