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Giving Rabbis the Words to Talk About Abuse

Several Jewish organizations are now reaching out to rabbis as first responders on abuse issues. Rabbis, often the people who are in a position to notice abuse in families or individuals, or to hear about it from witnesses or victims, may not have either the training or the tools to help them make appropriate referrals. Miklat (shelter), an Israeli organization that maintains women’s shelters in Israel and supplies legal aid to women in need, asserted at a conference last year in New York that the key to ending domestic abuse in the Jewish community is the education of rabbis. In the past, Miklat leaders and others point out, abused women and children did not speak of their suffering for fear of not being believed; “Jewish men don’t beat their wives,” was the dominant and damaging myth. And some rabbis have encouraged women to return to their abusive homes to try to figure out what they themselves are doing wrong, in the name of shalom bayit, peace in the home.

Recent initiatives to educate rabbis and give them the necessary language to talk about domestic abuse come from New York UJA-Federation’s Task Force on Family Violence, and from Sh’ma Kolemi (lit. Hear our Voices), a program of the New York Board of Rabbis and Jewish Women International. The UJA-Federation task force has just released a large laminated “Reference Card for Rabbis.” It says, in part: “You are uniquely positioned to change community attitudes such as denial or refusal of responsibility or blaming the victim or maintaining the status quo.”

A Miklat pamphlet reaching out to rabbis and religious leaders quotes from the Sefer HaBrit, where in 1797 Rabbi Pinchas Eliyahu of Vilna said that for afflicting physical harm on a family member “their punishment is stricter and their behavior is more disgusting, because she is bone of his bones and flesh of his flesh, and he cruelly oppresses his close relative. And it is forbidden to afflict one’s wife verbally, and certainly it is forbidden to raise one’s hand against her, G-d forbid!”