The Harsh Reality Awaiting Hasidic Jews Who Leave Their Community Behind

The new Netflix documentary 'One of Us' follows three Americans who leave their ultra-Orthodox past behind. Haaretz meets two of them to discover the challenges they faced in their efforts to forge new lives

Debra Nussbaum Cohen
Debra Nussbaum Cohen
New York
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From the Netflix documentary "One of Us."
From the Netflix documentary "One of Us."Credit: Netflix
Debra Nussbaum Cohen
Debra Nussbaum Cohen
New York

You don’t see Etty Ausch’s face when she calls emergency services in the Netflix documentary “One of Us.” “There’s people banging down the door. There’s adult men outside and I’m alone with my children,” she anxiously tells the operator. “They’re my husband’s family. The police just left a few minutes ago. They escorted my husband out and he called family and friends to bang on the door. This is very dangerous.”

Two years on, Ausch has lost custody of her seven children – who range in age from 4 to 12. So has her ex-husband, from whom she had obtained an order of protection for allegedly beating her and their children. The kids have been farmed out to various relatives by court order, separated from her and from each other, she tells Haaretz.

Ausch’s story is one of three told in the critically acclaimed new documentary, about Hasidim who have left their ultra-Orthodox upbringing and gone “off the derech” (OTD). The others are Ari – a young man who says he was sexually abused as a child – and Luzer Twersky, who walked away from the Satmar Hasidic community and his two young children nine years ago. Twersky has since found growing success as an actor in theater (“God of Vengeance”), television (Mendel in season two of “Transparent”) and movies (“Félix & Meira”). Although he told Haaretz after a screening of “One of Us” that he has moved on, that he’s in a different life now, the film shows him coming across a photo of his children while combing through old letters. He exclaims, startled to see them. Tears fill his eyes.

The documentary, filmed over the course of three years, is directed by Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady, who also made a 2006 documentary about extreme evangelical Christians called “Jesus Camp.”

Though “One of Us” is not the only film to be made about Hasidic Jews, it is the first to show the full range of issues faced by those who leave, says Lani Santo, executive director of Footsteps, a nonprofit that helps OTDs find their way in the modern world with support groups, social gatherings, legal assistance and job training.

When Hasidim choose to leave their cloistered world, they lose the only community they have ever known – one rich in family ties and mutual support, as well as stringent conformity. They struggle with loneliness, impoverishment and learning to navigate a world for which they are wholly unprepared.

“People do not leave until the pain of leaving is less than the pain of staying,” says Chani Getter, who was married at 18 and quickly had three young children before leaving the Nikolsburg Hasidic community. That was 17 years ago. Today, Getter runs Footsteps’ family justice and Rockland County programs, near the Haredi strongholds of Monsey, Monroe, New Square (Skver Hasidim) and Kiryas Joel (Satmar Hasidim) in New York. She also appears as a counselor in “One of Us.”

Etty AuschCredit: Debra Nussbaum Cohen

Ausch is fighting to regain custody of her young children, but feels cowed by the money and influence that back her ex-husband, she tells Haaretz. The community pays for his excellent private lawyers; she is represented by the New York Legal Assistance Group, which aids the indigent.

The judge allotted Ausch one hour per week of supervised visitation with each of the three older children. Restrictive conditions make seeing them nearly impossible, she says, because the required times conflict with her full-time job and full-time college studies.

On the rare occasions she gets to see them, a custodial relative shadows a foot away, lest she say something that contradicts the worldview they are taught. It is devastating that her children, who are very close with each other, are also separated from each other, she says, her voice shaking.

When a parent has gone OTD and is trying to regain custody of their children, “You’re not just fighting your spouse and their family. You’re literally fighting an entire community – and one which has so much money,” says Getter. “Sometimes you’re actually fighting your parents,” since they often side with the still-religious spouse and the community.

The Haredi community “has gotten a lot smarter in the past five to eight years,” adds Getter. “They start rallying the minute somebody leaves. They hire lawyers that first second.”

Luzer TwerskyCredit: Debra Nussbaum Cohen

They also know judges will often agree that “preserving the religious status quo” is of primary importance.

Lawyer Mark Holtzer, who is representing Ausch’s ex-husband, timed the filing of the case so it would be assigned to a specific judge who is particularly sympathetic to Hasidim, allege those working with Ausch. “It would be inappropriate to discuss the custody case with you while the litigation is pending,” Holtzer responded to Haaretz after requests for his perspective.

Glimmer of hope

Ausch’s story is not unique, say those who work with parents who have left the Hasidic community and lost custody of their children in the process. “OTD parents having their children ripped away from them is not a new story,” says Chavie Weisberger, who won back custody of her three children in August, some eight years after being divorced.

