October is Domestic Violence Awareness Month and this year all of the Jewish high holidays occur throughout the month as well. This time for me is one of reflection and thought. I am using this month to explore the power of the myth that domestic abuse doesn’t happen in the Jewish community. This statement is something we often hear in our meetings with congregations, lay leaders, clergy, social workers, and mental health providers.
It doesn’t take deep thinking to imagine the shame and fear that might keep survivors (Jewish or otherwise) from speaking publicly about their personal experience, especially if the abusive partner is still parenting their shared children. We can’t put the responsibility on survivors to help society debunk the myth.
From my first day as director of Journey to Safety, I understood that in order to prevent domestic abuse in the Jewish community and help those currently experiencing abuse, we would need to challenge the myth that it didn’t happen in our own homes. And it is not easy. Our lives are filled with news of horrific acts internationally and nationally. People are exposed to countless heartbreaking stories of violence. And it is easier to think that these acts are “out there” and not here in our homes and in our communities that appear protected and immune to these kinds of issues.
When listening to a friend, loved one, colleague, or congregant talk about issues in their marriage or relationship, it is common for others to reassure them with statements like “Marriage is hard work,” “It takes two to tango,” “Maybe you just don’t understand what he/she really wants,” “I can’t imagine him/her doing that,” or “Divorce is an ugly process and it brings out the worst behaviors.”
I know because there was a time when I, too, tried to support someone I knew well with statements like that, not recognizing the imbalance of power between this person and her abusive partner. I missed the signs of abuse because I was so busy trying to make suggestions to fix the relationship.
Then, one day, I took a step back and shifted my view on the situation. Instead of comforting this woman with false reassurances, I began to listen to her. When I really listened, I was able to think about what she was telling me and could share that her partner’s behaviors sounded controlling and like a bully and that I didn’t like the way he was treating her. I also began to regularly ask, “How can I be helpful right now?” and “What do you need?” Eventually this amazing woman began to realize that her partner’s behaviors were not her fault.
While I did listen to her, I never said “You are the victim of domestic abuse.” The label isn’t necessary to provide support.
Her partner never physically harmed her but his voice, his demeanor, and his actions conveyed that he was in control. Over time she shared many stories about his verbally demeaning remarks and his cold calculating threats of taking the children and it became clear to me that this emotional abuse was as scary as if he physically hit her.I was unnerved by the unhealthy behaviors, manipulation, lack of concern for what was best for the children, and the pattern of coercive, controlling behaviors.
I worried about what my responsibilities were to help and protect this woman.
But I was also profoundly energized by my newfound ability to provide support and encouragement. And it was received with enormous relief and appreciation.
We can pivot the conversation about domestic abuse away from myth and see the power in acknowledging that no religion, ethnic group, socioeconomic class, gender, sexual orientation, or belief is immune. I can assure you that there will be sighs of relief among those who hear this conversation. By changing the conversation, we can validate all those who feel silenced, isolated, and hopeless; and you are recognizing that domestic abuse is real and that there is help in the Jewish community and beyond.
Now, that is power.
Elizabeth Schön Vainer has been the program director of Journey to Safety, the domestic abuse program of JF&CS, since March 2010. Elizabeth is passionate about Journey to Safety’s commitment to prevent domestic abuse. She believes that we must work at the individual, community, and legislative levels to shift our societal view that allows abusive behavior to remain so prevalent and damaging. When we focus on speaking up, listening to, and collaborating with others we can have a real impact. Prior to working at JF&CS, Elizabeth worked for 25 years in victim services at both the Middlesex and Suffolk County District Attorney’s offices. Elizabeth holds a BSW from the University of Tel Aviv and a MS in organization and management from Antioch University.
Originally posted on the JF&CS blog.