By Rabbi Naftali Portnoy
There was a lot of debate in our offices when Ari approached usto participate in the Netflix documentary that was documenting his painful journey leaving the Chassidishe community. For weeks, the internal discussion continued as we weighed the pros and cons of allowing us to be filmed as part of the documentary. After Netflix came down to speak with us we consulted and received numerous outside opinions as well. Ultimately, our fear of being parsed to sound bites, failing to convey properly and positively our perspective by directors whose motives and potential agenda was unclear, won out. The end result was, as we feared, a painful look at the underbelly of these horrific issues within the chassidishe community. The stories are largely true and the pain is real and most importantly it shines a spotlight on something that urgently needs addressing. However, the narrative has been lost to Netflix with its secular dogma and we must reclaim this narrative because if we don’t it becomes a story of us vs. them and not a story of ones of us.
We don’t gain anything by highlighting or debating the possible motives of the producers and those involved. It is even inconsequential if the details of these three specific individuals are completely accurate or misunderstood for the purposes of this film. The unfortunate reality is that there are thousands of innocent neshamos that are struggling with acute pain and deep suffering similar to the narratives depicted in One of Us. Yes, the Chassidishe community is predominately comprised of healthy and happy Yorei Shmayim with the noblest of aspirations and values. We don’t need to spend our energies defending the good, the good speaks for itself. We need however, to do much more to identify and address the pain and struggle amongst our youth.
In 2013, ten Chassidishe boys and girls, running away from Yom Kippur, showed up (in an incredible demonstration of Hashgacha Pratis) at the very same New Jersey hotel in which our organization was having our Yom Kippur davening. This thrust us into a world that at the time we knew very little of. As we got to know these precious youth and subsequently hundreds of their friends, we were struck by the glaring lack of resources within the Chassidishe community for those disenfranchised. As a clear issue of hatzalas nefoshos, our Outreach organization jumped into, and invested heavily in, a new and critical area of kiruv krovim.
It was Rabbi Ozer Babad who serves as our director of the then newly formed chassidishe division who introduced me to Ari. We have experienced so many of his ups and downs together. We have celebrated together and we have cried together. With Ari, as with all of our kids, our first priority has to be saving lives and getting them to a safe place where they’re not being harmed by others and not harming themselves through drugs, alcohol and other hazards. To meet that need of a safe environment a state of the art drop-in center (meals, gym, lounge, classrooms, music, counseling etc) has since been built in the heart of Boro Park. Next, we help them find stability by providing them education and/ or job placement. Only then can they successfully rebuild their connections to, and appreciation of Yiddishkeit. Watching the film brought back many painful emotions yet I also felt a strong sense of pride for Ari, seeing how much strength and courage he demonstrated and to the extent that he has pieced his life together and overcome so many hurdles.
It’s heartbreaking that so many of our children feel there is no place for them within the community.This is a community with so much chessed,and entire mosdos dedicated to that, yet there aren’t many resources for the disenfranchised. Even a small percent of such a huge community is too many nefoshos to bear. Admitting and addressing the problems of the community from within will ultimately be so much less painful and more successful than leaving our children with no one to turn to other than organizations which do not share our values and agendas. Let’s mobilize our kochos and resources to reach out with love to our children who are in pain. Each of them are One of Us.
Rabbi Naftali Portnoy is the director of the Jewish Heritage Center, one of the premier outreach organizations in the United States. Since 2014, the Jewish Heritage Center has run a drop-in center called 1225 in Boro Park as part of their Chassidic Inreach division. The author can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org