Orthodox Jewish communities sweep abuse under rug


The chassan (groom) puts the wedding ring on Sarah's finger under the chuppah at their wedding ceremony. A few months later, the young Orthodox Jewish couple divorced.

Sarah Cohen* knew her husband for two weeks before they got married. Less than six months later, she was driving two states away to escape a relationship that had quickly become abusive.

Her mother, Nancy Cohen*, recalled the events that unfolded. She says Sarah does not want to talk about the trauma because she wants to look ahead in life right now.

“One month after they were married, she called and said, ‘He seems more attracted to his three-year-old niece than me,’ ” Cohen said. “Then one day she called, crying hysterically and said, ‘He lost his temper and was screaming at me for hours.’ She sounded odd and said she thought he might have drugged and raped her. I told her to pack her bags and get out as soon as possible.”

Cohen realized that Sarah was scared, but hadn’t known how to get out of the relationship.

“Before that, no one had given her permission to leave. Our family had barely known the word ‘divorce,’ ” Cohen said.

One in four women in the United States will suffer domestic violence in her lifetime. There is no evidence that Orthodox communities have any higher — or lower — incidence of domestic violence. But the secretive way the community handles it differs from the norm: In Orthodox communities, it is looked down upon to openly talk about private family issues, report to the police or get divorced. The first Orthodox domestic violence agency was created in 1986 — 12 years after the first mainstream domestic violence agency.  Since then, 70 more agencies have opened, said Nancy Aiken, director of Counseling, Hotline and Aid Network for Abused Women in Baltimore, Md.

There is a hush-hush sentiment in Orthodox communities, which experts say dates back to biblical law. Shoshana Ringel, an associate professor and co-chair at the University of Maryland School of Social Work, interviewed 10 Orthodox domestic violence survivors in a 2007 study in Research on Social Work Practice. She found that denial, avoidance, shame and fear of divorce in the Orthodox community act as barriers for women seeking help.

CHANA has seen its percentage of Orthodox women who visit each year increase from 10 to 30 percent since 1995.

Organizations such as CHANA offer hotlines, shelter homes, rabbinical education, counseling, financial assistance and legal support for women enduring abuse.

For Sarah, who her mom says was always emotionally stable, CHANA paid for a personal therapist for a year and a half after she left her husband.

The day she drove back to her parent’s home, counselors advised her not to tell her husband she was leaving him because he might become violent. Instead, they said, to tell him that she just needed some alone time with her parents.

“Sarah’s husband was threatening to kill himself and had left a big butcher knife on the table to scare her,” Cohen said.

Organizations such as CHANA tend to the specific needs of Orthodox women. They are often near kosher grocery stores and yeshivas (rabbinical academies) and in extra secret locations to protect the women’s privacy.

“A non-Orthodox woman has many places to go — a regular domestic violence agency, a rabbi or a private therapist,” said Aiken. “But Orthodox women may have nowhere else comfortable to go. Our best referral is from mental health practitioners who say women come in with other problems. But often she is depressed or unhappy because she doesn’t have a safe place to talk about her domestic violence.”

CHANA was able to guide Sarah away from abuse and toward a healthier life, but it didn’t change the cultural repercussions and thick veil of secrecy that exist in the Orthodox culture.

A few days after Sarah left her husband, the Cohens went back to town where they lived to go to the hospital. Sarah was not positive, but thought her husband had drugged and raped her. They decided she should get a rape examination, in case her suspicion was correct.

The events that unfolded at the hospital shocked an already shock-ridden family.

“It started out as a normal rape exam. But then the rabbis found out we were there. The rabbinic liaison to the police department (in that neighborhood) told all the rabbis. They tried to get her put in a mental institution because they thought she was lying. It was a horror story,” Cohen said.

Orthodox families put a strong emphasis on the family’s image. Often, the women feel responsible to maintain shalom bayit, Hebrew for “peace in the home.”

“The problem in the Orthodox community is that we are very focused on our self-image and our image to others,” said Asher Lipner, a former psychotherapist at Ohel Children’s Home and Family Services. “Victims of domestic violence are looked down on because they are evidence that we are not perfect.”

The family image is magnified by the fact that social circles are especially tight-knit within Orthodox communities.

“People live close together; kids go to the same school; they all go to the same synagogue. If you call the police, everyone on the block knows,” said Hannah White, the liaison of the Orthodox community for Kings County District Attorney Charles Hynes, who started Project Eden, an Orthodox domestic violence agency. “Contained communities make it very difficult to get the word out.”

The Orthodox culture also places a strong emphasis on family privacy, and it can be seen as a betrayal if a woman shares private family information. Ringel asked her study’s participants to describe how they felt about discussing their abuse with others.

“It’s a private matter,” one survivor said.

“You don’t want to go to shul (synagogue) and wear a ‘scarlet letter,’ ” another said.

There are Jewish laws against gossiping and making police reports. Gossip is called Lashon Ha-Ra, which is Hebrew for the “evil tongue,” and reporting to the police is known as Mesira, and it is only deemed acceptable when someone is in grave danger.

