American Orthodox Jewish Women and Domestic Violence: An Intervention Design
By Meredith Blackman
Orthodox Jewish women who experience domestic violence face unique challenges when seeking help. This author researched the developmental issues facing this population and attitudes about violence within the general Orthodox community. A thorough intervention was then designed to help these women and their husbands cease their patterns of violence. Both rabbis and social workers are involved in this process, which includes strategies to reduce enactments with male authority figures and the use of therapeutic metaphor, all within a solid framework of Orthodox Jewish tradition. The larger Orthodox community is encouraged to participate in helping these women by making their synagogues into places of safety and tolerance. Finally, a program called Project S.A.R.A.H. is evaluated on its ability to address the issue of partner violence within the Orthodox community.
While there are between five and six million Jews in theUnited States, or 1.7%-2.2% of the country’s population, only about 600,000 people in all ofNorth Americaconsider themselves Orthodox Jews, according to the U.S. Census for 2009. This minority is nearly invisible to the larger population. Orthodox Jews comprise a highly religious sect that follows the most literal interpretations of ancient Jewish laws (Steinmetz and Haj-Yahia 2006). Because many Orthodox Jews believe that their traditional practices do not integrate well with mainstream American society, they tend to live in closed communities (Hurst and Mott 2006) and the developmental issues and service needs that affect this small population are unknown. For example, whileChicagohas several agencies designed to serve women who have experienced domestic violence, none has a particular intervention designed for Orthodox Jewish women suffering the effects of such violence. The unique life experiences of this small group of women demand special attention. For they must be viewed not merely as survivors of violence, but understood in terms of a unique developmental history. This paper will suggest some of the relational and developmental concerns experienced by Orthodox Jewish women, how service providers could attempt a domestic violence intervention, and an evaluation of a program called Project S.A.R.A.H..
Women and Jewish Orthodoxy
Jewish people pride themselves on having harmonious, violence-free relationships. Orthodox teachers maintain that since Judaism encourages men to be stable and rational, it is impossible that he would ever participate in spousal abuse (Steinmetz and Haj-Yahia 2006). Furthermore, the Orthodox tradition dictates that the social and religious realms belong to the man, whereas the hearth and home are the realms of women, and thus women are to perform the tasks that maintain the family’s health and happiness, and to support the growth of the children.
Women who are born into American Orthodox Jewish families begin their lives with this very specific script defining what it means to be a woman. All Jewish denominations have roots in patriarchal tradition, but strict gender-role adherence has deteriorated significantly in the more modern Jewish sects. Orthodox traditions retain the notions of male superiority and female deference (although Orthodoxy too has moved in a slightly more egalitarian direction (Hurst and Mott 2006)). Jewish law, known as Halakha, dictates that women are not allowed to engage in religious leadership roles. While they may study the Torah and the Talmud, the Jewish holy texts, there are few avenues for them to assert their opinions about what they read (Rich 2002). As it is the men who both write, read, and interpret the rules of Judaism, Orthodox women are subject to their husband’s or father’s chosen interpretation, which could be to their benefit or to their peril. While some progressive Orthodox synagogues have found ways to expand the role for women in religious life, practices such as all-women’s Torah study groups are typically met with disapproval by the ultra-Orthodox community.
The set of Jewish laws that dictates rules of modesty and relations between men and women, Tzniut, includes a relevant prohibition on men listening to the sound of a woman singing. The idea behind this prohibition is that men should not be aroused by, or feel pleasure from, such sounds; therefore, the only exemptions to the singing law are when women are singing to their children or singing songs for the dead – activities considered household necessities (Jachter 2002). While this law only applies to singing, not speaking, there is an underlying implication that women’s voices have a dangerous quality. Men are warned not to listen to women, for fear that they will be greatly moved or swayed from their course of action. Men are allowed to listen to women speak, but it seems that if women’s voices are to be avoided in one context, they may not be given much respect in another context. The responsibility seems to lie with the women who must not sing around the men, for it will not always be possible for a man to leave the presence of a singing woman. The message to women, then, is that it is their duty to keep quiet in any situation when they might be overheard. Perhaps they will even refrain from singing in situations where they think they are alone, just in case a man was to unexpectedly enter. Orthodox women are thus raised to always be wary of what comes out of their mouth, and who is listening. Silence is safer than making forbidden sounds.
Another relevant aspect of Tznuit is the law against men and women being alone together unless related by blood or marriage. This is a law meant to protect the modesty, safety, and chastity of Jewish women. The implication is that violence and dangerous sexual interaction are only likely to occur between unrelated men and women. There is no recognition of the dangers between married men and women. While Jewish law forbids physical contact with the opposite sex outside of the family, sexual relations and physical contact between husband and wife are required; it is the man’s duty to have intercourse with his wife, and she is prohibited from refusing him (Guterman 2008). There is no clear way, then, for an Orthodox woman to conceptualize her husband’s actions of violence as the law allows him to touch her as he chooses in all situations.
