Everyone deserves to be safe and loved. Everyone deserves to go to sleep at night and wake up the next day without fear that they may say the wrong thing or do the wrong thing; that today might be the day their life falls apart.
I was in law school when I first resolved that I wanted to work in the Jewish domestic violence legal services center in Philadelphia. I learned quickly that it didn’t exist. I’d been fascinated by (almost obsessed with) violence against women ever since I was 9 years old, training for my black belt in Tae Kwon Do, and was the youngest person in street fighting and weapons disarm classes. I’m so grateful for the experience that I had, and so certain that no child should need to know how to get out of a ponytail grab or to disarm a gun that’s pointed at them within arm’s reach.
We tell our kids not to talk to strangers. We teach them to stand up to bullies. But we also tell little girls that when a boy hits her, it means he likes her. We tell teens that when a guy flirts with someone else, he’s just trying to make her jealous. We don’t call those things what they are: physical assault and psychological abuse.
We’ve all learned the golden rule: “treat people how you want to be treated.” We’ve learned (the hard way) that it’s wrong. You treat people how they want to be treated. We teach people how to treat us. When children learn that this behavior is acceptable, what do we expect to happen when they grow up?
It’s not about education, race, economic status or religion. There is no archetype. Jews are affected too. In fact, at least 25% of Jewish women are affected by domestic abuse and intimate partner violence — the same as the general population. What makes us stand out, though, is that we stay in abusive relationships twice as long as the national average. What do Dr. James Kaufman and Rabbi Fred Neulander have in common? They are two Jews from New Jersey who hired hitmen to kill their wives. So why do we still ask, “Is domestic abuse a Jewish problem?”
I have some ideas why. Maybe it’s because we don’t talk about it. Some communities throw around words like Shalom Bayit and Shonda. Others have never heard those words but can definitely understand words like shame, embarrassment, and isolation. Maybe it’s because we like some stereotypes: “Jewish men make the best husbands,” and “Jewish women are strong and stubborn.” We have created a void in which anyone suffering thinks they are the only one — the exception, the weak one. They believe that no one will listen them, support them, save them.
Now, I want to stop here for a second — gentlemen: I promise, I’m not rallying against you, but facts are our friends: 85% of survivors are women, abused by men.
While we’re on statistics… here are some more fascinating ones:
- Intimate partner violence makes up 15% of all violent crime, and doesn’t even make the FBI’s pie chart.
- Only 25% of all intimate partner violence is ever reported to police and only 34% of survivors seek medical attention for their injuries. Yet we demand “proof.” — If there are no photos, no records, then it didn’t happen. (National Coalition Against Domestic Violence)
- Only 20% of survivors ever get a protection order, but we still say, “Women lie.” (National Institute of Justice and the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention)
- Access to firearms during a “domestic dispute,” (as the police call it) increases the likelihood of death by 500%, and still, we refuse to pass common sense gun control. (National Coalition Against Domestic Abuse)
I should not have needed to learn how to disarm a gun at 9 years old.
This isn’t a new phenomenon. Dinah was Jacob’s only named daughter in the Book of Genesis. All we know about Dinah is that she may or may not have been raped. Dinah was never asked what happened to her, what she wanted, or given any say at all in her own life. Dinah doesn’t say a single word in her own story. For Dinah, we have set out to give voices to the voiceless.
It takes a village to end domestic abuse and intimate partner violence. Most programs in the past have been geared to survivors and perpetrators of abuse: shelters for women and children, anger management for men. We teach our kids “good touch” and “bad touch.” We provide workshops on healthy relationships for teens and college students. And then what? How can we expect people to demand that they be treated with dignity at home when we refuse to talk about it? How do we expect survivors to get help when they think they’re the only one? When they think that it’s okay; that it’s their fault.
We must encourage clergy to speak about domestic abuse from the bimah and implore all couples they marry to sign a pre-nup, stating unequivocally that if they divorce, the husband will not withhold a get. Hundreds of Jewish women in this country are refused a religious divorce unless they are willing to bargain for it — for their freedom; to be able to marry again — that their future children should not be considered bastards in the state of Israel. And no, it doesn’t just affect religious Jews either. ORA, the Organization for the Resolution of Agunot negotiates with men all over the country who haven’t been in a synagogue in 20 years, but know that they hold this bargaining chip; this last bit of control.
We must educate communities of families, friends, neighbors, co-workers to talk about domestic abuse and intimate partner violence. Yes, it’s a thing — it’s ugly and it happens, and the more we talk about it, the more survivors will come forward, fewer abusers will feel empowered, and the faster organizations like ours will be put out of business.
We must train volunteer attorneys from personal injury to tax, to class action to handle pro bono cases ranging from protection from abuse orders, to divorce and custody, to housing and immigration. We’ll be able to meet the needs all of Jewish Philadelphia, including Orthodox and secular Jews, but also LGBT Jews, Senior Jews, and Immigrant and undocumented Jews. Because no one is magically left untouched, but so many are left behind.
I hope you’ve noticed — I haven’t once referred to “victims” here. We work with and for survivors. Anyone who faces violence and lives another day is a survivor. It is imperative that we mark this distinction. A woman is killed every 16 hours by a current or former partner in the US. We empower the women who live. We save survivors; we bury victims.
On February 28-March 1, we celebrate Purim, when we retell one of the many stories of when “they” tried to kill the Jews and miraculously, we survived. We eat, drink, and use noisemakers to drown out the name of the villain. We read that the king was married to Vashti, a woman who refused to come out and dance for him at his request. (That’s the PG version.) We are taught that she is stubborn, indelicate, rough, and that’s why she is “banished” at the end of the first chapter. Then we meet Esther — “the hero” — who is poised, beautiful, and patient. She is everything Vashti was not. Little girls dress up like Esther for Purim. Why not Vashti? Why don’t we talk about how Vashti stood up for herself in the face of her abuser? I challenge you all to read a little closer this Purim and see the sacrifices Vashti made to preserve her dignity; to see Vashti as a survivor.
Life is all about storytelling. Change starts with storytelling. Help us change the story.
Dinah, inc. is a comprehensive advocacy, education, and legal representation organization, serving survivors of domestic abuse and intimate partner violence in the Jewish Community of Greater Philadelphia. Be a part of Dinah’s story. Join our Founders’ Circle at www.DinahPhilly.org/donate/