A Pittsburgh program is working to raise awareness of the presence of domestic abuse in the Jewish community in the hope of reducing the stigma of women who are victims and encouraging them to seek help.
Project Harmony has joined forces with the Shalom Task Force, based in Brooklyn, N.Y., to provide a hotline that women can call to get help and referrals to professional services.
Local therapists have undergone training regarding domestic abuse in general, and specifically from a Jewish perspective, in order to help those calling the hotline in need, said Dr. Jordan Golin, the director of clinical and elder care services at Squirrel Hill Psychological Services.
“If a woman from Pittsburgh calls the [national] hotline, a trained volunteer will speak with her on the phone, and direct her to resources,” Golin said. “A Jewish woman would get directed to our agency.”
Domestic abuse is an issue that affects women of all walks of life, including Jewish women from all streams of observance. According to Deborah Rosenbloom, director of programs for Jewish Women International, outreach organizations that serve Jewish women from the secular to the Orthodox “all are very busy.”
In fact, Rosenbloom noted that the feedback from JWI’s Misheberach for victims of domestic violence, which was read over the High Holy Days in synagogues of all four streams of Judaism, inspired many women to come forward.
“Slowly people have been writing in that women came forward,” said Rosenbloom. “It is resonating with a lot of people, and that’s the Recontructionist, the Reform, the Consevervative and the Orthodox.”
Many people are in denial that domestic violence is a problem in Jewish marriages, according to Golin.
There are many misconceptions in the Jewish community about domestic abuse, Golin said. “It does happen in the Jewish community. It is a much larger problem than people would like to believe.”
There are many reasons why the Jewish community is reluctant to acknowledge the breadth of the problem.
“First, Jews are a minority, and they are not wanting to share their dirty laundry,” Golin said. “They feel shame.”
Many Orthodox women who are vicitms of domestic abuse face more pronounced hurdles in coming forth, he noted. In the Orthodox community, they may be concerned about finding marriages for their children [if the family’s reputation is tarnished].”
There is also the doctrine of “shalom bayit,” or “peace in the home,” Golin added.
In the Orthodox community, he continued, there can be a stigma attached to divorce and separation.
“There is pressure to preserve the marriage,” he said. “Sometimes women get the message that they need to preserve it no matter what is going on.”
All calls to the Shalom Task Force hotline go directly to New York, and the calls come anonymously to the trained volunteers working the phone. The volunteers can only see from what city the calls have been made. They will then refer the calls coming from Pittsburgh to trained local counselors. Depending on the particular situation, referrals can also be made to other resources such as women’s centers and shelters.
Shalom Task Force also takes measures to prevent domestic abuse by sending trainers to provide education about the problem to Jewish day schools, teaching young women the signs of a potentially abusive domestic partner.
There are many different kinds of domestic abuse, Golin said, including emotional, physical, financial and sexual.
“These are all different strategies for one individual to control the behavior of another individual, which can result in a woman feeling powerless and victimized,” he said.
“In other racial and ethnic communities there seems to be less of a stigma, and women are more likely to speak up,” Golin continued. “In the Jewish community, this seems to be more of a problem. There are not good statistics in the Jewish community. It is highly underreported, but we know it’s happening. Shalom Task Force is a witness to that.”
Shalom Task Force has operated an anonymous domestic violence hotline for the Orthodox and immigrant Jewish community since 1993. Since January 2009, it has received over 2,800 calls. In the last 14 months, calls to the hotline increased over 10 percent. The severity of the calls has also increased, with 70 percent of all hotline callers requiring peer counseling and/or safety planning.
The STF has “the seal of approval of the Orthodox community,” Golin said, “with rabbis sitting on its board. Its executive director, Daniel Schonbuch, is a rabbi.”
“There is a need for this resource for women in Pittsburgh,” said Tzippy Rosenberg, a former teacher, who has been working with the task force to create Project Harmony. “The Shalom Task Force told me that women have been calling them from Pittsburgh even before we started this project.”
Rosenberg, who is Orthodox, and a team of volunteers have been busy putting flyers in women’s restrooms in synagogues around town, and leaving business cards that women can discreetly take.
“It takes an Orthodox woman many times longer to go for help than other [victimized] women,” Rosenberg said. “Maybe it is because they are in such a close-knit community, or maybe it is because of the shame involved. Maybe they think it is better for the children. It is not more prevalent in the Orthodox community, but whatever is out there, is in the Orthodox community as well.”
“We are trying to educate people about what the red flags are,” she continued. “If there is a son who has real problems, we want them to know they have to get him help, and they can’t just marry him off.”
The STF, through Project Harmony, has also been training local rabbis about the problem, Rosenberg said.
“The presentation started out teaching the rabbis from classical Jewish sources about how to help Jewish women, and why it was imperative to do so,” she said.
“It is a problem,” she said. “It is there and we have to address it. Even if we help one person, it is worth my effort and worth my time.”
(Toby Tabachnick can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)