About 15 to 25 percent of all Jewish families experience some form of domestic violence — about the same as in the general community — and it's time we acknowledged and addressed this issue fully, a local JFCS supervisor writes.
The domestic violence case of Janay Palmer Rice has drawn a great deal of media attention because she is the spouse of Ray Rice, a rich and famous public figure.
A constructive outcome of this story is that greater awareness of this issue has been raised. And the intense reaction to the Rice case, along with other recent high-profile cases, shows that domestic violence is a nationwide concern.
Now it’s time to acknowledge and address this issue fully in the Jewish community. Domestic abuse occurs in Jewish families at about the same rate as in the general community — estimated at between 15 and 25 percent. The abuse takes place among all branches of Judaism and at all socio-economic levels.
Abuse can have many faces — physical, emotional, financial, sexual, technological and spiritual, in which religion is used to manipulate the victim. The statistics in the population as a whole are alarming:
• Every year, 1 in 3 female homicide victims is killed by her current or former partner.
• Every year, more than 3 million children witness domestic violence in their homes.
• Children who live in homes where there is domestic violence also suffer abuse or neglect at higher rates — 30 percent to 60 percent — than other children.
• A 2003 study found that children are more likely to intervene when they witness severe violence against a parent. This can place a child at great risk for injury or even death.
Following the assault, Palmer Rice stood by her then-fiance, now husband. Although this may have been shocking to many people, those of us who are familiar with domestic violence cases know that victims of domestic violence rarely blame or leave their abusers. Why? There isn’t a simple answer to this question.
Often, victims blame themselves, continue to love their abusers and feel shame for their plights. Also, financial dependence, fear of losing their homes, children and lifestyles, and a lack of information about the means of escaping their circumstances can keep people in abusive relationships.
Ironically, leaving a violent relationship can be more dangerous than staying in it. Often, the legal system has failed victims repeatedly.
In the Jewish community, victims stay in the abusive relationship for five to 15 years longer — two to three times as long — than victims in other communities.
There are many reasons why it might be harder for Jewish victims to leave relationships.
Until about 15 years ago, when the issue began to be discussed in public forums or addressed on flyers in the bathroom stalls of synagogues, domestic violence had not been viewed as a Jewish problem at all. As a result, victims of abuse have not felt the community was ready to address their issues and often remained in harmful relationships.
The lack of acknowledgement of domestic violence has created a culture of shame. Jewish family members often feel the shame of being among the relatively few who are experiencing such abuse and are concerned that other Jewish people will not understand or believe their claims. Those whose spouses are community or business leaders fear that no one will believe that their husbands, pillars of society, can also be abusive.
Furthermore, the concept of shalom bayit is one of the mitzvot assigned primarily to women. Abused Jewish women may create the illusion of “peace in the home.” Observant women may struggle to leave an abusive marriage due to the difficulty of obtaining a get, or Jewish divorce decree, or the complexities of acquiring kosher food or keeping Shabbat at a shelter.
Once our myths about domestic violence are debunked, families will be able to seek the help necessary to break destructive patterns of behavior and to find healthier ways to cope with serious problems.
As we begin the New Year, let the case of Janay Palmer Rice be a wake-up call to the leaders of our community. This case has convinced me that the domestic violence counseling and prevention programs that the Jewish Family and Children’s Service offers are exactly the kinds of initiatives that can make a difference. Creating awareness of and thwarting domestic violence can only occur if we work as a community to envision healthy and safe homes.
Let us use the month of October, which is Domestic Violence Awareness Month, to work together to make our community as free of domestic violence as is humanly possible.
Robin Axelrod Sabag is a clinical supervisor at Jewish Family and Children's Service of Greater Philadelphia.
Agencies That Can Help
• Jewish Family and Children’s Service, 267-256-2000
• Laurel House, 610-277-1860
• Philadelphia 24-hour Domestic Violence Crisis Hotline, 1-866-723-3014
• Women in Transition, 215-751-1111
• Women Against Abuse, 215-386-1280
• Women’s Center of Montgomery County, 1-800-773-2424
• Women Organized Against Rape, 215-985-3333