Domestic Violence: A Jewish Issue, Too
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
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
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
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
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. Â
Mel Roth is executive director of Jewish Family Service of Orange County.