Ruth Neal, coordinator of Ezras Bayis, has seen Orthodox womenwho have been bitten, shoved, slapped, punched, spit at, scalded withhot chicken soup, threatened with a gun, pushed down a flight ofstairs. Wood cut by Kathe Kollwitz from "German ExpressionistWoodcuts," 1994.
Ilana*, an observant woman living inLos Angeles, felt isolated because of the myth that domestic violence doesn't happen in Orthodox homes. She recalled how she once coweredas her husband held a gun to her head, then fired; when the gun turned out to be empty, he laughed at her fear. For Ilana, it was only the latest incident in years of abuse.
Six years ago, the Orthodox Counseling Program(OCP) of Jewish Family Service of Los Angeles began a "warm line" to help women such as Ilana. But at the time, OCP's Dr. Michael Held staunchly refused to talk about the warm line. "If something is difficult to accept and you splash it all over the front page," he said, "people will clam up, and you'll find yourself farther away from the people you want to help."
Instead, Held and his staff quietly worked behind the scenes, meeting with many of the more than 100 practicing Orthodox rabbis in Los Angeles, and their efforts have paid off.
Ruth Neal, coordinator of Ezras Bayis, OCP'sf amily-abuse project, does workshops at synagogues and schools throughout the Southland. The Rabbinical Council of California has scheduled its first seminar on domestic violence for Feb. 8. Jewish Family Service's 30-day emergency shelter for battered women, Tamar House, is kosher-friendly.
And now comes "Nishma" ("We Will Listen"), a24-hour hot line for Orthodox women, with 19 observant volunteer counselors. The hot line (818-623-0300), which began on Jan. 1, is a joint venture of OCP and JFS' Family Violence Project. It is funded with a $38,200 grant from the Jewish Community Foundation. The grant also funds a variety of workshops and outreach programs that deal with domestic violence in the observant community.
What opened the community's eyes, sources say, was the 1993 murder of Rita Parizer, 36, an Orthodox wife and mother whose strangled body was found wrapped in a sleeping bag in a garage owned by her husband, Shalom, at 325 N. Orange Grove Ave. Rita previously had reported a marital rape but refused to press charges,LAPD Det. David Lambkin said. In August 1994, her husband was convicted of second-degree murder and sentenced to 15 years to lifein prison.
"More than anything, the Parizer case broke through the community's denial," said Shirley Lebovics, a licensed clinical social worker who is observant and a domestic-violence expert. "It made rabbis stop and say, 'This can happen. This isf rightening. This is real.'"
As for how often abuse occurs in the Orthodox community, or within the Jewish community at large, that is difficult to say. Many activists, citing an unpublished 1980 master's thesis from Hebrew Union College/USC, say up to 20 percent of all Jewish men abuse their wives -- the same as the general population.
But according to The Forward, a University of Rhode Island study concluded that violence in Jewish homes is almost 40 percent below the national average. A University of Maryland study found the numbers somewhere in between, The Forward said.
Several Orthodox rabbis interviewed believe that abuse occurs less frequently in observant homes. Religious husbands are less likely to batter because of Orthodox ethical training and peer pressure, Young Israel of Century City's Rabbi Elazar Muskinsaid.
Rabbi Aron Tendler of Shaarey Zedek, however,said, "Abuse has nothing to do with one's moral upbringing, but with the [generational] cycle of violence." Tendler speaks about the phenomenon in a new videotape produced for the Jewish community by the National Center for the Prevention of Sexual and Domestic Violence.
Whatever their belief about the statistics,however, all the rabbis interviewed agreed that the problem is serious enough to warrant action. One-fifth of OCP's some 200 annual clients report verbal or physical abuse, after all.
Neal has seen Orthodox women who have been bitten,shoved, slapped, punched, spit at, scalded with hot chicken soup,threatened with a gun, pushed down a flight of stairs. One husband harassed his pregnant wife until 5 a.m. on a workday, accusing her of infidelity. Whenever she nodded off, he would grab her by the hair and order her to "sit up and listen."
Sarah,* a 28-year-old mother of five, said that her husband was careful to beat her where the bruises wouldn't show.He injured her so seriously on several occasions that she required physical therapy. On Friday evenings, her family tensely sat at the Shabbos table, "walking on eggshells" lest they provoke him.
Yet Sarah was hesitant to speak out because of the prohibition against lashon hara (gossip), and because of the misconception that shalom bayis (peace in the home) is the sole responsibility of the woman. When she tentatively approached several respected women in her community, they told her to speak nicely to her husband, to go home and make an extra-special Shabbos meal.
When Sarah finally approached the beit din(rabbinical court) for a get (a religious divorce), some rabbis warned her that it would be almost impossible for her to remarry.Sarah could not bring herself to tell them that her husband was inappropriately touching her during times of the month prohibited by Jewish family purity laws.
Orthodox women, such as Sarah, tend to stay longer in abusive relationships, Neal said, for a number of reasons. Many are wary of secular counseling; they are concerned that psychotherapists might not understand their need to consult a rabbi.
Observant wives tend to have many children, so it is harder for them to find someplace to go, especially when their husbands control the purse strings. They worry that they won't be able to keep kosher in a shelter; that they cannot hide from a violent husband within the small, closely knit Orthodox community;that the stigma of divorce could damage their children's chances for a good marriage.
At Nishma, the observant volunteers, who are modern Orthodox through Chassidic, inherently understand these difficulties. All have completed 45 hours of training with experts from FVP, the county, the district attorney's office and the rabbinate.
Because Los Angeles' Orthodox community is so small, the Nishma volunteers maintain even higher levels ofconfidentiality than those at secular hot lines; each woman uses an alias and is forbidden from mentioning that she works at Nishma toeveryone but her immediate family. When a battered woman telephonesthe hot line, day or night, an FVP counselor patches her through to avolunteer; the hot line has a list of rabbinic referrals if a womandoes not want to speak to her husband' s rabbi.
Neal, for her part, is working on making TamarHouse more accessible to Orthodox women. She has purified new dishesfor the shelter, which has a locked kosher cabinet with food, dishesand a microwave. Orthodox women have the option of seeing anobservant counselor while at the shelter.
Neal and other experts, meanwhile, have a wishlist for Orthodox battered women in Los Angeles. They would like tosee a counseling program for Orthodox batterers and for existingpremarital classes to outline warning signs of spousal abuse. Theywant more training for rabbis, who, for example, should know thatcouples counseling is contraindicated in cases of domestic violence.Lebovics would like to see a specifically Jewish emergency shelter inLos Angeles.
"When I counsel couples, I tell the woman, infront of her intended husband, that if he ever raises a hand to her,she should pick herself up and leave until the problem is resolved,"Tendler said. "And if a woman is unsafe, it is incumbent upon everyrabbi to pull out all the stops, including saying from the bimah thata man is not welcome in the community, because he abuses hiswife."
* not their real names