In the last six years seven ex-charedi stories have been told in TV shows and movies. The latest one “My Unorthodox Life,” came to Netflix last week and has caused tremendous pain in the frum world, as many who know this family personally are coming forward to say that the show is based on numerous lies and exaggerations, and while Haart clearly had painful experiences, she throws everyone under the bus on her way out.
Media outlets don’t seem to care for accuracy or fact-checking, and the world is obsessed with the genre of Jews escaping from Orthodoxy. I believe this is because too many people see Orthodox Jews as revolting. I understand this sentiment well, because it’s how I was raised. My childhood perspective on Orthodox Jews was extremely biased, as it was shaped almost entirely by media, which features the crooks, creeps, and extremists of our community and rarely anyone happy and healthy.
In 2007, I decided it was time to reclaim our narrative. I founded Jew in the City to harness the power of social media to push back at traditional media’s lack of nuance, tell positive stories, explain hard to understand mitzvos and texts, and demonstrate how ancient teachings bring modern wisdom. We recently named this branch of our organization Keter, to restore the Keter Shem Tov to the frum world.
We’ve had some surprising developments that came about through Keter. We discovered that there weren’t just non-religious Jews consuming our content, many of them inspired to do teshuva. We found out that our content wasn’t only combating anti-Semitism. Surprisingly, we discovered how many ffb’s (frum from birth) were finding meaning and pride in Judaism as they never had before. We also heard from defectors of the community. For years, we received a lot of anger and pushback, but in 2014, an ex-chasidic couple said that our content inspired them to stay religious. They asked us to help them achieve an Orthodoxy they had seen us describe.
Because of this request, we started a branch called Makom, where we help charedi Jews with negative experiences find a positive place in Orthodoxy. Since 2017, we’ve had almost 500 sign-ups and currently have 250 members. Learning about the painful stories of Makom members (and they are nearly all stories of trauma and lack of secure attachment), my perspective got more nuanced.
Yes, Hollywood is biased and unfair. They over-represent our community and love showing how “fundamentalist” we are (a word that is repeated over and over again in “My Unorthodox Life”). In an unscientific study we found that in the last 20 years there have been five ex-Christian TV shows or movies, zero ex-Muslim ones, and a dozen ex-Jewish ones. Considering the Jewish community is 66 times smaller than the Christian community and 34 times smaller than the Muslim community, these negative stories are being told at an alarmingly high rate. As anti-Semitic attacks rise around the world, we must acknowledge how dangerous repetitive negative depictions are.
At the same time, we also need to really listen to the people who feel pushed out. In fact, that’s what we’ve been doing. And because of those stories, Jew in the City now has a third branch called Tikun, which has been quietly taking the feedback of Makom members since 2015 and bringing it to leadership, so we can address systemic issues. Not surprisingly, the issues that push people out are the very same things that make all the negative media. Yes, media loves to focus on our mistakes, but as we push back at that, and we must, we must also work to correct what’s broken.
Fourteen years since founding Jew in the City, this is what I believe is actually going on that gets us all of these “unorthodox” shows: Painful experiences within the Orthodox world, caused by dysfunction and ignorance, have tarnished the opinions of a sizable minority of insiders who find themselves Jewishly displaced. These traumatic versions of Orthodoxy then get amplified in modern day media and entertainment without the much-needed nuance they require. This results in a distorted public perception of Orthodox Jews and Judaism, pushing less observant Jews away, creating shame around being Jewish, and fueling anti- Semitism.
Because this is a multi-layer problem, the solution must also be multi-layer. I recently discovered that Hollywood doesn’t consider Jews a minority. That’s why we don’t get minority protection. While the Muslim community has The Hollywood Bureau of MPac, which has relationships with all of the major networks, the numerous attempts we’ve made to have Keter be a resource to producers and directors have fallen on deaf ears. We are beginning to make headway, but there’s a lot of work to do, and we can’t give up.
While I always loved showing non-observant Jews their first Shabbos, there is nothing like showing a Jew who despised Shabbos a love they never knew was possible. The more we understand what has hurt people who left, the more we can push back at media for fairer depictions and the more we can go to leadership in the communities to quietly let them know the pain that some Jewish people are living through.
There are systemic problems in all communities, from U.S. Gymnastics, to Hollywood to the Catholic Church. The similarities of dysfunction run throughout all cultures: abusive personalities going unchecked, tribalism causing institutions to protect their own, and innocent youngsters getting hurt because no one stepped up to stop the tragic cycle. When we create a system of checks and balances and accountability in schools, we can keep the abusers out and hopefully catch the kids who are suffering at home to get them the help they need before it’s too late.
Restoring the good name of the frum community in the world, healing those who left, and preventing systemic issues are all giant problems, but our sages teach that it is not up to us to finish the work, but the audacity of the problem can’t prevent us from starting. And that is why we have.