Menu JTA Search

New report on Jewish domestic abuse

WASHINGTON, June 17 — With a few brush strokes, Jewish Women International is trying to paint a picture of a problem that kills. On Thursday, the Washington-based group released a report on domestic abuse, Needs Assessment: A Portrait of Domestic Abuse in the Jewish Community. “It’s us. It’s the woman sitting next to you. It’s the professional man. It’s not the picture we expect,” said the group’s national community outreach manager, Amy Rubin, who coordinated the study. “If you’re Orthodox, you say it’s Reform. If you’re Reform, you say it’s Orthodox. If you’re upper class, you say it’s lower class.” The new report emphasizes that domestic abuse affects all Jews and ranges from outright physical violence to more subtle controlling behavior affecting money, children, even religious observance. “As a community, we cannot afford to continue the stereotypical view that domestic abuse is not a significant issue in Jewish homes,” the study’s introduction reads. “We must quash that myth and boldly chart a course to end the cycle of domestic abuse for all women and children.” Jewish Women International began focusing on domestic abuse in 1988, after one of the group’s members was murdered by her husband. The group held an international conference last July in Baltimore on domestic abuse in the Jewish community. A follow-up gathering is slated for Washington for March 2005. Assembled over 18 months, the new assessment draws on a study of 300 people in Chicago and data from last summer’s conference. As part of the event, organizers also provided a 10-page survey given to a “sampling of experts, advocates, rabbis and survivors from around the country,” and held five focus groups with a similar mix of people, Rubin said. Funds from U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and a grant of $10,000 from the Jewish Women’s Foundation of Metropolitan Chicago underwrote the study. The total cost was just under $30,000. Loribeth Weinstein, Jewish Women International’s executive director, says she hopes the study will be a catalyst for more research money. As an outgrowth of the research, she noted, Jewish Women International is establishing a national clergy task force to include both rabbis and cantors, as well as a national training institute to provide both general and professional training about domestic abuse in the Jewish community. While the report does not break new ground, it offers more documentation of a social ill heretofore sketched by way of anecdote. “For those of us who have been involved with the issue, it simply confirms what we already knew from the work that we do,” said Rubin, an activist on domestic abuse for some 15 years. “But remember: There’s still a vast community that hasn’t had that experience, and for them it may be new information.” Marilyn Moskowitz, executive director of the Jewish Coalition Against Domestic Violence, served on the advisory committee for the report. “It’s really significant in that it dispels the long-held belief that abuse is not a problem in the Jewish community,” Moskowitz said. “Until now, we’ve had a lot of anecdotal information, small studies in local areas.” The Jewish Coalition Against Domestic Violence coordinates services and provides referrals for victims of domestic abuse in the Washington area. It also does education and outreach ranging from school curricula to rabbi training. The study does not show the incidence of domestic abuse, which would have required greater time and resources. It sets forth six key findings and related priorities for action. Dr. Paul Ephross, a professor at the University of Maryland’s School of Social Work, conducted a study for CHANA — Counseling, Helpline and Aid Network for Abused Women — in Baltimore in 1998. A member of the national needs assessment advisory committee, he said he has seen nothing in the Jewish Women International report to contradict his findings that 19.9 percent of Jewish women had been abused at least once. The new report underscores the role that rabbis can play in identifying and helping stop domestic abuse. “Every time I speak on the issue or publish an article, my phone rings and my e-mail box is flooded by people who are victims or others who know victims and are trying to help them,” said another local advisory committee member, Rabbi H. David Rose of Congregation Har Shalom, in the Washington area. Rose emphasized the need for educating rabbis about the signs of domestic abuse. “So much of our training is about making things work, smoothing over differences,” Rose said, noting the rabbinic impulse to affirm both parties in a dispute. “This is a time when rabbis need to recognize both the right and the wrong, and guide an individual to their own rescue and safety.” Weinstein noted that rabbis need the skills to handle the fallout from a domestic abuse situation; for example, what to do when the abuser is a synagogue leader. The Jewish Women International study also says the myth of Jewish immunity from domestic abuse often blinds Jewish and secular professionals, from police to mental health-care providers, from detecting the problem. Such “missed cues,” Rubin said, include a woman or man whose companion is constantly checking in by cell phone, whose spouse discourages or forbids get-togethers with peers, who reports frequent abusive language from a partner. She suggests asking potential victims, “I’m wondering if you need help.” Moskowitz urges, “Listen, be empathetic and believe what they’re saying. Take it seriously.” The new training institute will provide continuing education units for social workers, Weinstein said. Because of the shame that some associate with domestic abuse, many of its victims fail to report it or postpone seeking help, the report said. Moreover, the practical challenges involved in leaving an abusive partner may daunt someone suffering from abuse. It takes money for a rent deposit, a working car, food, child care and legal fees to build a new life in safety. And full healing often requires counseling for both adults and children involved. “The children are very severely impacted, certainly by being abused and also by witnessing abuse,” said Moskowitz, who notes problems at school, eating disorders, depression and violent behavior among youngsters exposed to such ills at home. Speaking in sociological terms, Ephross said the study of domestic violence in the Jewish community, having passed the stage of shock at the existence of abuse, has reached the “bureaucratization of charisma” — where there is recognition of the need to set up programming and support. To address all these needs will take a serious allocation of resources by U.S. Jews, both locally and nationally, Rubin said. “This must become an issue that must be funded, because a lot of us know what to do, but programs and initiatives in the arena of domestic abuse or in the arena of building healthy relationships are not adequately funded by the Jewish community,” she said.(Debra Rubin, editor of the Washington Jewish Week, contributed to this report.)