New York City is home to a religious community with approximately 125,000 followers, and yet this remains virtually unknown to most outsiders. With unprecedented access, National Geographic introduces you to the passionately orthodox and diverse community of Hasidic Judaism. Founded in Eastern Europe in the mid-eighteenth century to bring spirituality and joy to the Jewish masses, Hasidism took firm root in Brooklyn, New York – after a number of Hasidic dynasties sought to re-establish themselves in the United States in the years following World War II. In this documentary, several followers of Hasidic Judaism share their personal stories about living in, joining and leaving this tightly knit community in the 21st century.
Yoel and Toby Lebovits are a young couple living in New York City’s northern suburbs and like most Hasidic marriages, theirs was arranged through a matchmaker. In many ways they’re a traditional Hasidic couple – Toby teaches at a Hasidic school, and with three children they're on their way to establishing a large family as is typical in the Hasidic community. But Yoel’s father is the rebbe, or spiritual leader, of thousands of Nikolsburg Hasids – which makes the Lebovits family anything but average. Along with being a stand-up comedian, Yoel walks the fine line between modernity and tradition by producing kosher videos for a Hasidic audience that largely shuns the modern world.
After getting kicked out of his Catholic high school, 18-year-old Matthew Devlin ended up homeless in New York City, catching sleep in all-night coffee shops. After a chance encounter led to the discovery that he himself was Jewish, Matthew rode the subway to Brooklyn, where he was quickly welcomed into the Hasidic community in Crown Heights. Having recently graduated from Cambridge University with a degree in philosophy, Natalie Ling was raised Jewish but believed there was a deeper meaning to reality. She moved from her home in England to Crown Heights, Brooklyn, where she attends a seminary for young women striving to learn more about Orthodox Judaism. Central to her courses is the concept of tznius, or modesty, which requires men and women to be separated, married women to cover or shave their hair, and women to purify their bodies through a monthly visit to a communal ritual bath. Natalie intends to give up the secular life and become a traditional Hasidic wife and mother.
Not everyone living in the Hasidic community, though, feels personal and spiritual fulfilment. When growing up in the Belz Hasidic communities of Williamsburg and Boro Park, Brooklyn, Faigy Mayer felt there was more to life than becoming a good Hasidic wife. Faigy has decided to leave the Hasidic community to pursue a secular career in Midtown Manhattan and we see her learning to cope with this transition to the secular world.