JWI members give practical advice for abuse victims

When Hedda Nussbaum and Joel Steinberg's trial for the murder of their daughter, Lisa, grabbed nationwide attention eight years ago, it shattered the myth that child abuse and domestic violence does not happen in Jewish homes.

Nonetheless, the fact remains that, in general, battered Jewish women don't call hotlines or go to shelters for help.

Jewish Women International (JWI), formerly B'nai B'rith Women, took this troubling truth as both a challenge and call to action.

During the organization's 1996 biennial convention at the Westin St. Francis in San Francisco last week, four JWI volunteers reported on their efforts in combating domestic abuse. Members from Bryn Mawr, Pa.; Pleasantville and Albany, N.Y.; and Montreal described how they have worked to dispel myths, and help women at risk.

"Part of our mission and goal is the empowerment of women. Under that goal, this came to the fore," said Renee Krutoff, coordinator of a workshop titled Domestic Violence: Successful Community Responses.

For instance, JWI chapters across North America are employing methods like giving out business cards with phone numbers of womens' resources and renting out apartments as shelters.

JWI in Pleasantville created DAAWN (Domestic Abuse Awareness for Women in Need). In addition to forming a task force and a speakers' bureau to address Jewish and secular organizations, DAAWN borrowed the concept of Boston's "connect cards."

The business card unfolds and lists women attorneys, court assistants, rabbis, therapists, career guidance counselors, shelters and hotlines. Each is trained by JWI to understand specific needs and sensitivities of Jewish women and has agreed to provide consultations on a pro-bono basis.

JWI in Bryn Mawr, a Philadelphia suburb, also printed a direct-help card. Unlike the connect card, however, this one is more anonymous. It reads, "Call and ask for Rachel," but gives the number of a domestic violence hotline.

"We didn't want women to take home a card with the words `domestic violence' on it. It might upset the perpetrator," explained Sherry Altschuler of Bryn Mawr.

The card fits in a pocket of a poster that warns, "You could be in an abusive relationship if…" and lists symptoms of physical, sexual and emotional abuse. The posters, printed under a JWI-built coalition called the Shomerit Shalom Bayit project, were placed in the women's restrooms at seven synagogues. They went up just before Rosh Hashanah.

The next day calls to "Rachel" came in. About three calls from Jewish women are placed each week.

Montreal's JWI is leading the pack in focusing much of its energy on domestic violence for 10 years.

In that time it has secured free TV broadcast slots for public service announcements, had grocery bags stamped with the words "you are not alone," and rented 1,000 Holiday Inn rooms for women leaving abusive spouses.

Most exciting is JWI's ASTEH (Alternative Short-Term Emergency Housing) program.

For two years, JWI Montreal, working with the local Jewish Family and Children's Services, has provided battered women and their children with an apartment and counseling for 90 days.

JWI rents, furnishes and maintains the apartment near the Jewish community. Funding is shared by the two groups.

To those who might be considering renting apartments for battered women, Carol Abramson of JWI's Montreal chapter advised them to "Let your paranoia run wild" in choosing a location. "Would you feel safe there?" she says.

Also to remember: Tell the apartment manager the purpose of the rental, have the telephone company issue a blocked phone number and maintain a kosher kitchen, she said.

"It may sound excessive but the last three people who stayed at the apartment were Orthodox and probably wouldn't have left their homes" had this latter option not been available, Abramson said.

Groups seeking to help battered women should also select staffers carefully. ASTEH is run by volunteers who are closely screened.

Some volunteers drive children to school, others make phone calls and assist in apartment hunting. Once, a few even helped deliver a baby.

Clients, meanwhile, must sign a contract promising to abstain from drugs and alcohol, pay rent if possible, take care of their children and maintain confidentiality about the apartment's location.

"It may seem like a lot [to do]," Abramson said. "The road to enlightenment is long and great but well worth it."