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A Chicago Haven for Jewish Battered Women

We live with so many myths. Jewish families are not supposed to be dysfunctional, and Jewish husbands are supposed to be, by definition, nurturing,” says Sherry Berliner Dimarsky, executive director of SHALVA, the only Chicago area Jewish organization which specializes in serving victims of domestic violence.

SHALVA [Safe Homes Advice and Legal Aid for Victims of Abuse] was conceived in 1985 when rebhetzin [rabbi’s wife] Hanna Weinberg of Baltimore, spoke to a gathering of Orthodox women leaders in Chicago. She asked, simply, “What are you doing about Jewish domestic violence?” Though shocked at first, the women began talking honestly, educating themselves, and soon became aware of the prevalence of domestic violence within the Jewish community. Their first community meeting to discuss the subject brought out 300 Jews from all levels of observance.

SHALVA educates over 10,000 households each year and serves approximately 140 families directly. SHALVA’s work includes training sessions with rabbis, with professionals in affiliated agencies, and with therapists and social workers. SHALVA also conducts workshops in high schools. Jewish day schools, women’s groups and men’s clubs. Dimarsky says, “I see rabbis acting in a positive way where before they might have felt incapable of intervening. That’s success.” SHALVA also tries to reach out to Jewish teenagers. “T see teenage girls in very dangerous situations,” she notes. “When a light bulb goes on in a girl’s young head, I know there will be one less bad marriage.”

Dimarsky notes that, “Jewish communities have held high standards for Jewish family life. The home has been characterized as a repository of peace, nurturing, respect and kindness. A large set of scriptural and rabbinic laws supports this ideal, providing very specific rules governing all aspects of human interactions: a Jew is prohibited from harming, shaming, speaking ill of another, or from engaging in any type of forced sexual contact. A Jewish husband is supposed to be taught to love his wife as much as he loves himself and to honor her more.

“The ideal, designed as an inspiration, was distorted over time and came to be seen as an automatic achievement, rather than a process requiring hard work. Wishful and naive thinking—the belief that Jews live up to a Jewish ideal just because they are enjoined to—creates faulty expectations that perpetuate the myth that there is no Jewish domestic violence. There are still many in the Jewish community who want to ignore the problem and cover up the truth. In fact, the most dangerous myth held is that Jewish domestic violence simply does not exist.”

Domestic violence is a leading cause of injury and death among U.S. women and, like the U.S. population at large, about 20% of U.S. Jewish families experience domestic violence. “Jewish women stay in abusive relationships between seven and thirteen years, while women in general stay between three and five years. A Jewish woman will suffer a long time before she is able to give a name to her pain. Calling an organization like SHALVA is the first step.”

A woman calling SHALVA for the first time will speak with a case worker who assesses her immediate needs and helps her plan for safety. The woman may not need physical shelter; however, she does need long-term support to make the transition to independence and to gain control over her life. SHALVA’s therapeutic approach is to assist the woman to becoming as independent as possible. Every step of the intervention process—including therapy, referral to other agencies, legal help, and financial assistance—is geared towards her choices, towards helping the woman initiate making choices for herself.

“The more that women understand they are not alone, the more secure they will be in making that phone call [to SHALVA], and the more we’ll be able to help,” says Dimarsky, “I look forward to being obsolete.”

For more information on SHALVA, call (312) 583-H.O.P.E. (4673).