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'We believe that it can't happen here'

Report finds US Jewish communities ill-equipped to aid domestic abuse victims

A study released by Jewish Women International says that shelter, acknowledgment, legal services and support for survivors of violence are inadequate across all denominations

  • Illustrative: advocates for victims of domestic abuse protest outside of state offices in downtown Chicago,  October 1, 2015. (AP Photo/Sophia Tareen, File)
    Illustrative: advocates for victims of domestic abuse protest outside of state offices in downtown Chicago, October 1, 2015. (AP Photo/Sophia Tareen, File)
  • Illustrative: a protest against violence against women in Tel Aviv, December 4, 2018. (AP Photo/Oded Balilty)
    Illustrative: a protest against violence against women in Tel Aviv, December 4, 2018. (AP Photo/Oded Balilty)
  • Illustrative: a protest against violence against women in Tel Aviv, December 4, 2018. (AP Photo/Oded Balilty)
    Illustrative: a protest against violence against women in Tel Aviv, December 4, 2018. (AP Photo/Oded Balilty)
  • Illustrative: Demonstrators bang pots and pans at a protest rally against domestic violence in Tbilisi, Georgia, Tuesday, Oct. 21, 2014. (AP Photo/Shakh Aivazov)
    Illustrative: Demonstrators bang pots and pans at a protest rally against domestic violence in Tbilisi, Georgia, Tuesday, Oct. 21, 2014. (AP Photo/Shakh Aivazov)

NEW YORK — Rachel Perry didn’t break down and cry until a month after leaving her abusive husband.

“I finally realized I was no longer under the thumb of this ogre. It was a moment to exhale, a moment of freedom,” Perry told The Times of Israel.

The mother of eight, who requested to use a pseudonym to protect the privacy of herself and her children, had considered leaving him many times. Aside from considering the wellbeing of the children, Perry said she lacked the financial independence and educational skills to make it on her own. Additionally, and perhaps most importantly, the years of living with someone who would threaten, humiliate and intimidate made it harder to leave.

“The hardest part for anyone is getting out,” Perry said. “Even after you acknowledge the issue, there is this crazy glue that can keep someone there — especially when children are involved. I have eight children, some with special needs.”

Although Perry was ultimately able to leave her marriage and find a level of financial support from her community, a report released this past spring by Jewish Women International (JWI) found that significant survivor needs remain unmet in Jewish communities across all denominations. From safe housing to legal help, proper training for clergy to financial aid, there is a significant lack of support systems, the report found.

“The Jewish community is failing survivors and their children by not centering their needs. Survivors value the Jewish community but often feel stigmatized by it,” said Deborah Rosenbloom, JWI’s chief program officer, in a Zoom interview. “The biggest gap we found was how to make the community safer and more welcoming.”

Jewish Women International chief program officer Deborah Rosenbloom. (Courtesy)

Nationwide, one in four women and one in seven men experience abuse during their lifetime. Nevertheless, the idea that “it doesn’t happen here” persists, said Dr. Shoshana Frydman, executive director of the Shalom Task Force, which works to assist domestic violence survivors.

“Broadly speaking, we accept it happens. We just don’t accept it happens here. It’s the Haredi, the Sephardic, the Reform. It’s someone else. People fill in whatever stereotype they have about another group and the result is devastating,” said Frydman, who has 20 years of experience in the field.

Finding a safe landing

The report found that the biggest obstacle facing survivors once they decided to leave an abusive situation was finding adequate transitional housing and affordable permanent housing.

“There is a service gap in the macro population and also in the Jewish community. The Jewish community needs are unique — culturally sensitive shelters are needed. Other religious symbols might make someone feel uncomfortable. It’s not just the kosher [food] or keeping shabbat,” said Eden Mitrany, who graduated from Touro College in New York with a master’s degree in social work.

Now a doctoral candidate, Mitrany focuses on domestic violence in the Jewish community. She recently came in first place in her category in the New York City Business Plan Competition and aims to open a kosher domestic violence shelter in Nassau County.

Without a place to go, many women will end up back in an abusive situation, Mitrany said.

Social worker and doctoral candidate Eden Mitrany says Jewish communities aren’t equipped to handle the needs of domestic abuse survivors. (Courtesy)

For example, it took Perry years to leave her husband partly because there was no readily available housing.

