Taking Domestic Violence To Task
Domestic violence in the Orthodox community is like a tear in the lining of a beautiful garment. The wearer of the garment knows it exists and feels it ripping, giving way with time. It is hidden from the outside observer until the damaged material slips out from underneath and becomes visible.
Perhaps at the mikvah, at a meeting of a community organization or school, or in the neighborhood grocery, the damage begins to show. Until recently, those who would have chosen to have the garment repaired could not find a tailor who did the work. That is changing. Around the country, Orthodox communities are trying to catch up to the problem that, while incomprehensible to some, is a bitter reality for others.
From the East Coast to the West, sensitive and dedicated individuals and organizations are instituting new programs in an attempt to raise community awareness and search out solutions to the problem of domestic violence. Rabbis, Orthodox social workers and lay people are receiving training in recognizing and dealing with abuse. There is much to do, but steadily it is getting done.
One organization that has spearheaded the effort to deal with domestic violence is the Shalom Task Force, a devoted volunteer group of more than 60 women under the leadership of Nechama Wolfson. The group started in 1992, when a New York pediatrician approached several community members after repeatedly treating bruised and wounded Jewish women and children. Without fanfare and with great care, the Task Force has quietly and effectively dealt with the most difficult of topics and has done so under the guidance of gedolei Yisrael.
One historic contribution the Task Force has made is in the arena of rabbinic awareness and education. In November, 1997, more than 80 rabbis came together to listen to Harav Avrohom Pam, Rabbis Tzvi Hersh Weinreb, Dovid Weinberger and Yisrael Reisman in a three-hour workshop entitled "A Halachic Symposium for Rabbanim on Domestic Violence." The symposium was a follow-up to one held a year prior which was attended by 200 rabbis from every segment of the observant community.
Rabbi Yisrael Reisman spoke powerfully of the reluctance of many to believe that the problem of abuse is found in the Orthodox community. He asserted that though it exists only to a limited degree, it is nevertheless an issue which rabbis and others who come into contact with it must know how to handle.
Long coats, short coats, full, trimmed or no beards, Ashkenazic and Sephardic rabbis from every neighborhood and culture listened and learned together. "Learn to recognize signs of abuse," they were told, "never blame the victim or trivialize the abuse; never ask what she did to provoke the violence; find out if she is in immediate danger; help her create a future safety plan; find out if she has shared her secret with a relative, friend or neighbor; know your limitations and to whom to refer; follow up after initial contact has been made; provide a non-judgmental supportive ear, and know the halachos of confidentiality."
The rabbis learned that a batterer may criticize his partner through name-calling, mocking and ridicule. He may belittle his partner's family and friends and try to isolate her from them. He may have explosive temper outbursts and expect his wife to conform to fantasies and unspoken expectations, and he may threaten homicide or suicide to cajole his partner into certain behaviors.
"Educate yourself and your congregation by speaking about the problem in shul," said Rabbi Weinreb. He told his colleagues how he spoke about domestic violence from the pulpit one Shabbos: the following week he received four calls for help. It is estimated that for each person who seeks help, at least four or five remain silent.
Rabbi Pam touched on the subject of verbal abuse with a compelling message about the devastating effect of ona'as devarim -- words that hurt and cause pain. While praising the attention and care given by the community to the topic of lashon hara, Rav Pam pointed out that little is spoken about ona'as devarim, also prohibited by the Torah. "Harsh words, words spoken in anger, thoughtlessly, carelessly, cut like a sword," he said. "The pain that is inflicted lingers on and festers until the whole foundation of the marriage is worn down."
Each speaker had only the highest praise for the manner in which the Shalom Task Force has addressed the problem, with its deference to gedolim and its attitude of chesed and commitment. Its telephone hotline, (718) 337-3700 or 1-(888) 883-2323 is staffed by volunteers who have received a twelve-week training course. The volunteers, who never meet the callers, are there to provide referrals and help them sort out their problems. Sometimes the callers are children, and occasionally a man will call and say, "Help me! I'm out of control." Sometimes it is the husband who suffers from domestic violence, although it is rare. The hotline number, which is posted in mikvaos and a selection of English and Yiddish newspapers, is now nationally accessible.
The organization has developed "The Young Woman's Prevention Education Project," an educational program offered to young women in yeshivah high schools, seminaries and colleges who are of marriageable age. Based on the premise that an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure, the workshops are designed to help build skills in communication and conflict resolution. The young women are taught that warning signals may surface during the dating process or early in marriage. And they are urged to speak to someone in confidence if they feel uncomfortable about something. After receiving many requests from yeshivos, the Task Force is developing a similar program for young men.
There is no question that the Orthodox community is mobilizing against this ugly problem. What else is needed? More community education; a pool of trained lawyers willing to work pro-bono for clients who often have no money and no access to family funds (a common manifestation of abuse); Orthodox social workers willing to work on a sliding scale; advocates trained and ready to accompany a woman to beis din or court. In cases where all else has failed and divorce is the only solution, women in abusive relationships may have difficulty obtaining a get from a recalcitrant husband. Rabbis are needed who are ready to go the extra mile to do everything possible towards achieving a speedy resolution.
Domestic violence can happen in homes where you would least expect it. If a friend confides in you, you may feel shocked, embarrassed and confused about whether or not to intervene. Nechama Wolfson's advice: "Don't run away. Urge her to seek the guidance of qualified people. Give her the hotline number. Most importantly, don't abandon her."
Jeanie Silver is a freelance writer and Special Assistant to Assemblyman Dov Hikind in Brooklyn, New York.Subscribe To Jewish Action!
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