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Wife-Beaters

More than 400 people, drawn from every continent except Antarctica, came to Baltimore this past July for the first-ever conference focusing exclusively on domestic violence in the Jewish community.

At the opening plenary, Dr. Amy Robbins Ellison recounted the tale of her brutally abusive relationship—the windows her husband smashed her head through, the constant bruises she hid at work—and read a poem her daughter had just sent from camp about abuse seen through the eyes of a child. Listeners wept openly at her testimony. Two elderly women turned to offer tissues to the man crying in the seat behind me.

During workshops at the three-day conference, organized by Jewish Women International, participants talked about efforts to involve boys and men in the campaign to end domestic violence. Jonathan Stillerman, co-director of Men Can Stop Rape in Washington, D.C., seeks out males 12-21 to work with women to end men’s violence. He tries to teach boys more appropriate ways to show that they are men. As a Jewish male himself, Stillerman says “Jewish boys are specific. Mensch is a strong part of masculinity in the Jewish community, whereas many other cultures don’t have a positive term for those softer male qualities.” Yet are Jewish boys in a better place for understanding domestic violence than their peers? Judging from the reports of abuse and the statistics aired at the conference, the notion that “Jewish men don’t beat their wives” is a form of communal denial.

Another veiled-in-secrecy topic that conference participants tried to open up was incest. As the campaign to end abuse and violence charges forward, is the sensitive issue of incest left behind in the shuffle? Some incest survivors thought so, as they narrated their stories and challenged Jewish organizations for their lack of attention to this issue. Incest occurs at the same rate in Jewish families as in other families, yet is rarely discussed.

In the workshop “Men Who Batter: Addressing the Issue Though Community Change,” Orthodox social worker Lisa Twerski of New York’s Shalom Task force explained that the Orthodox are creating their own women’s support services. It often feels, she suggested, that non-Orthodox organizations are trying to “correct” Orthodox practices, and this “feels like an attack.”

In a surprising twist, Phyllis Frank, head of rehabilitation programs for batterers in Rockland County, NY, vowed that if she could she would close down every remedial program directed at the batterers themselves. Her reasoning? They don’t work. Instead, they extend the tolerance a women has for staying with a man. Frank tells women, “Make your plans based on the man you know you have, not on the man you hope he becomes.”

The conference was a matrix for new ideas and emerging programs led by experts in the field, including Marcia Cohn Spiegel and Laura Davis, empowered survivors, and their supporters.