When Perry left her ex-husband, she ended up remaining in the house they had rented together, and her ex-husband moved out. She sought a spot in a women’s shelter unaffiliated with the Jewish community, and though she had an eviction notice pending, she was told the shelter had no openings for months ahead.

Then her ex-husband attempted reentry. Perry didn’t feel safe in her home, but she had nowhere else to go.

“It was quite scary. He came back in the house, opened the refrigerator, began making demands on me, and was terrifying the kids. He was screaming and threatening me,” Perry said. “My eldest daughter ended up becoming so terrified that she called the police and the Shomrim [Jewish neighborhood watch group]. The Shomrim volunteer was able to get him to leave and the police prevented him from attacking me. The police report from that incident helped me to get an Order of Protection.”

While Perry ultimately moved away from her community, some survivors want to stay. They want continued access to their synagogues, schools, youth groups and overall Jewish life without having to start over in a new place.

Dr. Shoshana Frydman, executive director of the Shalom Task Force, speaks to students about safety and domestic violence. (Courtesy)

“There is a tendency to conflate leaving an unsafe relationship with leaving the community. It’s all about safety, but it’s critically important to understand we have a communal responsibility to make sure a survivor can stay in her community,” Frydman said. “We have to be nonjudgmental as a community and ask, ‘Why should the survivor have to leave the community to get what they want — which is safety?’”

To achieve that level of safety, according to the report, organizations should explore partnerships with businesses such as Airbnb to help meet housing needs and Lyft to help transportation costs. For example, Project S.A.R.A.H., a nonprofit based in New Jersey, partnered with the State of New Jersey and offers hotels as a temporary housing option.

Control through the courts

According to attorney Roberta “Rob” Valente who assisted with the JWI report, litigation abuse is common in domestic violence cases. As such, it’s important to increase funding at Jewish domestic violence programs to ensure there is at least one trauma-informed attorney with expertise in family law on staff, she said.

“Abusers often have better resources and access to slicker lawyers. They learn what the legal line is and push up against it. They know what to say and know the courts are biased towards the ‘let’s have those parents work it out’ line of thinking,” Valente said.

Roberta Valente is an attorney with Jewish Women International and one of the authors of the recent report on the US Jewish community’s ability to respond to domestic abuse. (Courtesy)

Although Valente said there is often no shortage of people who want to volunteer to help people get protective orders, they frequently lack the right background. Without proper training or knowing the lexicon of abuse, one can re-traumatize a client.

As a licensed clinical social worker and director of Project S.A.R.A.H., Shira Pomrantz said survivors frequently tell her they want to better understand their rights in custody and alimony disputes. The nonprofit, which serves people in New Jersey, often invites trauma-informed attorneys to speak to support groups and connect survivors to resources.

At Shalom Task Force there are three trauma-informed attorneys and a paralegal who can accompany survivors as they navigate both the civil and religious Jewish court system. They are equipped to address issues regarding the get, or Jewish writ of divorce, and help survivors secure tuition for private Jewish schools, which are the norm for observant Jews but can also be very costly, Frydman said.

A call to clergy

Beyond issues relating to housing and finances, the JWI report found Jewish clergy as a whole need better training to deal with domestic violence.

Although most clergy across the spectrum are interested in helping survivors of domestic abuse, many don’t know how to implement safety plans for survivors, how to respond to a domestic violence emergency or crisis, or how to honor the safety needs of survivors during life cycle events.

“I think that Jewish organizations should really, really find ways for people to feel safe. My synagogue didn’t have any safety planning,” said a survivor quoted in the report who wished to remain anonymous.

“When I told them about the situation I was in, they said they didn’t have any protocols and didn’t have any relationship with a domestic violence program. Now they do. I think a rabbi should be prepared to understand how to make the synagogue safe. I’ve witnessed that both parents are in a synagogue and it’s not safe, even in our preschool,” the survivor said.

For years, Perry told herself that staying with her abuser was better than striking out on her own. She believed that as long as the abuse was only directed at her, she could cope.

Then her former husband started targeting their eldest daughter and she realized it didn’t have to be this way.

“Here was this outwardly looking very pious, very Jewish man who spoke beautiful Torah but would crush my spirit and try to control me,” Perry said. “Then I realized continuing to live in a home where there was so much terror and anger was much worse than going through the hard part of leaving, the process and the uncertainty. I decided I would rather be alone for the rest of my life than live like this.”

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