At last, a communal call to action to stop abuse at home

Last week I was given an incredible gift. After 11 years of working in the Bay Area on the issue of domestic violence in the Jewish community, I attended the first-ever national conference held on that topic.

It was a rare picture of Jewish solidarity as more than 450 women and men convened in Baltimore for "Pursuing Truth, Justice and Righteousness: A Call to Action," sponsored by Jewish Women International. Never before has the Jewish community addressed domestic violence on such a broad scale.

The spectrum of attendees, from clergy and sisterhood presidents to federations and family service agencies, proved that the Jewish community is taking this issue seriously. The message was clear: Abuse in the home affects family and communal life, and we must all work together to make our community a true sukkat shalom — a shelter of peace.

"Every point of view — Orthodox and secular, lay and professional, survivor and service provider, medical and spiritual, gay and straight — was shared and respected among this incredibly diverse group. That speaks volumes about our unity," said Loribeth Weinstein, JWI executive director. "We knew, as a community, that we would find strength in our numbers. What an inspiration it was to find such strength in our differences."

A gathering of this magnitude indicates a notable shift in Jewish responses to abuse. In 1992, when I helped found Shalom Bayit (Bay Area Jewish Women Working to End Domestic Violence), the mere idea of an organization like ours was an anomaly. So it was most impressive to see more than 60 similar programs from across the United States, as well as Argentina, Australia, Canada, England, Israel and South Africa.

I am proud to know that the Bay Area has contributed greatly to this growing international movement. Eight of the 45 workshops were facilitated by locals — including Esta Soler of the S.F.-based Family Violence Prevention Fund and violence prevention author Paul Kivel of Berkeley's Kehilla Community Synagogue. Kehilla made headlines as the first synagogue to pass protocols on handling abuse within a congregation. Participants were also impressed with Shalom Bayit's model programs, including our training curricula, teen program, healing rituals for battered women, sample sermons and simple success stories of having helped women escape violence. It reminded me that we are indeed one of the oldest Jewish domestic violence programs in the country.

Above all, who couldn't help but notice the key role rabbis play in getting the message across? Rabbi Eliyahu Ben Dahan, director of the Israeli Beit Din, took a strong stance by recommending legal sanctions against men who refuse to give their wife a get (Jewish divorce).

Rabbi Eric Lankin of the Rabbinic Cabinet at United Jewish Communities contended that "rabbis are expected to be on the front lines of the community addressing this issue using our pastoral skills" but are "not given training sufficient to the task." He urged the community "to increase funding and other resources…to enable rabbis to be better prepared to meet this very difficult pastoral challenge."

Amid the Jewish professionals were the voices of women telling their stories of abuse. "It doesn't matter how smart I was," said keynote speaker Dr. Amy Robbins Ellison, an anesthesiologist who was in a 10-year abusive marriage. "I got into a nightmarish situation." Another woman recalled, "As a child growing up in a violent traditional Jewish home, I had no words for what was happening to me. Now I feel privileged to live at a time when there are words."

At the core of the conference was the Call to Action, a position statement appealing to Jewish communities to take action against the silent epidemic of abuse in Jewish homes. Organizers will move forward with circulating the Call to Action, conduct a follow-up national needs assessment and plan a future conference for 2005.

Back in the office, my head is spinning with all the courageous ways that Jewish communities around the globe are taking domestic violence to task. As Shalom Bayit moves forward with its own new initiatives — statewide clergy training, expanded youth programs and a February 2004 performance of the riveting one-woman show "Flowers Aren't Enough" by Israeli actress Naomi Ackerman — there is no doubt that our work will never be the same. Our Web site — — chronicles much of this work. We are now part of a strong network, a Jewish community that has marked its commitment to be silent no more on the issue of abuse in our midst.