Helping Rabbis See Signs Of Family Violence


When Diana Manber, as a girl growing up, asked her rabbi why he had not intervened to help her mother, who was a victim of spousal abuse, “the rabbi said he had suspected something was wrong but he didn’t have the words to ask,” she recalled.Now a rabbi herself, Manber is helping people “to find their voice.”

She heads a project called Sh’ma Kolenu (Hear Our Voice) and is working for Jewish Women International in cooperation with the New York Board of Rabbis and the UJA-Federation Task Force on Family Violence to educate local rabbis about the signs and ways of dealing with family violence.A series of rabbinic education programs will begin Wednesday, Oct. 25, at UJA-Federation in New York, with similar trainings set for Brooklyn the following day, Jericho on Nov. 16 and White Plains on Nov. 22.“For too long, too little has been said about this subject,” said Rabbi Joseph Potasnik, executive vice president of the New York Board of Rabbis, in discussing the new initiative.

“People would say, ‘It’s not our problem,’ but we can’t be guilty of this silence.”Although there are no statistics specifically dealing with the Jewish community, abuse can be found in nearly one out of five homes in the U.S., experts believe, and no community is immune.“It’s an epidemic,” said Anita Altman, who heads the UJA Task Force on Family Violence, now in its 13th year, dealing with child and elderly abuse as well as spousal abuse.She said that rabbis have a key role to play in letting people know that abuse is not to be tolerated, and in opening their congregations to make people feel empowered.Altman and Rabbi Manber agreed that no one segment of the Jewish community is more prone than another to abuse, though they noted that they target recent immigrants, who have different cultural norms as well as the stress of resettlement. “We try to empower the women to see that this behavior is wrong and not acceptable,” said Altman. “We try to do this with sensitivity, but with a policy of no tolerance.”

The workshops for rabbis will use Jewish texts to trace family problems dating back to the Book of Genesis, and offer ways for rabbis to look for physical, emotional and social symptoms in congregants that may signal abuse within the family.Rabbi Manber said that having been a child witness to domestic violence in the home, she understands the lingering effects on young people. She has helped train more than 150 rabbis, emphasizing that an occasional sermon on the topic of abuse is not enough. The training sensitizes rabbis to the problem, teaches them to listen and to appreciate that “they can’t fix the problem alone,” according to Rabbi Manber. “Their job is not to judge, but to hold the perpetrator accountable and help the victim through spiritual care and referral agencies.”“There is a long history of ‘what happens at home stays at home,’ but that has to change,” she said.