Finally, we are turning the corner on domestic abuse

At age 6, Rabbi Diana Monheit stood in horror as her father pushed her mother down a flight of stairs in their New Jersey home, landing her in the emergency room. When the family rabbi visited her mother in the hospital, he asked how she was doing and offered a healing prayer. But never, facing his congregant in a hospital bed with multiple stitches in her face, did he ask her the one essential question: Who did this to you?

“If my rabbi had asked what happened,” says Monheit, “if my rabbi had reached out to help us, my childhood would have been different. No one ever asked if everything was OK. What message did that send to my mother? To me as a child?”

Still the young Monheit found solace and safety in her Jewish identity, which later led her to the rabbinate. After being ordained, Monheit moved to Atlanta for an assistant rabbi position in a Reform congregation. In her first weeks on the job, a battered woman came to her for help. Sparked by the woman’s desperate situation and her own childhood memories, Monheit decided to speak out from the pulpit about domestic abuse.

“The next day, my voicemail was full. The calls were from women telling me their stories and asking for my help.”

Today, she is devoting herself to the cause full time. Beginning in June she will head the Sh’ma Kolenu project of the New York Board of Rabbis, providing its 800 members with abuse prevention education. Rabbis from Chassidic to Reform will sit at the same table to learn how they can respond to their congregants’ calls for help.

Monheit’s story was not unique at a recent conference on domestic violence sponsored by Jewish Women International (JWI). More than 520 people came together for four days of learning and organizing to stop the silent epidemic of abuse in Jewish homes. It was the second international conference on the topic of Jewish domestic abuse, and it is catalyzing a broad movement to change the way our community looks at gender, power and relationships.

Many things about this occasion were impressive — the women who traveled from Israel and Argentina and the former Soviet Union to find community among violence-prevention activists in the United States, the mere fact that so many Jews stood together to bear witness to the realities of abuse.

But I was most struck by the presence of 75 rabbis and cantors of all streams who came to learn what they could do, many of whom devoted an entire day to their own skill-building session led by JWI’s clergy task force. It was a great honor for me personally to be invited to speak before them about the complex ethical obligations, safety issues and difficult situations that rabbis face in handling domestic violence incidents in their congregations.

I was prepared for their thoughtful yet tough questions, their eagerness to teach and learn. But I was not prepared for the deep level of personal sharing and casting off of the masks that had kept them silent.

At a panel on the role of tshuvah, or repentance, and forgiveness, Rabbi Drorah Setel revealed a history of sexual and physical abuse within her family. Her healing journey, as well as her feminist study of Jewish texts, led her to become one of the earliest rabbinic experts on domestic and sexual violence. “We have to expand our vision of the processes of justice, healing and tshuvah,” she says. “For instance, I would propose that the victim should stay in her own congregation and the perpetrator should go to another congregation. In Seattle, the liberal rabbis have discussed [such] an agreement …”

Rabbis “have to hold that victim in their hearts as a human being, and perpetrators also deserve someone who holds them in their hearts … and who holds them accountable for their behavior. But it can’t be the same people.”

One too many horror stories of abuse in Jewish homes as well as rabbinic sexual misconduct moved Orthodox Rabbi Mark Dratch to action as well. Dratch, the vice president of the Rabbinic Council of America, is now leaving his pulpit in Stamford, Conn., to found JSafe, a national abuse prevention training group for synagogues. “Its goal is to effect systemic change in the Jewish community so that Jewish institutions respond appropriately and helpfully when [domestic violence] survivors come to them for help,” he said.

I returned from the conference inspired by the belief that our community has truly turned a corner. Our rabbis are seeking not only to help the women and children who have been victims of abuse, but to hold perpetrators accountable and confront the sticky situations when an abuser is their friend, colleague or beloved lay leader. Here in the Bay Area, the Rabbinic Advisory Council of Shalom Bayit includes 30 rabbis who have created enormous change in the Jewish community’s response to abuse.

As we prepare for Passover and are called upon to retell our people’s flight from slavery to freedom, let us not forget that many of us may still be in danger — right here, in our own homes. One-fourth of all Jewish women will experience abuse at the hands of an intimate partner during her lifetime. And now, thanks to the growing response from rabbis, those women can be welcomed into a community that prioritizes their safety.

Naomi Tucker is executive director of Shalom Bayit in Oakland.

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