As a newly graduated social worker 20 years ago, I worked in a kosher domestic violence shelter. Acquaintances would shock me by asking, “Is there actually a need for that?”
I would try to explain that domestic violence is present in all communities, yet this was usually met with a hefty dose of skepticism from fellow members of the Jewish community. Now, when I share that I am the executive director of Shalom Task Force, a national organization whose mission is to combat and prevent DV in the Jewish community, I hear, “Of course there is domestic violence in the Jewish community, but it’s the ‘other’ Jewish community.”
I and my colleagues at organizations supporting DV survivors across the country know that abuse happens in all communities. I have assisted survivors from every Jewish denomination and level of observance. One in four women and one in 10 men aged 18 and older in the U.S. have been the victim of severe physical violence by an intimate partner in their lifetime, and this prevalence exists in all populations, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
To back up this statistic with qualitative research and best practices, Jewish Women International undertook a comprehensive needs assessment highlighting the pressing and particular needs of DV survivors in the Jewish community – focusing on what is currently lacking and how the larger Jewish community can and must be more supportive.
The assessment was the result of a multi-pronged qualitative study consisting of two distinct surveys. One was designed for staff of Jewish domestic violence programs. The second survey was designed to learn about the experiences of clergy, who are often the first point of support for survivors. JWI also facilitated roundtable discussions with key stakeholders and heard personal testimonies from service provides and survivors.
One of the main findings of the report can be summed up in a single word: community. While some may experience communal life as hurtful, there are others who find great support in the community and it is a source of hope and comfort. The assessment revealed the pain survivors feel when forced to leave the Jewish community and their homes when escaping violence and the lack of training and education that clergy have to address such issues.
The report shows that the Jewish community may be providing for critical short-term needs, but fall short in providing resources for long-term healing and independence.
One of the most significant barriers for survivors who seek help is the deep shame associated with being a victim of domestic violence, or even leaving an abusive marriage. The pain survivors experience at “failing at marriage” in our Jewish communities can be immobilizing. Survivors struggle to envision life after a marriage, and how to remain in the community while leaving an unsafe relationship.
There is also great fear that their children will be negatively impacted by a separation and divorce, or that they will not be able to continue to attend the same schools, youth groups and camps and that they will lose everything they know to be normal.
Victims are often asked, “Why don’t you just leave?” The decision to leave a relationship is complex and often dangerous. Victims may not come forward because of their communal status, emphasis on perceived family success, financial considerations, housing needs, legal concerns, and sense of belonging. Others feel trapped because they do not think they will be believed and that the abuser will be supported to their detriment, and they will be forced to uproot their lives.
Community can have tremendous power over people and their choices. Victims are often forced to decide between leaving an unsafe relationship and staying in a community they call home. We need to find ways so that survivors are not forced to make this decision and that they feel they can seek safety without losing their sense of belonging and support.
Victims are often forced to decide between leaving an unsafe relationship and staying in a community they call home.
It is critical communities honor how people from all segments of Jewish life understand their trauma and the role of the community in that experience.
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JWI’s new study serves as a great start to make positive change. By providing research to ground our work, we can advocate for more extensive survivor-centered, holistic services that allow for greater safety within the communities we serve. When we as a unified Jewish community acknowledge domestic violence, we are part of the solution. When we believe survivors, prioritize safety, and are inclusive of all families, we create space for survivors to envision a safer alternative.
By supporting community-based programs, and advocating for the expansion of services, survivors are given the opportunity to come forward and get the help they need. The Jewish community prides itself on its assistance and support of the most vulnerable. If we can each spread awareness, be upstanders and foster critical discussion about healthy relationships, survivors can feel supported in their most vulnerable state. In this way, we can use the power of community for the good.
Shoshannah D. Frydman, PhD, LCSW is the executive director of Shalom Task Force, Inc. a national organization whose mission is to combat and prevent domestic violence in the Jewish community. Shoshannah also served on Jewish Women International’s advisory committee of Raising Awareness and Understanding of Domestic Violence in the Jewish Community: A National Needs Assessment.