Jewish Journal

Domestic Violence: A Jewish Issue, Too

by Mel Roth

Posted on Feb. 6, 2003 at 7:00 pm

During Jewish holidays and festivals, many of us recite the familiar blessings for our loved ones. As a Jewish communal professional for 30 years and a synagogue member for 23 years, I wonder why congregations don't devote the same time and attention during religious services to discussions of Jewish family issues as we give to prayers for the Jewish family. The former might make the latter more meaningful.

One of these issues is domestic violence, in all its virulent forms and varieties. Jews, despite their reputation as a peaceful and family oriented ethno-religious group, are not immune from domestic violence.

Nevertheless, there is a prevalent myth that Jewish men don't beat or sexually abuse their wives and children. When there is a publicized incident involving a Jewish family, Jews gasp in horror and disbelief. After all, these things don't happen in the Jewish community.

Perhaps the most notorious incident in recent memory was the 1988 story of Joel Steinberg and Hedda Nussbaum, an upper-middle class Jewish couple in New York City. Steinberg was an attorney who systematically beat his wife.

Both Steinberg and Nussbaum beat their 6-year-old adopted daughter, Lisa, and it was Steinberg who struck the blow that killed her. When this violence was discovered and during the subsequent trial, this family was headline news in this country. How could a Jewish couple be so physically violent? Yes, Jews commit acts of domestic violence, like our gentile neighbors.

It is estimated that 2 million women in the United States suffer as victims of spousal-partner abuse each year, and that between 3,000 and 4,000 battered women in this country die each year from physical abuse. Equally tragic is that 2,500 abused children in the United States die each year from abuse. Figures show that 95 percent of the perpetrators of domestic violence are men.

The incidence of domestic violence in the Jewish community approximates the incidence in the general community. Domestic violence is an equal opportunity phenomenon. It transcends racial, religious, ethnic, geographic, sexual orientation and socioeconomic boundaries. Children who are victims of abuse often become abusive as adults, abusing their children and spouses or partners.

In Jewish homes, there is an intensified shame and stigma associated with family violence. When there is violence in the Jewish family, both victims and perpetrators go through great pains to conceal it from their friends, employers, clergy and other segments of their social and community life. Jewish victims tend to go to family and friends for shelter and financial help.

What can the Jewish community do?

Spokespeople in the Jewish community, such as rabbis, educators and other Jewish communal professionals, should learn the following:

1. Signs and symptoms of victims, as well as perpetrators.

2. Mandatory reporting requirements, with respect to child and elder abuse.

3. Local community resources, such as the community's Jewish Family Service. The staff there can provide many direct services and refer the calling party to other important resources, such as domestic violence shelters, law enforcement agencies, other social service agencies, legal assistance, medical care and financial assistance.

4. Rabbis and other congregational leaders should talk about domestic violence at religious services, in children's classrooms and in adult-education programs. Domestic violence issues should be on the curriculum for all age groups, as prominent as Torah study. Identify religious and sacred texts and traditions that are the foundations for the sanctity of life and teach them to all congregational members.

While we are talking here primarily about physical abuse, let's remember that relationship abuse can also be economic, emotional, verbal and sexual. All forms of abuse are seriously damaging to individuals and families.

If you know someone who is being abused, be supportive and understanding. Help the victim develop a safety plan and assist the victim in securing assistance to ensure survival, safety and recovery.

If our religious traditions believe that human life is sacred, then domestic violence is wrong in any form and under any circumstances. We have a collective responsibility to educate ourselves about the problem and to do everything possible to prevent domestic violence and reach out and help victims and perpetrators alike.  

Mel Roth is executive director of Jewish Family Service of Orange County.

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