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Jewish Community Response to Family Abuse

With reports of domestic violence increasing, religious and ethnic organizations are confronting physical and sexual abuse within their own communities [see special section on “Healing Sexual Abuse in Jewish Families,” LILITH Summer 1988]. According to Barbara Harris, director of the Transition Center, a New York City shelter for victims of domestic violence and their children, 15 percent of all Jewish women are physically abused in some way, as contrasted with more than 20 percent in the general population. Both rates continue to rise as better methods of counting victims are devised and more women report the violence. A Jewish woman generally remains in the abusive relationship for about 15 years; her non-Jewish counterpart leaves six years sooner. An innovative program sponsored by Jewish agencies in Denver has taken an unflinching look at violence in Jewish families and has created programs to counter its devastation.

The Jewish Professional Women’s Group and the Allied Jewish Federation of Denver began a process two years ago that established a task force on domestic violence within the Jewish community. Both the process and its results can serve as a models for such projects nationwide.

An initial organizational meeting drew broad representation from medical doctors, representatives from the local Jewish hospital (Rose Medical Center), psychologists, the assistant district attorney in charge of child abuse cases (a Jewish woman), social workers, delegates from Jewish Family Services, and volunteers. Dr. Lenore Walker, a clinical psychologist and expert on domestic violence involved in the task force from the outset, says that the cross-disciplinary nature of the group was one of its greatest strengths. Cherie Kirschbaum, Robyn Loup and Marlin Barad, women involved in various local Jewish organizations, volunteered to co-chair the task force, which received administrative support from the Federation.

According to Walker, the task force organizers felt that “if we didn’t have support of the Rabbinical Council and Federation, we wouldn’t have the same impact on the Jewish community. We struggled to keep their support and keep peace.”

As their first order of business, the participants educated themselves on the issues of domestic violence in society, and in the Jewish family in particular, through a six month series of presentations on the medical, legal, and social aspects of the crisis. “Our sharpest criticism has been that we could have spent less time educating ourselves and planned something sooner. But we knew we were a model, and we didn’t have others to follow, so we were hesitant,” Walker explained. What emerged as the highest hurdle to immediate action, she said, was the lack of educated and trained volunteers to manage any of the programs the task force could establish.

In light of these limitations, the task force decided to hold a one-day conference on domestic violence in Jewish families for the general public last October. Doctors involved in the task force arranged funding support from the Rose Hospital Foundation. “The conference met [the hospital’s] needs because they wanted their doctors educated [about domestic violence|,” according to Walker. “And we wanted to be able to utilize the Jewish professionals in the area and to make them visible to the community.” Denver’s involvement of medical professionals is especially significant because, according to Barbara Harris, Jewish women tend to keep their abuse hidden from their doctors and therapists, who, in turn, are less likely to ask a woman directly about violence at home if she is from a middle- or upper-income family.

Over 300 men and women, including survivors of abuse, attended Denver’s Sunday-morning conference, far more than expected. Walker gave the keynote address and then the delegates broke into groups, each of which was led by six facilitators, including a rabbi, an educator, a lawyer, a mental health professional, a volunteer advocate, and a doctor. According to Walker, the conference was a huge success, introducing the community to experts to whom they could turn for help.

The task force, now under the leadership of Henny Kaufmann, is planning a drop-in center, which will provide space for once-a-week rap sessions, education, access to resource materials and networking. Also in progress is the training of a volunteer corps to run a “warmline,” operated through Jewish Family Services, to provide not crisis intervention (as a hotline would), but rather information and resources. The task force intends to train both lay advocates and rabbis to recognize and help high-risk families. The group persuaded several Denver rabbis to give a High Holy Day sermon on the topic of domestic violence.

While both men and women attended the conference. Walker reports that the rabbis were the only men who came to task force meetings regularly. “Women were willing to stick with it; most of the men were not,” she said. “In general, it’s more difficult for men than women to focus on the issue of domestic violence. It’s a gender issue, because men are usually the perpetrators, women and children usually the victims. It is, therefore, of greater urgency and value to women. For men to challenge other men is going to take a shift in societal values, which is really the goal of a task force like this, to become the conscience of the Jewish community.”