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Focus on Issues: Jewish Groups Lobbying Congress to Keep Funding for Abused Women

September 26, 2000
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A group of Jewish women of all ages and backgrounds meets regularly in Brooklyn to discuss the domestic abuse they have suffered.

One woman, in her 30s, was emotionally, verbally and financially abused by her husband of eight years who beat her after she became pregnant. With the help of the group, she developed the courage to become financially independent, move herself and her children away and continue her education toward a master’s degree.

Another woman, married 35 years with seven children, was embarrassed by the many years of abuse she endured but decided she needed to get help because her mentally ill husband had become a danger to her children. While the divorce proceedings drag on, the woman is happier because she feels safe.

A number of programs similar to the one helping these women are funded by grants provided through the Violence Against Women Act. The Jewish Board of Family and Children’s Services in New York, which runs the support groups, has a VAWA grant to work with abused women in Russian-speaking communities.

The act, passed in 1994, provides federal grants to state and local programs and private organizations that work to help victims of domestic violence.

Although the legislation enjoys bipartisan support, its reauthorization is stalled. Some lawmakers, in an effort to get their own agendas passed, are holding up the vote. Lobbyists are putting pressure on the House leadership to bring the vote to the floor.

Time is running out, however, as the legislative session draws to a close – it ends at an as-yet unspecified date in early October. If the act is not reauthorized, then some programs might have to close their doors because they can’t function without the federal funding.

This version of VAWA would reauthorize and enhance current programs, and also would extend benefits to battered immigrant women and disabled women.

Some of the Jewish groups involved in lobbying to get the act reauthorized this legislative session. Include the National Council of Jewish Women, Hadassah: the Women’s Zionist Organization of America, the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, the American Jewish Committee and the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism.

Agencies say that the prevalence of domestic violence in the Jewish community is about the same as that in the general community.

“We believe it’s comparable,” said Anita Altman of the UJA-Federation of Greater New York. While there is no hard data and the information is largely anecdotal, Altman said there is a substantial incidence of domestic violence in Jewish families. She cited as an example a Jewish social service agency on Long Island where 30-40 percent of its caseload is Jewish.

Jewish communities are starting to provide more services to abused women, particularly immigrants. Protections in the 1994 legislation were intended to remove barriers that kept battered immigrant women and children locked in abusive relationships.

A 1992 study shows that to prevent their immigrant wives from reporting domestic violence, men may threaten to take the children away from the United States, fail to file papers to legalize the wife’s immigration status or threaten to report her to the Immigration and Naturalization Service to get her deported.

The current version of the legislation would provide these immigrant domestic violence victims with more protection against deportation.

There also are special needs to consider in the Orthodox community. Orthodox women may be even less inclined to seek help than other Jewish women because they are under more pressure to keep their family together, plus finding the support services to fit their religious needs is difficult, say those who work with domestic violence victims.

Many Jewish women feel a heavy responsibility for the concept of shalom bayit, or peace in the home. They feel as if they have sole responsibility for keeping the peace and promoting love, caring, nurturing and understanding within the family, says the Web site of Jewish Women International. If women cannot fulfill this role because of an abusive relationship, they may feel inadequate and may not admit the violence.

“Culturally all Jews are ingrained with the concept of holding the family together,” said Nancy Schwartz Sternoff, who runs a family foundation for Jewish women and girls.

Jews also tend to stay in abusive relationships on average seven years longer than non-Jews, Sternoff said.

For years, domestic violence was not recognized as a real problem in the Jewish community, but things have started to change, said Jody Rabhan of the National Council of Jewish Women.

“In recent years, we’ve done a good job in getting the word out,” she said.

UJA-Federation’s Altman agrees, saying there has been a transformation in the Jewish community during the last five years. Now there is an awareness and recognition by the community of family violence, she said.

Jewish support networks and domestic violence hotlines are gaining more attention, and the Orthodox community is making strides to address the issue.

The good news, Altman said, is that people are much more willing to own up to the problem’s existence and work on it.

“The bad news is what it reveals: There is personal tragedy in our own community.”

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