Abused Jewish wives afraid to come forth, panel says

Rabbis in European shtetls would often advise women whose husbands had beaten them to "go home and make shalom bayit [peace in the home]."

Reclaiming that Hebrew phrase by taking it as its name, a San Francisco advocacy and support organization is letting the community know the problem penetrates Jewish households.

Domestic violence "happens to Jewish women just as often as it happens to non-Jewish women," Rebecca Schwartz, who helped found Shalom Bayit in 1992, told an audience at San Francisco's Congregation Sherith Israel last Friday.

During the "Social Justice Shabbat" discussion, sponsored by Sherith Israel, Shalom Bayit and the National Council of Jewish women, Schwartz said, "The fact that violence happens in Jewish households may come as a shock" to some people.

But in fact, she said, domestic violence dates back to biblical times.

"We see references to individual women's cases throughout the Talmud," she said.

Historically, rabbinic authorities differed on the question of whether a man had the right to beat his wife, Schwartz said. The ketubah, or marriage contract, was usually interpreted as prohibiting domestic violence and the rabbis forbade men from forcing sex on their wives. But they agreed that husbands had power and control in the household.

"Domestic violence is an abusive pattern of power and control" and the leading cause of homicide among women, she said.

"Jewish women stay years longer in an abusive relationship" than non-Jewish women, she added.

There are many reasons for this phenomenon, said Sherry Brown-Ryther, another Shalom Bayit founder. Jewish women may feel obligated to make shalom bayit. Or they may fear being labeled with the overly dependent, insecure battered-wife stereotype, which doesn't match the image of the strong, well-educated Jewish woman.

They may doubt that anyone will believe them, because of the myth that Jewish men don't beat their wives. "When a woman starts talking about domestic violence, the most important thing is to believe her," Brown-Ryther said.

The panel included a Jewish woman who endured verbal and physical abuse during a five-year marriage to a Jewish doctor who routinely criticized and belittled her. He insisted that she ask him before spending any money and yelled at her when his dinner wasn't ready exactly when he wanted it. They eventually divorced.

"Everyone said a Jewish doctor was the best thing that ever happened to me," said the woman, who did not at first consider the relationship abusive. "You don't see it while it's happening."

Anita Friedman, executive director of the S.F.-based Jewish Family and Children's Services said, "The fact that we're talking about this in the organized Jewish community will create the preconditions so that people can come forward and ask for help."

Battered women need financial support from the Jewish community in order to find housing, child care and job training, added Friedman, who is also president of Sherith Israel.

"We do a lot of networking to help Jewish women find the services they need," said Naomi Tucker, director of Shalom Bayit. For instance, her organization can arrange to provide kosher food at a women's shelter. Other resources include a Wednesday-night support group for battered women.

"Most people don't come forward and say, `I am abused,'" said Friedman. "It will come up in almost imperceptible ways."

Brown-Ryther added, "If someone comes to you and says, `My husband is abusing me,' the most important thing to say is, `We believe you. How can we help?'"