(JTA) — Thirty years ago, a Jewish woman experiencing domestic violence had few places to turn. Community leaders strongly resisted acknowledging violence for fear that it would harm marriages and break up families. Few services existed for women seeking support in a Jewish setting. Prior to 1994, the U.S. government did not even recognize domestic violence as a federal crime.
Since then, we have witnessed a bold transformation in national and Jewish communal responses to violence against women. Today, more Jewish women experiencing domestic violence are coming forward than ever before. Approximately 175 Jewish programs and organizations are in place to respond to their complex needs with lifesaving services. Jewish clergy have recognized that in times of crisis, survivors often turn to them for support, guidance and refuge, and they are working together to promote awareness and share best practices when counseling families experiencing abuse. Jewish domestic violence organizations also are engaging in political advocacy, leading prevention programs for young people and working with other faith groups to accomplish their goals.
The coordinated community approach to eradicating violence has successfully addressed the needs of thousands of Jewish families. Now the Jewish community serves as a model for other religious communities trying to make their faith a resource, not a barrier, to addressing violence. But there is still work to be done.
According to Jewish Women International’s 2011 survey of Jewish domestic violence organizations, 90 percent of respondents believe their clients face a gap in services, citing a lack of legal services and affordable housing as the two largest areas of unmet need. Some 76 percent of respondents also see elder abuse as a growing problem, but few programs are in place to offer services to older Jewish individuals affected by abuse.
Despite great strides, too many among us still live in fear of violence and do not have access to a full range of services. We must do more to ensure that every Jewish person can lead a healthy, safe and stable life. Domestic and sexual violence are persistent crises. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s 2010 National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey, one in four women and one in seven men have been the victim of severe physical violence by an intimate partner, while one in five women will be raped in her lifetime. Clearly there is still work to be done.
Every Jewish individual and organization that cares about tikkun olam, repairing the world, must take a stand. More rabbis must speak from the bimah about this issue and receive training so they can effectively respond to cases of abuse within their congregations. With one in 10 adolescents experiencing physical dating violence, all Jewish youth should be exposed to healthy relationship programming as part of their Jewish education.
Finally, we must all become advocates for this cause by promoting legislation and community action that supports domestic violence programs and services.
Congress is considering legislation to reauthorize the historic, bipartisan Violence Against Women Act, or VAWA, for another five years. VAWA, our nation’s most critical tool in responding to domestic violence, dating violence, sexual assault and stalking, supports law enforcement responses and direct services for victims of these crimes. Since its passage in 1994, VAWA has unquestionably improved our nation’s response to violence: All states have strengthened rape laws, and the number of individuals killed by an intimate partner has decreased by 34 percent for women and 57 percent for men.
VAWA has been a bipartisan effort of Congress since it was passed. But in this political and economic climate, VAWA’s reauthorization cannot be assumed. As the Senate considers S. 1925 — the Violence Against Women Reauthorization Act of 2011 introduced by Sens. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) and Mike Crapo (R-Idaho) — we urge everyone to become an advocate for the legislation. The bill would continue the federal government’s response to violence against women for another five years and provide more gateways for victims to access services. It emphasizes the important work of the faith community by providing more opportunities for faith groups to access VAWA funding.
Forty-five national faith organizations, including a broad array of prominent Jewish organizations from the American Jewish Committee to the Orthodox Union, have signed on to a letter urging Congress to swiftly reauthorize VAWA.
The organized Jewish community is playing a critical role in this effort, but we need your help. We should be contacting our senators to co-sponsor S. 1925 and urge our representatives to introduce similar bipartisan legislation in the House of Representatives.
Domestic violence is an issue that deserves the dedication, passion and attention of the Jewish community. By working together to reauthorize VAWA and address violence against women and families, we will continue to build a foundation for healthier homes and safer communities.
(Lori Weinstein is the executive director of Jewish Women International. Lee Sherman is the president and CEO of the Association of Jewish Family & Children’s Agencies.)