Domestic violence no stranger to Jewish life

An Illinois court recently convicted Yechiel Abramov, a Russian who immigrated first to Israel and then to the United States, of conspiring to kill his wife, Angela Litvak.

Richard Rosenthal, briefly a member of a Framingham, Mass., synagogue, also is accused of killing his wife, Laura Jane Rosenthal — by bashing in her face and cutting out her heart and lungs.

In a nationally reported 1989 case, New York lawyer Joel Steinberg beat his wife, Hedda Nussbaum. He beat the couple's 6-year-old daughter, Lisa Steinberg, to death.

Yet when Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated by an Israeli Jew on Nov. 4, many Jews and newscasters alike declared that "never before has a Jew killed a Jew."

That is a perfect example of the level of denial that still surrounds domestic violence and its too-frequent outcome — domestic homicide — in the Jewish community, according to women on a panel at the General Assembly of the Council of Jewish Federations, held recently in Boston.

"The first thing we need to do is get real about who lifts hands against whom in the Jewish community," said Nancy Schwartz Sternoff of the Baltimore-based Counseling, Helpline & Aid Network for Abused Women.

The incidence of Jewish domestic abuse across the country greatly increases around Jewish holidays, just as it does amid the general U.S. populace around Thanksgiving and Christmas, Sternoff noted.

In the Bay Area, calls to secular family violence prevention agencies skyrocketed just prior to and just after Christmas. But there was no discernible increase in messages left at Shalom Bayit, the Bay Area Jewish Women's Task Force on Domestic Violence, during the Chanukah season.

Despite that contrast with the national situation, there are still too many holiday incidents here, said Claire Silver, a former volunteer for the San Francisco-based Shalom Bayit. As an example, she cited an all-too-typical crisis call she received one Passover.

"The woman was cooking. The family was expecting many [guests]. It was the first time her husband hit her," Silver said. "The pressure of looking good…It was hot in the kitchen…The cooking and chopping and peeling and running to the store."

Holiday-related pressures are frequently even greater for women who have left their abusers, experts have said. Many suffer without the support of loved ones, and they express feelings of guilt for not having been able to hold their families together.

Anticipating those difficulties, Shalom Bayit has provided special outreach around the autumn and winter holidays. At Sukkot, volunteers led a healing service in the traditional harvest hut.

This Chanukah, baskets filled with chanukiot, latke mix and dreidels were dropped off at shelters. Women and children received gifts through an adopt-a-family program. And the Chanukah candle-lighting party included eight blessings for battered women.

Shalom Bayit's founder Naomi Tucker said providing women with a spiritual experience is often as important as giving them food, shelter and clothing.

"It's not safe for a lot of Jewish battered women to participate in community events. They may see their batterer. They may be judged for having left," Tucker said.

"By holding spiritual events around the holidays, we create a safe space and a spirituality that's meaningful for women who have survived abuse."

In the last seven years, programs similar to Shalom Bayit have sprung up in cities across the country.

Jewish Family and Children's Services branches have responded with counseling, financial support, day care and — in cities such as San Francisco — transitional housing like Dream House, which opened its doors last year.

Those services are meeting a need only recently addressed in the Jewish community.

Rabbi Julie Ringold Spitzer, author of the book "Spousal Abuse in Rabbinic and Contemporary Judaism," said one in five Jews "have some connection to this issue."

In fact, she herself thought she had no family history of domestic abuse but when her mother read Spitzer's thesis, tears came to her eyes and she said her own sister was a survivor of domestic violence.

"Now I know why my 15-year-old cousin came to live with my grandparents," recalled Spitzer, who has been speaking on domestic abuse for 13 years.

"Ten years ago I shared statistics and defended them. Today I don't have to defend them because people are more willing to believe them."

But statistics are not the point, Spitzer said, quoting the Talmudic adage that to save one life is to save the world.

While options for accessing shelter, support and services are expanding, many women still do not leave their batterers. And leaving may not be the most practical solution.

"It's not a black-and-white issue," said Anita Friedman, executive director of the San Francisco-based JFCS. "We don't necessarily expect [that] women in abusive relationships will leave [their partners].

"The emphasis is not on leaving as the politically correct thing to do but, rather, what is right for each individual woman."

For those women who do leave, violence and control issues do not necessarily stop. In fact, they often escalate.

Jewish divorce or get, as it has been interpreted over the centuries by male rabbis, can provide abusive men with yet another form of control.

By refusing to grant a Jewish divorce, the man renders his wife an agunah, who according to Jewish law may not remarry. He, however, can do so.

"It is the man who initiates and executes the [divorce] ceremony," said Evelyn Brook, president of Montreal's Coalition of Jewish Women for the Get and vice president of the International Coalition for Agunah Rights. "Jewish divorce is no-fault in that there are no arguments or settlements. But the power in the ceremony lies with the husband, and he can forever control the wife."

Brook said, "We need to tell our rabbis that we are prepared to cooperate with them — to put the spotlight on the man and not take it off. People will say, `He's such a good guy. It's not our business.' It is our business. He is not only abusing his wife; he is also misusing Jewish law for evil, evil ends."

But first, Friedman said, the problem of domestic abuse needs to be de-stigmatized, enabling more families to come forward and seek help.

"The Jewish community has romanticized and idealized the notion of family. It is at the same time a strength and a weakness," Friedman said. "The weakness is [that] the expectations don't meet up with the reality. The space between the two is a stressful one, correlated with domestic violence."