by Tzvi Hersh Weinreb
Every Orthodox community has its “horror stories.” As an individual who has spoken on the subject of family violence in Orthodox communities across the country, what I find most troubling is that all of the hotlines and counseling programs set up in recent years are inundated with requests for service.
While little exists in the way of statistical surveys, the number of reported incidents of physical abuse easily exceeds 1,000 across the country. Something is very wrong in our ranks, and it must be addressed vigorously at many levels.
I have listened to dozens of case histories. As a rabbi, I feel I must alert my colleagues to some common mistakes we make when a woman comes to us with a complaint of family violence. Of course, these “notes” are just that: a basic primer of suggestions important for any rabbi or counselor.
- Don’t assume the problem isn’t in your community. Domestic violence is prevalent, and is not limited to any one sector. It appears across the left-right continuum, across socioeconomic boundaries and across all age groups. 2. Spouse abuse follows certain predictable patterns of behavior: look for the abusive spouse’s need to be controlling and dominating, and the victim’s tendencies to be overly forgiving, self-blaming, and fearful of confrontation.
- Look past the “ehrlicher Yid” facade. Often, the abusive spouse shows his violent behavior only in the home. You may think of him as a model of proper behavior and you may have difficulty believing that he physically abuses his wife.
- “Ask the question”, i.e. when you counsel couples on marital problems, inquire about the ways in which the couple resolves disagreements. Probe the limits by specifically asking whether one spouse has ever lifted a hand against the other.
- Don’t urge couples to reconcile without sufficiently addressing the violence. Too often, rabbis encourage women to return to situations which are intolerable, and think that the husband’s expressions of remorse can be taken at face value.
- Consider the victim’s need for physical safety above all other considerations. There have been too many incidents of serious injuries and even several cases of murder within our community.
- Don’t assume the problem doesn’t exist in your own congregation, even if no one has ever come forward. Deliver sermons about the values of a proper Jewish marriage in general, and specifically speak about the prohibitions against physical and verbal abuse from one spouse to another. Chances are, your phone will ring that week, and the caller may be a congregant you’ve known for years.
- Make use of various training experiences which are increasingly available through various rabbinic groups. Learn how to respond to reports of abuse, what legal options are available, what kinds of counseling is available, and most important, how and to whom to make referrals.
- Required reading! Rabbi Dr. Abraham Twerski’s The Shame Borne in Silence which describes the problem and offers suggestions for education, treatment, and intervention.
- Most important of all, the Orthodox community needs to develop an entire range of premarital educational and counseling opportunities within our schools and synagogues. Pioneering efforts are already being made, but much more needs to be done. Get involved.
Rabbi Weinreb is the spiritual leader of Congregation Shomrei Emunah in Baltimore, Maryland. He is the former chief psychologist of the Potomac Foundation of Mental Health in Bethesda, Md.