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Conference: Jewish Battered Women

“Growing up in a Jewish home, I never in my life thought of Jewish women as battered, let alone of myself as a battered woman. I just didn’t think it could happen.” Thea DuBow related to students from the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York how her seemingly thoughtful, perfect husband had turned abusive and dangerous. DuBow. now the Executive Director of My Sister’s Place shelter in Tuckahoe, New York, stressed how outsiders could best assist battered women. “Offer an understanding, non-judgmental ear, and when they ask for help, get the victims to safety,” she told the over 250 students at the April conference on domestic violence, chillingly entitled “Until Death Do Us Part.”

Many of the speakers—mental health professionals, academics and survivors of abuse—announced that they wanted specifically to address future Jewish leaders, because, they said, rabbis and educators often have the most power to provide real help.

“Even today, there are rabbis who say, ‘This doesn’t happen in my congregation,”” conference organizer Carol Davidson told the audience. Davidson, a rabbinical student in her final year, related the story of a woman in her congregation who had come to her seeking relief from an abusing husband. The woman seemed distressed and .she was dressed poorly; when Davidson asked to see a picture of the husband, he looked, as she explained, “perfectly normal. Even me, a liberal, modern, concerned citizen…! took one look at him and said to myself, ‘She’s crazy.'” DuBow nodded as she listened to Davidson’s story, and she explained that Davidson’s story was typical: “Batterers often look like Prince Charming.” In fact, battered women often do seem crazy, she said, because they are living with insanity.

DuBow’s own story seemed to follow exactly the pattern of abuse that psychiatrist Dr. Samuel Klagsbrun had described earlier. Klagsbrun had worked with Hedda Nussbaum. the victimized partner of Joel Steinberg, in 1988. and he spoke of the cycle that is common with almost all victims: slow, step-by-step degradation. Once a woman is hit. she begins to doubt herself, as her husband most often blames her actions for the abuse. He apologizes and becomes loving and attentive, and she begins to feel completely self-effaced. A battered woman will begin to say to herself, “This man who loves me deeply and says so all the time is only being critical because he wants to help me.” explained Klagsbrun.

One thread that ran through the conference was the problem with naming the crime. To many, domestic violence sounded far more polite than the act the term described. “Domestic violence is a weak word,” said Ganga Stone, a survivor who represents battered women to the mayor of New York City and other authorities. “It makes the act sound like it’s not very important, like a domestic wine, or not very dangerous, like a domesticated pet. Domestic violence is really home-delivered terrorism, like a letter bomb.”

And for the women who live with such terrorism, the name sometimes can mean very little, as Charlotte Watson, director of My Sister’s Place, explained, since many women don’t recognize themselves in the name. “No woman I talk to thinks that she’s battered. They all think a ‘battered woman’ looks like Hedda Nussbaum (whose mutilated face appeared regularly in the press) and acts like a saint. I think we should have support groups for ‘lousy wives’ and ‘lousy girlfriends.’ Then we’d get crowds of women coming in. Some of us are easy to live with and some of us are not, but none of us deserves to be beaten up.” For many students at the Jewish Theological Seminary, the conference solidified their commitment to being alert to family abuse in their congregations and communities. But to some men, blaming abuse on sexist attitudes in the larger culture felt like man-bashing. “Sitting in the audience as a man, hearing ‘men do this, men do that,’ it feels like all men are guilty,” complained one male student.

Perhaps the most confusing voice came out of the past, in the views of Jewish tradition on the subject of abuse in the home. Over 70 students, mostly from the rabbinical school, listened closely as Dr. Judith Hauptman, associate professor of Talmud at the Seminary, presented rabbinical texts on controlling a “rebellious wife.” Hauptman looked at the rulings of rabbis through history concerning whether a husband could force his wife to do her wifely duties by beating her with a whip. Hauptman noted that the rabbis who did permit such beating came largely from Sepharad (Maimonides of Cordova, Spain led this group), while Ashkenazic rabbis had been more likely to suggest withholding food or money for other needs.

Many remained troubled about the place of these texts in the canon of Jewish legal material. “I hear some people say they think this is abhorrent, but just a piece of our history, and the other half of the class says that there’s really no split between our history and what exists today,” said one second-year rabbinical student, who is studying this subject in her Talmud class. “Is this text awful because it was, or is it awful because the attitudes today go back so far? It’s a world view that has not been eradicated.”

Dismissing the text was not a sufficient answer for one student. “It’s naive to think that all the work is finished. When you and I know that men are still beating their wives, then what to we do with Maimonides?”

Project Chana in Baltimore, newly created by the Women’.? Department of the local Federation, reaches out to Jewish women in abusive relationships. Their helpline: (410) 234-0023. On Long Island American Jewish Congress distributes stickers with the number of a hotline for battered women-suggesting that synagogues and Jewish Community Centers affix them inside the stalls of women’s bathrooms, “a place where a woman can copy the phone numbers privately and take the first step toward protecting herself.” Call (516) 466-4650.