Her court victory came after the rare appeal of a lower court ruling. Now it is giving other OTD parents a glimmer of hope.

Chavie WeisbergerCredit: Sarah Goldstein

Weisberger left a small Hasidic sect called Emunas Yisroel after seven years of marriage, and subsequently came out as a lesbian. When she married at 19, after meeting her husband twice, she says she was so sheltered, she didn’t have the language to understand her attraction to women.

“From the beginning I wanted out,” she tells Haaretz. The children were 1, 3 and 5 when she left the marriage. Her ex-husband immediately gave her a divorce (get) and remarried within a month. Their agreement gave her primary physical custody and him generous visitation rights. He was required to pay child support – but never did, according to the appeal decision. He rarely visited the children and never brought them to his new home for an overnight stay, notes Weisberger.

But then he became aware that she was living openly as a lesbian and a transgender friend was staying with her. “That was the final straw for my ex and the community,” relates Weisberger. “They raised money to hire lawyers for him. I was naive and stupid, and didn’t realize the power the Hasidic community had, and what they were willing to invest to ‘save’ my children’s souls.”

In November 2012, Weisberger was called to an emergency hearing, where the judge ordered the children immediately removed from her care. They had rarely seen their father, but were now to live with him and his new family. “It was a terrible, traumatic time,” recalls Weisberger.

She was permitted to have the children just three nights a week (and never on weekends or holidays), and required to “act Hasidic” at all times. A lack of compliance would result in the order being revoked and her being allowed only supervised visitation, the document states.

She appealed. And won. The appeal panel’s decision states that the lower court overstepped in requiring her to live as a Hasid whenever she was with her children. She has agreed to keep them in Hasidic schools.

Attorney Ella Kohn.Credit: Debra Nussbaum Cohen

“There is absolutely a prejudice in favor of preserving the religious status quo,” says Ella Kohn, a family law attorney with many Hasidic and formerly Hasidic clients. “The judges are elected by these Haredi communities. There is definitely a perception that they kowtow to the religious community.”

The appeal judges ruled: “The religious upbringing clause should not, and cannot, be enforced to the extent that it violates a parent’s legitimate due process right to express oneself and live freely.”

Weisberger says that she and her children celebrate the day they returned as “Weisberger Day.” One of their first outings was to the library – prohibited by the Hasidic community – to get library cards.

Weisberger’s win is a legal precedent, notes Kohn. And Footsteps’ Getter hopes it will “lead to judges and litigators asking different questions and not just accepting what Hasidic community leaders tell them.”

“It’s absolutely searing for children to be separated from their parents,” says Rabbi Yakov Horowitz, a widely respected Hasidic parenting expert who has been involved in a number of such cases. “There needs to be flexibility on both sides” of a custody battle, he notes.

Ausch, meanwhile, hopes to regain custody of her children soon, but in the short term doesn’t feel optimistic.

The case has dragged on for two years without conclusion or even a chance for her to tell her side of the story, she says, adding, “Trying to put my life together without my children has been very challenging.”

She is finishing her associate’s degree while holding down a full-time job running a retail store. Ausch also plans to earn a bachelor’s degree and attend law school. “I’m really passionate about working with vulnerable populations,” she says.

“One of Us” concludes with a shot of Ausch through a playground fence, with her daughter and one of her sons during separate supervised visitations. Her daughter clings to her. Her young son buries his face in her neck. She holds him close, slowly rubbing his back and then wiping away his tears.

When the visits end, Ausch gets in a van and tears off her wig with obvious relief. Her cell phone immediately rings. It’s the daughter she just left. “Mommy? Today was awesome,” she says.

“Yes it was,” Ausch replies, “super-awesome. See? Together we’re super-awesome.”

“You always say that.”

“I will always say it. I love you so much.”

“I love you too mommy.”

After they hang up, the film shows Ausch driving through Borough Park alone, gazing out the window as Hasidim swirl all around.

Premiere Incident

Shortly after the documentary premiered, co-director Heidi Ewing appeared on "The Charlie Rose Show" where she said that the majority of Hasidic Hasidic Jews were murdered in the Holocaust in part because they were “loud and proud” and “refused to blend in.”

Ewing apologized for a statement she made and wrote, "I am sorry if my words on Charlie Rose caused any pain and would like to clarify their meaning...In the midst of this sweeping genocide, Hasidic Jews suffered disproportionate losses during the Holocaust partially because they were more easily identified and therefore had more difficulty hiding. This has been documented by multiple historians.  It took great courage for Hasidic Jews at that time to refuse to change their appearance to look more like the general European public. I am only filled with respect and admiration for any person who chooses to live their own truth.”

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