At a Conference on Domestic Abuse, Information, Laughter and Tears
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At a Conference on Domestic Abuse, Information, Laughter and Tears

It strikes everywhere. It can impact anyone.

Domestic violence abuse by an intimate partner affects as many as 3 million women annually, according to a 1998 Commonwealth Fund study.

So from across the United States and six other countries, approximately 300 Jewish women and some men filled this city’s downtown Hyatt Regency Hotel this week to attend Jewish Women International’s three-day conference on domestic violence in the Jewish community.

Much of that violence is “tucked under the rug,” said Caela Kaplowitz of Pikesville. “It is important information gets out, especially in the Jewish community.”

Participants in the March 18-20 conference, titled “Beyond Awareness: Effecting Change,” shared information, laughs and tears at the approximately 40 workshops and sessions. Topics included engaging clergy, building coalitions, and recognizing the warning signs of murder and suicide.

It was the third conference on domestic violence awareness sponsored by the Washington-based JWI.

Michelle Lifton, coordinator of Project DVORA: Domestic Violence Outreach Response and Advocacy in Seattle, explained in a session on Sunday the complexities of domestic violence.

“It is patterns of assaultive and coercive behaviors used to gain and maintain control over an intimate partner,” she said. “This includes psychological, physical, verbal and sexual assault. When we are talking about domestic violence, we are talking specifically about [violence] between intimate couples.”

The tactics do not always include physical abuse, Lifton said. Emotional abuse, humiliation, degradation and isolation are also forms of domestic violence.

“[Abusers] are seeking to control the thoughts, beliefs and conduct of their partner,” she said, “and they do punish their partners for resisting control. Their violence could be directed at children or other family members with the intention always of controlling their ! intimate .”

Lifton said surveys show that 31 percent of American women report physical or sexual abuse by a husband or boyfriend at some point in their lives. Depending on the study, she said, 15 to 25.4 percent of Jewish women across the denominational spectrum experience, or have experienced, domestic abuse.

“A lot of people in the different movements are pointing fingers at each other,” she said. “The more liberal-oriented say it’s because of patriarchal norms. The more traditional say if people just followed Torah, this stuff wouldn’t happen. The reality is domestic violence goes across cultures, races and classes.”

In the same session Naomi Tucker, founder of Shalom Bayit, a domestic violence advocacy group in Oakland, Calif., said women are often reminded by abusive partners to maintain shalom bayit, a peaceful home, and warned against lashon hara, evil talk.

The abuser, she said, might alienate the victim from her congregation, criticize her for not being “Jewish enough,” or redefine Jewish law or practices to further oppress her.

Tucker said the ultimate form of control is not granting a get, or Jewish divorce decree.

Cynthia Ohana of Baltimore, who said she is a victim of domestic abuse and an agunah, or “chained woman,” spoke about her experiences.

“Since I have come out,” she said, “I have received many phone calls from women asking for help, how to go about it within halachah [Jewish law], and make sure they are doing things that will benefit them, get them the best results for their family.”

In Baltimore, CHANA: Counseling, Helpline and Aid Network for Abused Women provides support and empowers victims to create a safe environment for themselves and their families.

CHANA offered a Monday afternoon mother-daughter workshop to teach teens to set boundaries and speak about domestic violence incidents.

“We are just hoping moms and daughters will start talking to each other,” said Rabbi Rachel Her! tzman, C HANA’s youth educator.

Sessions on recruiting males to combat domestic violence was greeted enthusiastically by participants.

“I can’t overstate the importance of having men involved as leaders on the issue,” said JWI Executive Director Loribeth Weinstein.

A lunch-and-learn session on Monday afternoon dealt with rabbis as sexual offenders.

“People always ask, ‘How is it possible a rabbi could do A, B or C?’ ” said Rabbi Mark Dratch, founder of JSafe: The Jewish Institute Supporting an Abuse-Free Environment based in West Hempstead, N.Y. “When it comes to sexual matters, no one can be trusted 100 percent.”

Dratch said no rabbi who is a perpetrator of sexual abuse should be allowed to be a teacher, regardless of whether he is charismatic, or brings hundreds of people into a congregation or back to Judaism.

“It’s not just the teacher’s brain capacity that matters,” he said, “it’s his moral character. If you separate the intellect from the moral, that is not Torah.”

(Maayan Jaffe is a staff reporter for the Baltimore Jewish Times.)

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