As a child growing up in the CRC hotspot of Cutlerville, Mich., Sunday was the day of rules. No riding bikes, no wearing shorts—though on extremely hot Sundays we could if we stayed inside or in the backyard. The television remained off until after the evening church service. If I were to stay home sick, the TV was still off limits. Which meant I had to turn it off 15 minutes before everyone got home or my parents would be able to feel the television’s heat, and I’d be discovered.
Most of my neighbors had similar rules; it was one of the ways we lived together. I chafed at the restrictions, but I also knew somehow that this was part of being this community, a community that made me feel safe and loved. When we moved to Texas, the rules changed a bit, which gave me a whole new sense of freedom. But I also didn’t have that close community. It was a huge loss because I didn’t know where I fit anymore. While those rules were never meant to be the foundation of our faith life, they had given us a group culture, a way to recognize each other. The love of my new church family was a lifeline to my disoriented young self.
The documentary One of Us follows three young people who have left behind the enormous Hasidic Jewish community in Brooklyn, New York. Etty is a 31-year-old woman fighting for custody of her seven children after her husband has been removed from her home for physical abuse; 18-year-old Ari wants to leave a painful history behind him; and Luzer has moved to Los Angeles to pursue an acting career after his unhappiness led him to give up religious life, ending his marriage and leading him to estrangement from his family.
All three are experiencing, or trying desperately to forget, deep pain. That pain is twofold. They have each been hurt by their community, but it also hurts terribly to be alone, bereft of the close-knit community that formed their lives.
While the film focuses on the experiences these three had within the closed and rigid Hasidic community, exploring the ways in which members are completely cut off from and unprepared to survive in the outside world, there is a broader implication for close-knit communities. Like our churches.
Each of these people seeks a place of comfort and a way to belong. When she is at her lowest moment, Etty finds solace at a Jewish Renewal Congregation, weeping in the arms of her mentor. Ari is shown doing well at rehab, finding new friends, and even makes a tentative appearance at a megachurch. After Luzer visits New York and takes part in a Shabbos meal with other former Hasidic Jews, he talks about how much he misses that sense of community.
But in the same breath Luzer says, “the more of a seeker you are, the more of a questioner you are, the more likely you are to leave.” Ari, who has had questions all of his life about the existence of God and the role of God in his childhood trauma, begs a rabbi for answers to his questions. No one has sought justice for his suffering. Both men feel there is no place in the community for someone who questions. After cutting off his sidelocks, Ari attends a neighborhood celebration. He’s told, “You should be standing alone.” And he is.
There is no place for them outside of the community either. Ari laments that he has “not yet found what I really want to be part of.” Luzer misses his parents, his siblings, and his children. Etty is not only alone, she is punished for having allowed her children to experience secular things such as the library.
According to John D. Godsey in Christianity Today, “Dietrich Bonhoeffer taught his students that self-justification and judging others go together. On the other hand, justification by grace and serving others also go together.” In other words, when we feel we have to make things right by our own strength, by following the law perfectly, we become more likely to judge. Learning that we are beneficiaries of what Christ has done, we are more likely to have servant hearts for others. Godsey goes on to say “[Bonhoeffer] proposed to his students the ministries of holding one's tongue, meekness, listening to others, active helpfulness, bearing the burdens of others, and, when timely, speaking God's Word to another.”
As our denomination, like so many others, struggles to keep our young people in the faith, we would be wise to learn from this. Seekers and questioners need space to ask those questions, to be listened to, not just told what to believe. Abuse and hurt cannot be buried and ignored, the burden must be shared. And the rules can’t become more important than the people.
One of Us shows the deep longing we all have for community as well as some of the reasons we find it difficult. It reinforces what we already know, that Christ’s love is the one thing that can hold a community together. No amount of sameness, rules, preaching, or even family ties will bind a group together if we have not love. (Streaming on Netflix)