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Why are we still in denial about domestic violence in the Jewish community?

23 November 2015

“Convince me” she says.

“Sorry, convince you of what,” I reply. It’s been a long day. And now, I’m speaking to a group of about 20 men and women about domestic violence in the Jewish community.

And then the predictable riposte.  “I just don’t believe that a woman like me could be abused. I live in this area, I have a degree, I have two children in a local Jewish primary school. We are middle-class and middle-of-the-road Jewish. I am just not convinced.”  And I just don’t believe that the Jewish community is still in denial about the extent of abuse within.

After 10 years at Jewish Women’s Aid, I can tell you that, as 2015 draws to a close, we have supported more than 400 women, and over 110 children so far this year, and that our service is busier and more needed than ever before.

It’s incredibly frustrating that many in our community find it so difficult to believe domestic violence is an issue. And, when they do, they resort to stereotypes: Reform point a finger at Charedim, who claim it’s most common among the Modern Orthodox, who in turn accuse the Reform.

What makes each group so smug – why are they convinced that  domestic violence is not going to affect people “like us”? Why do Jews across the spectrum, in each part of the community, feel protected from this horror even when they have some understanding of how domestic violence is a prevalent issue in wider society?

I’ve thought a lot about this, and I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s about fear – fear that there is the possibility that domestic abuse can and does happen to people like themselves. Fear that, if they acknowledge that women like them are living through the terrifying day-to-day nightmare of being abused by the person they married, or by a close family member, then it could happen even to them.

However,  by acknowledging that domestic abuse could happen to someone like you – someone in your group of friends, in your shul, in your demographic of the community – you are showing  support, openness and acknowledgement to those women who want support but are too scared to seek it. By being open, you may be throwing someone a lifeline.

In contrast, if people assume that women like themselves are exempt from domestic violence, then they will be less likely to recognise it in a peer or a family member – or in themselves.

They will not equip themselves with the skills to support those close to them who are affected and they will not be attuned to friends, family, fellow congregants and acquaintances who may be in need of support.

They continue to reinforce the idea that this is something that happens to others. They may not even acknowledge their own abusive marriage and their own need to reach out for help.

Women often come to Jewish Women’s Aid’s service having lived through numerous years of escalating abuse, feeling that there was no one who would have believed them, that they had no one to turn to and that their friends, family and community had not been there for them. They often needed someone simply to ask if they were OK.

All of this is not to say that there is no support from friends, families and community leaders.  The Jewish Women Aid training programme has reached over 1,000 community professionals in the past year, and gives delegates a tool-kit that helps them to support women living with domestic abuse.

JWA regularly takes calls from concerned friends, family, rabbis and rebbetzens asking for advice and guidance for women offering support to others. One woman called JWA after a concerned friend put our phone number in a named envelope through her door. She told me that it was then that she realised others understood something was amiss at home, and more importantly, that there was somewhere she could go for help.

Sara has been a client of JWA for three years and, as she recalled in one of our meetings, “you feel alone, sometimes as a Jewish woman, like you are the only one, ever, to have had an abusive husband. And then after coming to JWA, you realise that an organisation like that wouldn’t exist if you were the only one. And you wouldn’t wish it on anyone else, but there is comfort in knowing you are not alone.”

But as long as sections of the community deny the reality of domestic violence, our task becomes insurmountable. Women living with domestic abuse need the whole community to stand together and acknowledge that domestic violence is a problem for women across the breadth of the community.

Don’t be part of the problem – help us to become part of the solution.

Naomi (without surname)

Naomi Dickson, JWA Executive Director

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