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 violencedoesn’t happen in Orthodox homes. She recalled how she once coweredas her husband held a gun to her head, then fired; when the gunturned out to be empty, he laughed at her fear. For Ilana, it wasonly 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” tohelp women such as Ilana. But at the time, OCP’s Dr. Michael Heldstaunchly refused to talk about the warm line. “If something isdifficult to accept and you splash it all over the front page,” hesaid, “people will clam up, and you’ll find yourself farther awayfrom the people you want to help.”
Instead, Held and his staff quietly worked behindthe scenes, meeting with many of the more than 100 practicingOrthodox rabbis in Los Angeles, and their efforts have paidoff.
Ruth Neal, coordinator of Ezras Bayis, OCP’sfamily-abuse project, does workshops at synagogues and schoolsthroughout the Southland. The Rabbinical Council of California hasscheduled its first seminar on domestic violence for Feb. 8. JewishFamily Service’s 30-day emergency shelter for battered women, TamarHouse, is kosher-friendly.
And now comes “Nishma” (“We Will Listen”), a24-hour hot line for Orthodox women, with 19 observant volunteercounselors. The hot line (818-623-0300), which began on Jan. 1, is ajoint venture of OCP and JFS’ Family Violence Project. It is fundedwith a $38,200 grant from the Jewish Community Foundation. The grantalso funds a variety of workshops and outreach programs that dealwith domestic violence in the observant community.
What opened the community’s eyes, sources say, wasthe 1993 murder of Rita Parizer, 36, an Orthodox wife and motherwhose strangled body was found wrapped in a sleeping bag in a garageowned by her husband, Shalom, at 325 N. Orange Grove Ave. Ritapreviously had reported a marital rape but refused to press charges,LAPD Det. David Lambkin said. In August 1994, her husband wasconvicted of second-degree murder and sentenced to 15 years to lifein prison.
“More than anything, the Parizer case brokethrough the community’s denial,” said Shirley Lebovics, a licensedclinical social worker who is observant and a domestic-violenceexpert. “It made rabbis stop and say, ‘This can happen. This isfrightening. This is real.'”
As for how often abuse occurs in the Orthodoxcommunity, or within the Jewish community at large, that is difficultto say. Many activists, citing an unpublished 1980 master’s thesisfrom Hebrew Union College/USC, say up to 20 percent of all Jewish menabuse their wives — the same as the general population.
But according to The Forward, a University ofRhode Island study concluded that violence in Jewish homes is almost40 percent below the national average. A University of Maryland studyfound the numbers somewhere in between, The Forward said.
Several Orthodox rabbis interviewed believe thatabuse occurs less frequently in observant homes. Religious husbandsare less likely to batter because of Orthodox ethical training andpeer 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 withthe [generational] cycle of violence.” Tendler speaks about thephenomenon in a new videotape produced for the Jewish community bythe National Center for the Prevention of Sexual and DomesticViolence.
Whatever their belief about the statistics,however, all the rabbis interviewed agreed that the problem isserious enough to warrant action. One-fifth of OCP’s some 200 annualclients 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 husbandharassed his pregnant wife until 5 a.m. on a workday, accusing her ofinfidelity. Whenever she nodded off, he would grab her by the hairand order her to “sit up and listen.”
Sarah,* a 28-year-old mother of five, said thather husband was careful to beat her where the bruises wouldn’t show.He injured her so seriously on several occasions that she requiredphysical therapy. On Friday evenings, her family tensely sat at theShabbos table, “walking on eggshells” lest they provoke him.
Yet Sarah was hesitant to speak out because of theprohibition against lashon hara (gossip), and because of themisconception that shalom bayis (peace in the home) is the soleresponsibility of the woman. When she tentatively approached severalrespected women in her community, they told her to speak nicely toher husband, to go home and make an extra-special Shabbosmeal.
When Sarah finally approached the beit din(rabbinical court) for a get (a religious divorce), some rabbiswarned her that it would be almost impossible for her to remarry.Sarah could not bring herself to tell them that her husband wasinappropriately touching her during times of the month prohibited byJewish family purity laws.
Orthodox women, such as Sarah, tend to stay longerin abusive relationships, Neal said, for a number of reasons. Manyare wary of secular counseling; they are concerned thatpsychotherapists might not understand their need to consult arabbi.
Observant wives tend to have many children, so itis harder for them to find someplace to go, especially when theirhusbands control the purse strings. They worry that they won’t beable to keep kosher in a shelter; that they cannot hide from aviolent husband within the small, closely knit Orthodox community;that the stigma of divorce could damage their children’s chances fora good marriage.
At Nishma, the observant volunteers, who aremodern Orthodox through Chassidic, inherently understand thesedifficulties. All have completed 45 hours of training with expertsfrom FVP, the county, the district attorney’s office and therabbinate.
Because Los Angeles’ Orthodox community is sosmall, the Nishma volunteers maintain even higher levels ofconfidentiality than those at secular hot lines; each woman uses analias 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