On Youtube there is a war for the soul of Hassidic youth

Young Hassidic Americans live sheltered lives, described by two new films, if they stray Youtubers provide counsel

Published September 28, 2017 6:58PM (EDT)

Menashe; One of Us (A24/Netflix)
Menashe; One of Us (A24/Netflix)

Several years ago, I attended a rooftop party in North Williamsburg alongside a bunch of hipsters who had names like Moshe, Uri, Chaya, and Faige. It didn’t take long for Uri,* a young man wearing a patterned button-down and small, circular glasses, to tell me he’d grown up in a Hasidic community not far from that rooftop.

He’d left because when he came out as gay, his community put him in conversion therapy.

Uri isn’t alone. The recently debuted documentary “One of Us” echoes stories like his that are happening all around Brooklyn, bringing to light extremely insular Hasidic communities for secular viewers. It follows closely on the heels of “Menashe,” which hit movie theaters in July and offers a much different take on Brooklyn’s Hasidim. Both indicate an opening up of a world that people have considered one of the most closed off in the United States.

“One of Us” paints a dark portrait of Brooklyn’s Hasidic communities and what it means to leave them. Created by the makers of “Jesus Camp,” a disturbing documentary about an evangelical Christian summer retreat, “One of Us” follows three people who have or are attempting to leave their insular ultra-orthodox Jewish communities and the obstacles they face.

Hasidim might describe the documentary’s subjects as “OTDs,” an abbreviation for “off the derech,” alluding to former Hasidic Jews who decide to stray from the ultra-religious “path,” or derech in Yiddish. At this month’s Toronto International Film Festival, where the film premiered, viewers got to see some of the more violent reasons for going OTD, from childhood sexual abuse to domestic violence and forced childbearing. (For the rest of us, “One of Us” debuts on Netflix on October 20.)

“Menashe,” meanwhile, tells the fictional but reality-based story of a Hasidic widower who struggles to maintain custody of his only son in a community that doesn’t allow fathers to raise their children alone.

Lauded as “subtly powerful,” “sweet,” “compelling,” and “quiet” by critics, “Menashe” presents a much milder view of Hasidic culture than “One of Us.” While the former doesn’t shy away from the hardships of living in a fundamentally religious community, it is careful not to play into stereotypes and embraces the community it explores — in part by having casted actual Hasidic people in all of their roles (except for the young boy who plays the titular character’s son).

“We never put fake payos [the long strands of hair Hasidic men wear in front of their ears] or fake beards on people,” said the filmmaker, Joshua Weinstein, at a Film Society of Lincoln Center interview. Next to Weinstein during this interview sat Menashe, the Hasidic man who played the movie’s main character. The first-time actor seemed incredibly at ease speaking to a large crowd, though he revealed that a screening of “Menashe” at Sundance had been his first time ever inside a movie theater.

This contradiction sums up how surprising “Menashe” is for those used to understanding Hasidic communities as extremely closed off to outsiders. The filmmakers shot the movie in Borough Park, where, said Weinstein, “people are very nice and very happy to have you there,” but “when you pull out a camera it’s like they’ve never seen a camera before.” Co-writer Alex Lipshcultz added, “All in all it was a pretty welcoming community; we got tossed out of a few locations.”

Ultimately, film served as a pathway into the Hasidic community — not just for the filmmakers, but also for the film’s many viewers. Similarly, film has focused on the passage out of Hasidic communities. Just as, say, LGBTQ youth have been turning to YouTube for years to post and watch videos about struggles no one at home understands, so have OTD people.

Footsteps, an organization that helps OTD people leave their ultra-orthodox communities, has a YouTube channel where it posts videos of its success stories. They’re meant to inspire others to step off the path by fostering an OTD community.

