A number of years ago, when I still worked as a balanit in the Mikvah (attendent at the ritual bath) in our yishuv, the Moetza Datit (religious authority) organized a few days of continuing education. One of the lecturers at this two day event was Dr. Shulamit Lehman, a social worker who works for Yad Sarah specializing in dealing with domestic violence.
Her lecture was very informative and emotionally harrowing. I wrote notes, fully intending to write them up for a blog post, but I was so shaken by what I had heard that I couldn’t bring myself to do it. This past weekend I read an article in the Nashim supplement of Makor Rishon newspaper about a battered women’s shelter specifically for the religious community here in Israel, and I decided that I would dig up my notes and put together the post.
Awareness of the Problem
There are many people who deny that domestic violence is a problem for the Jewish community as a whole, and for the religious community in particular. Dr. Lehman began her lecture by sharing that she too, had trouble accepting the fact that there was a problem – until she started working in the field. She stated that in the wider Israeli community one in 7 women were abused, and that studies showed that although the rates in the religious community were less, one in 10 religious women are abused. To prove her point further, she asked the women present to raise their hands if they knew of women abused in their community. The twenty women present at the lecture were mikveh attendants from religious yishuvim in the Shomron. I don’t want to sound elitist, but it is a fact that the people making up our yishuvim are generally middle or upper middle class and well educated. Therefore I was truly shocked when three women raised their hands.
Dr. Lehman proceeded to describe some of the cases that she had dealt with through Yad Sarah, each sadder than the next. The most heartwrenching story for me was the one where she described how a little third grade girl would go to bed every night with a pair of scissors under her pillow…”just in case”.
Special Factors Affecting the Religious Community
There are special factors in the religious community that contribute to the problem of domestic abuse – or, more accurately, make it more difficult for a religious woman to escape.
In our society women have very little or no experience dating, and therefore cannot always tell what is “normal” in a relationship. There is quite a lot of pressure to get married, so even when a young woman suspects that something is wrong, her natural inclination is to gloss over the problem. Although physical contact before marriage is prohibited by halacha (Jewish law), sometimes this occurs anyway, especially between engaged couples. In this case a young woman will feel particularly pressured to go ahead with the marriage, even if she suffers abuse.
Domestic abuse is characterized by controlling behavior by the husband, and many times the husband will blame the wife for their problems. This behavior erodes the woman’s self confidence, and it leads to a situation where she does not trust her own instincts.
The stigma against divorce in our society is also a large contributing factor. If a religious woman somehow finds the courage to approach a girlfriend or her mother and expresses doubts about what is happening in her relationship – the natural reaction by the family is to shy away from the problem. Noone wants to acknowledge that someone in their immediate family has a problematic marriage which may lead to divorce. Therefore this channel of help is usually denied a woman who is looking to escape the abuse.
Help is Available
The lecture was given to us as mikva attendants because we are in a position to not only pick up on possible problems but also to be an objective source of help. Obviously there are many others that may be in a position to help. A friend or neighbor can sometimes become a confidant of someone suffering from abuse – so the following information is very important.
The first thing to do if someone confides in you is to listen, and refrain from jumping in with solutions. Don’t be in a hurry to calm someone down or cover things up. At first you need to be a channel of communication for her. Your friend will then know that when she is ready to seek more help, that you are willing to listen to her and give credence to her feelings.
Let your friend know that there are things that can be done, and that she is not alone in sufferring this problem.
The Family Center at Yad Sarah (02-644-4514) provides treatment not only for victims of domestic abuse, but also for the men who are violent, and for the children who are “witnesses” and at greater risk to become perpetrators as adults.
For those who must escape their situation immediately, there is a woman’s shelter specifically for religious women in Israel called Bat Melech (toll free number for their hotline in Israel is 1-800-292-333).The facility is set up with the special needs of the religious community in mind – Shabbat is observed, kashrut is kept (separate kitchen utensils are provided for women whose kashrut observances are stricter), and there is space for families with many children. The facility is manned by a group of dedicated workers, who help the women rebuild their lives and self-esteem, and keep up the relationship even after the women move out of the shelter.
–written in the hope that no more children feel the need to go to sleep with scissors under their pillows…