“The idea of not gossiping comes from a wonderful place, but it is being misused. It is great not to gossip, but when there’s a constructive reason, like speaking up for someone’s safety, it is necessary,” Cohen said.

Mesira used to be considered the biggest sin during World War II. Judaism was trying to survive under anti-Semitism and nobody would report a Jewish neighbor to the police, Lipner explained.

“During that time, you wouldn’t consider reporting your Jewish neighbor even for not paying taxes. But now we’re in a democracy so that doesn’t apply. But people still use it as a rationality for women to not tell about abuse,” he said.

Rabbis have unparalleled power in Orthodox communities, and that power can become red tape to women seeking help.

“Rabbis have authority,” Lipner said. “We don’t believe the rabbi is perfect like the pope, but Christian influence has caused us to start adapting that.”

Rabbis’ power sometimes even trumps that of the police. Nancy said she wished she had gone to the hospital with a group like Citizens Sheltering Assisting and Sheltering the Abused because they could have helped her get past the rabbis. But when she called, her rabbi walked down the street and into her home, asking her husband why she had called.

“He had obviously found out from the rabbinic liaison for the police. People say, We don’t call (the police) because we don’t really know if someone is in danger. But if you have substantial proof, it’s the police’s job to investigate and make that decision,” Cohen said.

Cohen gave the police her daughter’s underwear samples, but they never sent them to the state lab like they said they would. No further police action was ever taken.

One study from the Jewish Family and Children’s Services reported that Jewish women stay in an abusive relationship 10-15 years longer than non-Jewish women. There is no specific statistic for Orthodox women.

“I don’t think there’s any more abuse (in Orthodox communities), but keeping it closed creates a perfect breeding ground for it,” Cohen said. “The Orthodox community is the perfect place to hide. People can’t talk badly about others. A great place for evil to hide is in a place of purity.”

The cover-up roots back to cultural stigmas unique to Jewish law, including the perception of divorce. When a woman asks for a divorce, the husband must initiate a get, the divorce document, and sign it. If he refuses, the woman is considered an agunah, or unable to remarry. And even if the husband does issue a get, the woman is branded with the scarlet letter of a divorcee.

“Sarah is having a very hard time getting re-married. No one wants to go out with her unless they have emotional problems, and she has a lot of trouble getting good dates,¨ Cohen said.

Since she left her husband in 2007, she has moved out of the country and is working for a hospital, but she plans to come home soon.

And as for the organizations, they are looking forward to and continue to add more resources for young women like Sarah.

Aiken says that CHANA tries to undo the red tape by offering legal support and financial aid to allow women to take action. The most used resource at CHANA, she says, is legal aid, though counseling is the most critical.

Rabbi Mark Dratch, who started JSafe: the Jewish Institute Supporting an Abuse-Free Environment, believes education is key.

“Two things need to be done — one we’ve done a better job with than the other,” Dratch said. “We need to have resources, but we also need to work on prevention. We need to train women about the red flags and teach men to have respectful behavior. Community conversation will help. I’ve spoken to many women who think they are the only Jewish woman who has been abused.”

Shmarya Rosenberg, who founded Failedmessiah.com, believes there should be stricter consequences.

“A lot of these people (abusers) should be in prison. You should be seeing a lot more convictions,” Rosenberg said. “There should be zero tolerance. (We) just need to get people to report it.”

Aiken believes rabbinical education will also help expose more cases.

“A big change comes from the outreach that we have put forth in cultivating in rabbis. To their credit, they’ve seen that shanda, or shame, is the reason for secrecy. It is important that they are not denying abuse but addressing it. Once they shift that frame of mind, they are willing to let women talk, to allow for gets and to raise money for single women. They are willing to change,” she said.

Rabbis are at least offered more education on the issue.

“There’s definitely more education, but who knows how much a man will carry it with him once he becomes a rabbi,” Dratch said.

The Sh’Ma Kolenu Project of the New York Board of Rabbis gives 800 rabbis abuse-prevention education. There is an annual International Conference on Domestic Abuse in the Jewish Community in Baltimore, Md., that started in 2003. But in Ringel’s study, four of the 11 abused women said their rabbis were “helpless.”

“It doesn’t make us bad people (to talk about domestic violence). It makes us better,” Aiken said.

The Cohens, despite everything, still believe in Orthodoxy. Cohen, who converted to Orthodoxy after being attracted to its practice of “questioning” ideas, says she has now seen its faults, but only feels more committed to making it better.

“You have to take the good; there’s tons of it,” she said. “And I still believe there are far more good people than bad in the Orthodox community. But we have to accept that this happens.”

She says that after being depressed for two years, she and her husband have healed themselves. As for Sarah, Nancy says she is doing “amazingly” despite rumors she was crazy and made up lies about her ex-husband.

“The biggest healer has been seeing that my daughter did not fall apart as a person,” Cohen said.

Hannah White says that Project Eden is busy, and although they still see many cases every day, women’s perceptions are changing.

“They are starting to say, I don’t want to live this way anymore. When we started Project Eden, you couldn’t even say domestic violence,” White said. “It’s not a dirty word anymore.”

* Names have been changed to protect privacy


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