In Bay Area, safe haven eludes some Jewish women

Reaching out to battered Jewish women over the past decade, Bay Area activists have learned that a cookie-cutter approach doesn't work.

A woman in a small Renewal or Orthodox group has different needs from those of a woman in a large Reform or Conservative synagogue or from a member of the vast Russian emigre community.

Among close-knit groups, particularly Renewal and Orthodox, battered women can face a "real safety issue," activist Naomi Tucker said recently.

"If your abuser is in the same spiritual community as you, then it's very difficult to find a spiritual home that is safe," said Tucker, co-founder of the 6-year-old Shalom Bayit: Bay Area Jewish Women's Task Force on Domestic Violence.

A woman in a grassroots Renewal chavurah may feel she must leave her group altogether, just when she feels the greatest need for support, or force her spiritual community to choose between her and her partner. There is little room for anonymity.

An Orthodox woman also faces problems specific to her lifestyle.

If she lives within walking distance of her synagogue, Tucker said, she also may live within walking distance of her batterer. If her children attend an Orthodox Jewish day school, it may be difficult for her to find a new one, as there are only a handful in the entire Bay Area.

Women who emigrate from the former Soviet Union — a constantly growing group in the Bay Area — face another set of problems when dealing with domestic violence. Those include language barriers, financial difficulties and isolation.

Sonia Sztejnklaper, a clinical social worker at the S.F.-based Jewish Family and Children's Services, said she's learned about emigre women's problems by working with the men who have battered them.

She counsels Russian-speaking batterers referred to her office by the court system.

Sztejnklaper sees definite differences between how emigre and American-born Jews view domestic violence.

"A lot of it is cultural in terms of how people approach the issue," she said.

Emigres from the former Soviet Union "come from a culture in which domestic violence is in some respects acceptable," Sztejnklaper said. "That's not to say it's acceptable now, formally, but informally there is still some of that sense that the man is in charge."

While moving to a new country creates stress for all immigrants, Sztejnklaper said the strain may exacerbate an existing tendency toward violence — or even create a first-time batterer. In her work with batterers, she's seen men who became "terribly insecure" in their new surroundings.

They may lose their authority as a husband and parent. They may have problems finding work or have conflicts with extended family who have already been in the United States for a while, she said. They may begin to drink heavily, a factor connected to domestic violence.

Under court mandates, batterers must receive 52 weekly counseling sessions. Over her 12 years as a counselor, Sztejnklaper said that almost without exception, she has seen men make progress.

Among the few exceptions was a man who just couldn't see that hurting his wife was wrong.

"He saw her as his property," Sztejnklaper said. The woman eventually divorced him.

The number of men referred to her office isn't huge. So far this year, her office has received six referrals. That's about the same as previous years, she said.

And while Sztejnklaper said batterers hitting women in the face is common, she has not personally come across a case in which an emigre woman required hospitalization.

JFCS also offers counseling and referral services for women dealing with domestic violence — both to emigres and American-born Jews.

But several activists acknowledged that the outreach to emigre women in the Bay Area probably isn't what it should be.

Sztejnklaper, for one, is sure there are more battered women among emigres than come to her attention. They simply don't get picked up on the Jewish community's radar screen.

According to Tucker, outreach to emigre women is a "missing piece" within Shalom Bayit. "We really need trained advocates from the Russian emigre community."

Another group of Jewish women with particular needs are those who come from wealthy families.

"Women of higher socioeconomic status have more shame around seeking help from social service agencies" or staying at a shelter, Tucker said.

Amy Cooper, coordinator of JFCS' Dream House, said she believes that for women with family wealth, leaving behind domestic violence can also mean losing their economic and social status.

"You really have to walk away from your whole way of life and support system," said Cooper, who stressed that this isn't a case of "poor little rich girl."

She estimated that at Dream House, a long-term shelter for homeless women and their children, 85 percent of her clients have experienced domestic violence at some point in their lives.

The 4-year-old shelter, which once had a public location, recently moved to undisclosed site that should better protect its residents.

Despite having so many individual differences, Jewish women also share common experiences dealing with domestic violence.

"They desperately need someone Jewish to validate their experience and understand them," Tucker said. "As a whole, they need to talk to someone who understands their religious needs or their dietary needs or just the way they communicate."

Earlier this year, Shalom Bayit ran the Bay Area's first-known support group for Jewish women who have survived domestic violence. Seven women took part in the eight-week group, co-led by Sherry Brown-Ryther.

One of the issues that stayed with Brown-Ryther, a co-founder of Shalom Bayit, was "how extremely painful it was for them not to have what they needed from their Jewish community. It was incredibly painful."

Another barrier to communal acknowledgment of domestic violence is the widespread idealization of Jewish men.

Jewish men, said activist Paul Kivel, have a "good image" as decent providers, respectable fathers and ideal husbands who would never hit women.

"The level of denial that Jewish men do this is very deep," said Kivel, a founding member of G'varim, the men's auxiliary to Shalom Bayit.

He sees attitudes gradually beginning to change. "But within the Jewish community, we're still meeting tremendous levels of denial and minimization," he said.

Despite a slowly growing awareness within the Jewish community, statistics about domestic violence among Jews in the United States are hard to come by.

Government agencies that track arrests, for example, do not request information on religious affiliation.

Based on a few small studies done across the country, Shalom Bayit contends that about 20 to 30 percent of Jewish families experience domestic violence at some point — the same figure as for the general population.

In addition, Shalom Bayit asserts that Jewish women generally stay in abusive relationships twice as long as their non-Jewish counterparts.

Shalom Bayit received about 250 calls last year, seeking information or assistance. A half-dozen volunteers, its core group, work one-on-one with about 10 battered women each year, Tucker said.

This fall, Shalom Bayit will start a monthly healing circle offering support and rituals for Jewish women.

Developments such as those give Tucker hope for the future.

"Every time I get a call from a woman in the Jewish community, I think, `How courageous she is.'"