A well-known rabbi recently announced from the pulpit that all were welcome in his congregation—”except wife beaters.” A survey among New York rabbis found that while nearly all denied first-hand knowledge of Jewish domestic violence, and some even claimed it never happens, many agreed that shelters for its victims should be established.
One such shelter has already housed nearly 400 women, many of them Jewish, and receives 150 to 200 calls for help a month. Two recent studies in Los Angeles identified several cases of spousal abuse among Jews, and two major conferences on the subject have been held in as many years in the New York area alone.
The latest of the two conferences was this fall. It was cosponsored by the American Jewish Committee’s New York chapter, the National Federation of Temple Sisterhoods District 3, the Women’s League for Conservative Judaism, and the women’s branch of the Orthodox Union, and it was attended by sisterhood leaders from the three branches of Judaism.
The objectives of the conference were to determine the severity of the problems among American Jews and to form a “national network for change.”
All the indications at the conference were that one of the most persistent myths —that Jewish men don’t beat their wives-is being exploded. Reliable statistics are hard to come by, but social service agencies under both Jewish and nonsectarian auspices are increasingly reporting that Jews are following the lead of the general society.
That lead is clear: approximately 10 to 15,000,000 cases of wife abuse are recorded annually in the United States. Many more cases go unreported. Domestic violence figures as a cause in about 60 percent of divorce cases, and the Victim Services Agency in New York City estimates that almost half of all women will experience violence from a spouse or partner at some point in their lives.
All the speakers at the joint conference agreed that wife abuse has always existed—among Jews as well as non-Jews. It is not the problem but the recognition that is growing. Jewish battering may be more “insidious” than other pathologic behaviors among Jews, “because it has been so well-hidden,” stated keynote speaker Barbara Harris, director of Transition Center. (Sponsored by the Associated YM-YWHAs of Greater New York, Transition is the only city-funded shelter in New York City for abused women and their children offering kosher facilities.)
Moreover, Harris said, there are reasons that abused Jewish women may be at a greater disadvantage than their non-Jewish counterparts. One is the historic reluctance of Jews to turn to police or civil courts to adjudicate their disputes. When Jewish women do file suits, they are often met with such comments as: “What’s a nice Jewish woman like you doing in court?”
Because of the sacrosanct position of the family within Judaism, Jewish women have been inculcated with the belief that they should sacrifice everything for their families.
“Battered women may go home to their mothers and be told that they were beaten by the fathers and ‘survived’,” said Harris. “Or they may be told that they made their bed and must lie in it—that the family must be preserved at all costs. An offer of help is the least likely response.”
The myth that Jews don’t beat their wives has led to widespread denial even when the facts are glaringly different. All battered women suffer from society’s tendency to blame the victim, either for allegedly provoking the attack or for not walking away from it. But Jewish women may experience this to an even greater degree. Since it is assumed that wife abuse is rare or even nonexistent among Jews, any woman who gets beaten is seen as deserving it, speakers at the conference pointed out.
The centrality of the family and the denial syndrome also play a crucial role in what speakers considered the inadequate response of most rabbis. Previous reports had indicated that it is rare for a rabbi to have the opportunity to intervene because the battered woman is too ashamed to turn to him or her.
But according to Rachel Klein, caseworker at Transition Center, many of the women at the shelter had approached their rabbis for help—and been rebuffed. “They were told, ‘it’s not so bad,’ and advised to go home and preserve shalom bayit (domestic peace),” she said.
“Since the batterer commonly isolates his wife, but he himself remains visible and even active in the community, the rabbi will tend to believe his story, and see the woman as either hysterical or as a nebichel the husband has to put up with,” Klein added.
Rabbi Gerald Skolnick, spiritual leader of the Forest Hills Jewish Center in New York City, explained that rabbis are particularly prone to the internalization of Jewish “self-serving myths” and to subsequent denial. “After all,” he said, “the job of the rabbi is to perpetuate myths, to teach Jewish specialness.”
Though effective intervention may mean nothing more than referral of the woman to an appropriate social service agency, the insufficient training most rabbis receive in counseling and the resulting ignorance about suport systems in their communities further hampers their ability to help even in this limited way, it was observed.
Another myth that needs exploding, commented Harris, is that wife abuse occurs only among the poor or uneducated. Domestic violence among Jews cuts across social and economic lines. All the women at Transition have been wives of professionals, and none required financial help. Wife abuse is also an across-the-board religious phenomenon: similar experiences are reported among Orthodox, Conservative, and Reform families, and batterers and their wives often belong to synagogues.
Klein recalled coming to synagogue one Saturday morning and being impressed with a man she did not recognize who was leading the morning services beautifully. “It turned out he was the husband of one of the women in our shelter. He had discovered its location, and had come to our community for the Sabbath to try to influence her caseworker—myself. As his wife had told us, he was a leader in their community.” (JTA)