You don’t have to be a victim or a survivor to be part of the problem or the solution,” urged Shelley Herman, co-chair of the conference on “Family Violence: Healing Through Creative Techniques,” when she greeted about 200 volunteers, organizers, social workers, advocates, rabbinical students and others—mostly women—who gathered in New York City in November. The conference was held in conjunction with “Rage/ Resolution: From Family Violence to Healing in the Works of Israeli and American Women.” Both the conference and art exhibit were presented by Jewish Women International, Hebrew Union College and US Israel Women to Women and co-sponsored by a number of organizations, including LILITH.
“Each act of courage sends a ripple of hope,” said Charles Hynes, Kings County (NY) District Attorney. He described how witnessing his own mother terrified and beaten by his father forged his commitment to work aggressively against domestic violence, and to see it as a public health scandal. He noted that there was little help for his mother or for him when he was young. Had rehabilitation services been available, he wondered, could he have found a way to come to terms with his father, to whom he did not speak for the last 20 years of the man’s life?
Evelyn Roth, chair of the UJA Federation Family Violence Task Force reminded participants that half of the homeless women and children in the United States are fleeing domestic violence. Aleeza Strubel, formerly development coordinator for the Haifa Women’s Crisis Shelter, reported that current services are especially inadequate for such groups as Ethiopian immigrant women. Thea Dubow, a Jewish woman who killed her husband in self-defense, recounted her experience in the marriage, her conviction for murder, her imprisonment and subsequent release. “Domestic violence is not about anger. It’s about power and sexism and patriarchy,” insisted Dubow, now assistant director of My Sister’s Place in White Plains, New York.
Rabbi Julie Spitzer, author of “When Love Is Not Enough: Spousal Abuse in Rabbinic and Contemporary Judaism,” gave the keynote address. She elaborated on four Jewish questions: Doesn’t saving one life take precedence over all other commandments? Are we considering the spiritual needs of the victims? Can we heal our own communal division in order to help victims heal? Can there be healing without justice?
The Jewish dimension was expanded in a workshop (one of ten) led by Marcia Cohn Spiegel. She told of creating healing rituals by adapting familiar Jewish symbols: Lighting candles to dispel darkness. Cleaning for Passover or immersing in the water of a mikveh to purify. The giving of names, as Rachel and Leah named their children as a claiming of power. And the stamping out of a name, as in the Purim custom of writing Hainan’s name on your shoe sole. As a vehicle for expressing rage, she noted, a ceremony should have a structure with boundaries for safety and the company of others to counteract a woman’s isolation.
In a closing session, one participant, told how she was overheard in a store saying she was coming to a conference on domestic violence in the Jewish community. The cashier, a Polish Catholic woman, started crying and pleaded, “If you Jewish women start confronting this problem, we will all follow you.”