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Misery beyond the Mezzuzah

Relationship Abuse in the Jewish Community

A woman is battered every 15 seconds in the U.S. Domestic violence is the leading cause of injury to women. More than one in four North American women will experience abuse at some point in her life and, as we know, Jews are not immune —whether we’re Orthodox, unaffiliated, or anything in between. Bromides such as “Jewish men don’t batter,” or “Jewish men make the best husbands,” or “Jewish families are safe havens in a hostile world,” are about as true as “There are no Jewish alcoholics.”

Socioeconomic advantage allows some men to commit relationship crimes without suffering the legal consequences. The fact is middle- or upper-class men (which describes most Jewish men) are far less likely to be accused or convicted of battering. They serve less time in jail, and where there are alternative sentences available, such as mandatory batterers’ re-education groups, they are frequently sentenced to those or are allowed to seek private therapeutic help.

Faye Wilbur, a social worker who serves the Orthodox community in Boro Park, New York, told me, “Abusive men present well. They’re charming to everyone but their wives and when the wife threatens to expose their abusive behavior, they say ‘No one will believe you.’ Often they’re right.”

Sadly, in our community, horrendous acts of violence and sexual abuse occur behind closed doors, even those with mezzuzot on their doorposts. The Sages viewed the mezzuzah as an appeal to divine protection, a symbol of God’s saving the Israelites from the tenth plague. But protection is hard to come by for the women cowering behind those doors, certain that they are the only Jews being brutalized in the place where they are supposed to be most safe.

Whatever their religious and ethnic background, some men hurt women and children not just because males tend to be physically stronger and economically autonomous, but because—despite feminism’s best efforts—male dominance is still an entrenched cultural assumption. The more patriarchal the family, the more likely the abuse of women. Where there is privilege, there is power. Likewise, where there is dependency there is powerlessness—for instance, when a wife has no control over family money, or when a husband’s mistreatment of his wife gives the children permission to disrespect or bully their mother. To break the cycle of abuse, we must restructure the patriarchal family into a social arrangement based on equality, democracy, and financial parity. And we must challenge rigid sex role socialization in the home and school, and dysfunctional paradigms of male supremacy and female subordination—especially those that equate masculinity with dominance and femininity with submission.

Feminists and other anti-violence advocates have “denormalized” men’s use of force to control women. They have also deconstructed men’s excuses. When a man says his partner pushes his buttons and makes him see red or makes him lose it, they say “If your rage is so uncontrollable, how come you don’t punch people out at the office? If you can’t control it, how come when you’re slamming your wife against the wall, you always manage to stop before you leave marks, break bones, or kill her?”

The big question remains: Why do some women tolerate abuse? Often it is not because they’re masochists or weaklings but because they’re fierce protectors of the family, and the perpetrator has threatened to hurt or take away their children if the wife resists or leaves. Crime statistics suggest it can be even more dangerous to leave than to stay: domestic violence victims are at greatest risk of being killed in the period immediately after they walk out. Other women simply do not want to end the relationship, they just want to make it work. “Don’t jail him, fix him,” they say.

While religious women of all faiths tend to stay in abusive relationships longer than women of other groups, observant Jewish women endure mistreatment and humiliation partly because our tradition teaches us it’s a woman’s responsibility to keep the family together and maintain shalom bayit, domestic tranquility. Likewise, religious women tend not to go to shelters or take legal action, because the Jewish feminine ideal is to stay married and raise kids. They don’t seek help, not just because they’re afraid of the husband but because they fear exposure would make the family the subject of lashon hara—evil gossip—and spoil their children’s marriage prospects. Children of Holocaust survivors often choose not to go public with their complaints in order to spare their parents further pain and suffering. Immigrant women may feel especially powerless because of the language barrier, lack of awareness of their rights, or the fact that their residence status is dependent on their husband’s.

These are complicated reasons, but the result is the same. In the American Jewish world, the sad truth is, though victims of domestic violence are far more numerous than victims of anti-Semitic violence, abused women and children get only a fraction of the attention and resources of the community. Ironically, a victim has a better chance of being supported and defended by the community if she is beaten up by an anti- Semitic stranger or raped in the elevator of her building, than if her husband smacks her around in her own kitchen.

Why has it taken so long for Jewish organizations, leaders, rabbis, and the rest of us to acknowledge, much less try to end, the abuse happening in Jewish families? Why do so many still turn away or take refuge in denial?

Partly, I think it’s because 95 percent of those suffering domestic violence are women, and in the eyes of some Jews what happens to Jewish women isn’t exactly happening to the Jews.

I see a parallel in our community’s response to comedic insult: Most Jews are deeply offended by “kike”‘ jokes. We don’t laugh at them, we rebuke those who tell them, we don’t tell them ourselves. Yet JAP jokes are not only tolerated by Jews, they’re told by Jews. (See Lilith’s original analysis in Fall 1987.) Never mind that the stereotype of the Jewish American Princess is wholly defamatory spoiled, imperious, materialistic, sexually withholding, acquisitive, narcissistic, and manipulative. “JAP” still is not perceived as an anti-Semitic slur. Why? Because the butt of the joke is a woman. Just as sexism kashers [makes kosher] anti-Jewish humor, it kashers the abuse of Jews who happen to be female.

How can survivors of domestic violence take ownership of the issue and contribute to its solution if they’re scared, ashamed, or economically and politically powerless? How can community programs create an appropriate response if the community is intrinsically sexist and patriarchal?

What’s surprising is that our history and heritage haven’t made us more sensitive to suffering. Deuteronomy’s thundering exhortation,“Tzedek, tzedek, tirdof”—Justice, justice, shalt thou pursue—doesn’t promise justice from on high, it demands constant pursuit of it on earth. Now it’s time for the community to put its money where its values lie. Prevention and education may be the long-term solution but what do we do in meantime?

Suggest that philanthropists who support birthright Israel also underwrite the birthright to be safe in a Jewish home. Make domestic abuse prevention a line item in every Jewish defense organization’s budget. Organizations, synagogue social action committees and Jewish community centers must host speakers on domestic violence, publicize hotlines, raise funds, and provide job networks so that victims can become self-supporting if they wish. Synagogues and JCCs must put posters on the bulletin boards and help-line stickers on the stall doors in the women’s bathroom.

Seminaries must not graduate rabbis until they’re prepared to do this work. Day schools and Hebrew school teachers must provide a route out of secrecy for kids who are witnessing or experiencing abuse. We need a community-wide public awareness campaign on relationship violence similar to what has been done for other afflictions suffered by Jews, like breast cancer and Tay-Sachs. We need the entire Jewish leadership to sign onto a zero tolerance blitz.

Domestic violence is not just a private crisis, it deprives the whole society of the talents of half the population. It bruises the body, but it also suffocates the spirit and squelches the will to achieve. Women who are battered, infantilized, isolated, deprived of financial autonomy, and otherwise controlled by their partners don’t have the will or confidence to contribute their God-given strengths to the community. Because we need each human being’s participation in our world, the abuse of women is a crime against us all.

Letty Cottin Pogrebina founding editor of Ms. Magazine, is the author of nine books, most recently Three Daughters, a novel, and Getting Over Getting Older, a memoir. This essay is adapted from her keynote address delivered at Jewish Women International’s conference on domestic violence in the Jewish community.