Jewish women around the world have created shelters and safe houses with kosher kitchens for battered women and their children. Now growing numbers of college student activists are helping to shatter the silence often surrounding domestic violence in the Jewish community.
At Washington University in St. Louis, a presentation on the subject opened with the sounds of a little girl trying to help her mother, who was being beaten by the girl’s father. The gripping audio recording of this 911 call seized the attention of the 45 audience members, who then broke up into groups, each with a speaker on specific topics: legal issues, the Jewish community’s response, men’s perspectives and the experiences of a shelter worker.
The program was coordinated through the Campus Jewish Relations Council by Rebecca Machtinger, who hopes to continue publicizing this issue by organizing a Silent Witness project in the spring. The Silent Witnesses—bright orange life-size cutouts of women—that inspired Machtinger were set up at a mall by the National Council of Jewish Women and bore cards that told their stories: how they were murdered by men who, supposedly, loved them.
At Brown University, Jessica Zellner last year founded the Committee for the Awareness and Prevention of Jewish Domestic Violence and launched its programming with a panel discussion featuring a Jewish survivor of domestic abuse, a lawyer and a social worker in Jewish Family Services. Other events have included a cross-community panel discussion with women of varied ethnicities and religions during Women’s Her story Month and a vigil held on the campus green focusing on multicultural experiences and responses. In conjunction with Queer Pride month, the group cosponsored a program on domestic violence in same-sex relationships. The committee has also sponsored programs educating the general Providence Jewish community about domestic abuse
Zellner’s committee is planning to circulate a survey in the Providence community to assess the prevalence of domestic violence among Jews. Since “don’t ask, don’t tell” often seems to be the policy among Jews who are victims of domestic violence, exact statistics are hard to come by. However, studies estimate that at least 15% to 20% of Jewish women suffer abusive behavior at the hands of husbands and boyfriends. The astounding statistic is that Jewish women tend to stay in abusive relationships 5 to 7 years longer than non-Jewish women, highlighting the silence and denial that surround this ordeal in a community which prides itself on its sound “family values” and shalom bayit (peace in the home).
An innovative sexual assault education skit performed for leaders of local Jewish youth groups provided Zellner’s committee with disturbing statistics. Evaluations completed by the teens revealed that even Jewish youth are not exempt from sexual assault and harassment. All of the girls responded that they or someone they knew had been assaulted or harassed at a youth convention, while only one-tenth of the boys were aware that such incidents were occurring at these “innocent” gatherings.
The Committee is not acting alone. Jewish Women International, where Zellner worked for a summer before starting her program, has designated a weekend in October as Annual Domestic Violence Shabbat. Synagogues and Hillels across the country receive packets that include sample sermons, statistics and other information to help rabbis and community leaders speak out on this issue. At Brown Hillel last October the sermons and the Oneg Shabbat discussion addressed this theme.
In a development that marks the significant position the issue domestic violence has taken in the Jewish community, on campus and now in an academic field, the department of women’s studies at Brandeis University has devoted one of its three courses to an Internship in the Prevention of Domestic Violence. In this course students receive full credit for volunteering in the community, either at a shelter, a hospital or a police station for six hours a week; they then meet for two hours each week to discuss theory, readings and their own experiences in the field.