I recently spoke in my synagogue about violence against women. After the sermon, two congregants approached and said: “Rabbi, you shouldn’t speak about such ugly things. That just doesn’t happen here.” But, given my pastoral role, I knew that it had happened to the woman who had sat just two rows behind them. At that moment, I vowed to do something.
The truth is devastating: An estimated one out of every three women worldwide will be physically, sexually or otherwise abused during her lifetime. When we hear this statistic, it is easy to agree that girls and women should be able to live free of violence. It is another thing altogether to say we will do something ourselves to help make that aspiration a reality; to speak out about violence in our communities and around the world and to urge our leaders to legislate, and thereby systematize, our commitment to stopping it.
The United States has taken important steps. In 1994 Congress passed the Violence Against Women Act of 1994 (VAWA), which extended important protections to women and girls in the United States. The act was drafted by then-Sen. Joe Biden and signed into law by President Bill Clinton. It has been reauthorized and extended three times since then, under President George W. Bush and President Barack Obama, and each bipartisan effort affirmed the American commitment to end gender-based violence here in the United States. The 2013 extension of VAWA also improved federal protections to LGBT people, Native Americans and immigrants who have experienced domestic violence.
The circle of safety has grown, thanks to the hard work of many, many human rights advocates and organizations. But this sacred circle is neither strong nor wide enough — yet. While it is an encoded American value to grant dignity and safety to all people, we know we are far from realizing this noble aspiration within our nation and abroad. Every corner of the globe is infected by violence against girls and women. Domestic abuse, rape and hate crimes against LGBT people happen across the globe, and they occur at frighteningly high rates.
I am therefore proud to be a supporter of American Jewish World Service’s “We Believe” campaign, dedicated to ensuring that women, girls and LGBT people around the globe can live free from violence and fear and that all girls have the freedom to determine their own futures. The campaign’s first goal is to advocate for Congress to pass the International Violence Against Women Act (IVAWA), a crucial new piece of legislation that, if passed, will guarantee that the U.S. foreign aid program will prioritize the rights of women and girls in its work around the world.
The work is immense, and the challenges are many. But we do not have the luxury of not knowing that violence is happening around the world. We are aware of this atrocity, and we are thus called to do something about it. Ending violence against women and girls must remain a top U.S. diplomatic priority.
To put it in biblical terms with an analogy evoking the long and difficult task of ushering in the Messiah, we do not have to drag the donkey bearing Elijah the Prophet into Jerusalem ourselves, but we are expected to contribute to the rope that will eventually go around its reluctant neck. In other words, we must, as a country, help bring about gender equality in the world one step at a time: by supporting societies in which violence and injustice are entrenched to come one step closer to realizing dignity, equality and human rights.
It is time, once again, for elected officials and faith leaders to publicly champion justice for women. We are all sisters and brothers, yet some of us experience violence just because of our gender. And though the perpetrators may be just a few members of our communities, as the great Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel taught, “Some may be guilty, but all are responsible.”
We are our sisters’ keepers.
Thankfully, there’s something specific that we, as residents of California, can do to help ensure that IVAWA passes: Call, email, tweet or visit your congressional representatives to tell them that we, as Jews and global citizens, want them to support this life-saving legislation.
Rabbi Menachem Creditor is the spiritual leader of Congregation Netivot Shalom in Berkeley. He is also the editor of “Peace in Our Cities: Rabbis Against Gun Violence,” and a national board member of American Jewish World Service.