While Shekinah: The Intimate Life of Hasidic Women comes off as a better than passable, sympathetic news magazine about living as a woman within an orthodox sect of Judaism, it’s impossible to not think about the questions that are being danced around in favour of the film’s good natured stance. Filmmaker Abbey Jack Neidik doesn’t want to rock the boat despite spending the opening seconds of the film admitting he himself questioned the role of the woman within Conservative Judaism. Any doubts he might have had, however, are quickly jettisoned in favour of a noble, well meaning, and still skewed look inside the private lives of some admittedly exceptional women that ultimately (and sometimes disappointingly) comes across as a list of facts instead of something that truly gets intimate.
Neidik travels specifically to the small town on Sainte-Agathe-des-Monts, Quebec, where a seminary caterings specifically to young women wanting to learn how to lives humble lives within the Jewish faith has become an institution that’s mostly welcomed by the community at large as a force of good, but is still sometimes callously and anti-Semitically discriminated against. Based around the Chabad Lubavich teachings of the faith, the sect walks a mostly conservative line on a religious level, but takes more Kabbalistic and liberal approaches to community outreach.
Within this community are some exceptional young women: an 18 year old from the UK who thinks she could be a movie star, but is terrified what material gains might bring her, an instructor who has spread herself too thin, but remains optimistic, a rabbi and noted matchmaker who quite touchingly tells an older, unmarried woman that she needs to stop lowballing herself and tries to build up her confidence. Ultimately, these figures are what make Neidik’s work here so engaging. Despite questions about the religion potentially seeing women as “baby making devices” who do their part in society by merely existing within the home, these are good people doing good work. The part of Neidik’s thesis that he nails nicely is to show that the Lubavich sect doesn’t treat their women as “second class citizens.”
Then again, there is that nagging quality that come from any religious documentary when viewed through the eyes of a skeptic. That level of personal inequality still exists and the school’s teacher flat out admits and mockingly scoffs at the notion that the school actually brainwashes people (which almost throws the film off the rails entirely). Still, these people clearly still have minds of their own or they wouldn’t have been so willing to be open about their lives on camera, sometimes openly speaking to the parts of their religion that they might not adhere as strictly to. In short, they’re just like everyone else on the inside, which was kind of the point all along.