Two Shelters, One Threat

“Each story is different,” explains Rachel Bialer, a social worker at the Jerusalem Shelter for Battered Women. “It is important to talk with each other, but never to compare stories — each story is unique,” she says to the women crowded in her office drinking coffee and eating sandwiches while discussing their lives since leaving their abusive husbands.

The belief that each woman must be approached differently is at the core of the philosophy of the Jerusalem Shelter for Battered Women. In Israeli society — where even the existence of domestic violence is so often denied — it is essential that stereotypes of the battered woman be dispelled. Domestic violence is estimated to run across all religious, ethnic and socio-economic lines, yet the women who use the services of the Jerusalem Shelter are almost exclusively secular Jewish women of lower socio-economic levels.

“It’s a difficult war,” says one of the women at the shelter. Women remain there for two months, on average, during which time the staff helps them assess their future options. Because there are powerful social and economic pressures upon women to remain in their marriages, about two-thirds eventually return to their husbands. Many will be battered again and will return to the shelter. It is not rare for a woman to leave a batterer as many as five times before leaving him permanently.

Domestic violence in Israel also affects children and the elderly but there are few resources to assist youngsters who have been emotionally, physically, or sexually abused by parents, or to assist older people who are abused by their adult children. Because Israeli society places such significance upon the family unit, domestic violence threatens its very foundation. And yet the society largely continues to ignore violence in Israeli homes.

Shira Leibowitz will enter the Jewish Theological Seminary’s rabbinical school this Fall. This article is adapted from a journal she kept while working at the Jerusalem Women’s Sheller.

The Los Angeles Jewish community has begun to take responsibility for the problem of domestic violence. Responding to a, survey of the Jewish community conducted in the late 1970s by Betsy Giller and Ellen Goldsmith at Hebrew Union College, which exposed the prevalence of domestic violence in the Jewish community the Jewish Family Service established the Family Violence Project. The Family Violence Project provides a broad range of services for battered women including: shelter referral, emergency financial assistance, court accompaniment and advocacy, vocational counseling, job placement, women’s support groups, and individual and family therapy. Help is also available for men who batter. The project in the Alternatives to Violence Group aims to treat the perpetrators of the violence. The Family Violence Project is also committed to educating the Jewish community at large.

When I speak out about domestic violence in the Jewish community, I often encounter enormous resistance from Jewish professionals, particularly from rabbis. I am often told that spouse abuse is not a Jewish problem. More common is the following response, “If this terrible ‘thing’ does occur among Jews, it certainly does not exist in my community.” One rabbi I spoke with recently asserted, “I have been the rabbi of this community for over 30 years, and I’ve never encountered one incident of spouse abuse.” Sadly, three of his congregants are clients of the Family Violence Project.

Rabbis are not trained to be professional counselors, and yet, we are so often expected to know instinctively how to contend with a vast array of human problems.

Quite often a battered woman will approach her rabbi presenting a very elusive complaint, such as: “My husband has a terrible temper.” She is ashamed to say more. How is a rabbi to respond to such a disclosure? Why has this woman approached her rabbi? It is incumbent upon the entire Jewish community to begin to understand the horror that lies behind this woman’s words.

Naomi Levy is a rabbinical student at the Jewish Theological Seminary currently working as a rabbinic counselor at the Family Violence Project in Los Angeles.