Other OTD people do this independently, like in this little-viewed video by “Pesachology,” where he talks about how OTD people took back the originally derogatory term and attempts to debunk the stereotype that “OTD = at risk.” Then there’s this man, known simply as “Reporter on YouTube. Driving back from an evening of surfing (during Shabbos, no less) in a California beach town, he slips seamlessly in and out of Yiddish throughout his OTD video, gesturing adamantly with an unlit cigar that he at one point offers to someone else in the car without skipping a beat in his monologue.

More unexpected are the ultra-orthodox who take to YouTube to encourage Hasidim to stay on the derech — the world wide web doesn’t seem like it would be their top choice forum. Nonetheless, YouTube is home to various “instructional” videos with titles like, “How to return a child that has gone off the derech.” In one from 2013, Rabbi Twerski proposes that today’s “hedonistic society,” fueled by the very internet where he posted his video, begets wayward Jews’ hedonistic goals.

So ex- and current Hasidim use the internet to talk derechs. Does this, along with the recent, major films about Hasidim, indicate a growing openness in their communities?

Frieda Vizel, a dirty blond pictured in a white t-shirt and blazer on her website for Visit Hasidim, an organization she founded to let tourists explore Hasidic South Williamsburg, thinks so. Over the several years in which she’s been conducting tours, Vizel’s noticed the community opening up to her, but it’s hard for her to tell if that’s because she’s “more open,” because she’s “been around long enough, or because the community is changing.”

“I think it must be all three,” she told me over the phone in September — an interesting time to visit South Williamsburg, apparently, because of the High Holidays.

One of Vizel’s tours was filmed for “One of Us,” though she’s not sure whether the filmmakers used the footage. The documentarians would’ve had a hard time getting much deeper into the Hasidic community than a Visit Hasidim tour, considering the film exposes an ugly side of the community. On the flipside, Vizel said community members have grown willing to approach her tourists.

Once, at a restaurant where Vizel ends her tour, a woman “wearing a scarf — she seemed really pious,” approached a tourist who’d said she was from Australia and said, “Oh, Australia — you must know Rabbi so and so.” The Australian didn’t, but it made Vizel marvel at a community that still holds “a lot of surprises” for her. For instance, Hasidim who speak to Vizel’s tour group sometimes reveal trips they’ve taken that they might not have even told their families about.

“It’s very common to travel somewhere and not tell anyone,” Vizel explained. Hasidic men need to have access to a pious minion — a group of 10 men to pray with who practice the same level of religion — so if they travel somewhere without that, it’s certainly not something to write home about.

Vizel herself is “technically OTD.” She grew up in the very insular Hasidic Kiryas Joel community of Orange County, New York but eventually attended Sarah Lawrence College and now only goes back to visit her family. “OTDs by definition draw a lot of attention to ourselves . . . because we’re the only ones to speak publicly,” she said. “Everything people know about the community they know about through the filter of those who’ve left.”

While the numbers of visible OTD people are increasing along with the access to outside information and art — thank you, internet — the Hasidic community is also growing (having a mini van’s worth of kids is common), so those numbers are likely proportional. In “One of Us,” a Hasidic woman, Etty attempts to leave her community and her abusive husband, taking her seven children with her. The Hasidim who aim to stop her reason that children in the community serve as “replacements” for the many Jews who died in the Holocaust. From within the community, that must not only be very tough to argue, but also a persuasive reason to continue to procreate.

With information to counter that belief, like “One of Us” and the many OTD-centric videos on YouTube, such arguments will become less compelling for Hasidim who are primed to stray from the path. Increased access to information never fails to radically transform a society, and films like “One of Us” and “Menashe” as just the beginning of this shift taking place in Brooklyn’s Hasidic communities.

After all, there’s a trend toward Hasidim becoming more “open to cooperating with outsiders,” said Vizel. “‘Menashe’ is foreshadowing . . . [There’s a] latent creative energy that’s in the community . . . I’m sure we’re going to start seeing more and more of that seep out into secular culture.”

And perhaps, with it, more OTD people doing the same.

*Name changed to protect identity.

By Jessica Klein

MORE FROM Jessica Klein

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Documentaries Entertainment Movies Religion Youtube