Since Orthodox Jewish women have been instructed throughout their whole lives that they have a submissive role in relation to men, it becomes apparent that engagement of abused women in this group may be extremely challenging. There is no direct route to ending domestic violence in the Orthodox community, and multiple systems will need to work together to create change. Whoever works with this population will need to be aware of the unique developmental issues and relational dynamics that Orthodox women may experience. They may be difficult to engage based on shame, isolation, and denial of the problem or their control over it. They come from an oppressed population – both as Jews themselves, and as women within the Jewish community. Their experiences with powerful male authority figures may lead to enactments with their rabbis or other helping professionals. Social workers and rabbis must be keenly aware of their position of power, and help these women seek out their own sense of agency. All of these factors make this a particularly difficult population with which to intervene, but the possibility for positive change is tremendous if an intervention is handled appropriately and respectfully.
Even though American Orthodox Jews are frequently middle-class and of white-European descent, it is still immensely important to respect their social vulnerability. One must not assume that as Americans, they are fully integrated with mainstream American society.
Creating a Domestic Violence Intervention
The modern American domestic violence movement is saturated with views such as those expressed on the website, DomesticViolence.org: “Domestic violence should never happen to anybody. Ever. Period.” This same website – the first website that comes up when one performs an internet search for “domestic violence” – also says that women can and should leave their abusive partners quickly and safely. There is no discussion of women living in isolated communities, where a woman might find that even her close family members might not support a choice to leave her husband. Orthodox Jewish women may have a deeper appreciation for maintaining the sanctity of marriage, and they may prefer to work out their problems with their husband rather than leave him. For women who live their whole lives according to a specific set of religious laws, reading one secular website will be unlikely to change these deeply-held beliefs, and it certainly is not respectful toward the Orthodox woman’s lived experience.
For this reason, any intervention that targets the Orthodox Jewish community must come from within Judaism, or from people who are well-educated about Jewish laws and traditions. The intervention proposed below will include three components: the formation of a women’s group at the Orthodox synagogue, a community outreach component led by the congregation’s rabbis, and a home visit performed by a rabbi and a female social worker.
The Intervention Design. The Orthodox women’s group will consist of two parts. First, led by a prominent female community member, the women will join together in the singing of traditional songs. After this point, a rabbi will join the women and provide them with a brief study group in Jewish law; the topics will be directly related to the relations between men and women and the possibility for violence between them. The women’s group will be advertised in flyers throughout the synagogue, as well as in locations where Orthodox women are likely to frequent (such as ritual bathhouses). The fliers will be printed with the phrase “Kol Isha: A group where women’s voices can be heard.” Although literally referring to the singing component of the group, the flier metaphorically refers to the group as a place where women are important contributors with meaningful things to say. This group will not specifically be addressed toward women who are domestic violence survivors, because of the shame associated with this phenomenon within the Orthodox community. Abuse survivors are often afraid to commit a shonda, or to bring embarrassment upon their families and communities (Dratch 2006e). While other parts of this intervention will seek to work specifically with survivors, this singing and discussion group is open to all. Ideally, it will attract women who are in a variety of different marital relationships. Some women may be abused, others may be in very traditional but violence-free marriages, and still others may have interpreted Jewish law to fit a more modern style of Orthodox marriage. Inviting these women to come together to speak and sing in an open forum validates each woman’s experience, and encourages them to make connections with other women who may have helpful advice.
Singing within this intervention is to be framed by an acknowledgement of the Orthodox prohibition on men hearing the sound of a woman’s voice, leading the participants to think of how powerful and how meaningful a woman’s voice must be if their ancestors created such a law. By introducing a space where women can sing freely and as loud as they wish, the hope is that women become comfortable hearing the sound of their own voice and the voices of other women, and that this experience can resonate with a part of them that has been kept silent. If they can then identify with their feeling of silence and powerlessness, perhaps they will learn to break through it in multiple areas of their life, guided by the capacities of their singing voices (Siegelman 1990). This exercise in vocal power is designed to carry forward into a Talmud study group led by a rabbi.
More and more rabbis are learning that the problem of domestic violence does exist in Jewish communities, and there are training programs designed to teach them how to address this topic with their congregations. Most modern American rabbis would never condone family violence under any circumstances, and it has been shown that Orthodox Jews respond well to domestic violence programming and services that are marked with rabbinical approval (East and Stein 2008). However, it is very important for the success of this group that the rabbi does not give the women a Talmudic lecture. This may be challenging for him if the women in the group expect the rabbi to perform the male authority figure role to which they are accustomed in their own homes. They may ask the rabbi to interpret the Jewish law for them, and tell them how women must behave. If the Orthodox women begin to reenact a pattern of submission to male authority, this will likely manifest itself in the very first meeting of the group (McWilliams 1999), which is why it is extremely important for the rabbi to be aware of potential enactments from the very beginning, before the pattern becomes established and harder to break. The rabbi’s position is not one designed to correct or to critique their thoughts, but to help them deeply explore the Jewish laws and discuss their meaning in relation to controversial gender and family based topics (Cohen 1998).
The rabbi should frequently ask the women’s group what they think about a passage in the Torah or a law in the Talmud, and how they have found it to apply to their home lives. He can ask if following any of these laws has caused them pain or difficulty, and how they might work together to reinterpret the passage so that her quality of life is improved. The rabbi and the women can still work within the Orthodox framework wherein the Jewish laws are fundamental, but he can encourage them to understand the ancient context in which the laws were written and how they might be reinterpreted to fit modern situations. Sessions should end with rabbis reminding women that if they would like to discuss these issues further, they are encouraged to meet with their rabbi privately at any time. Throughout, the rabbi leading the group must show genuine concern, and a demeanor that exudes optimism and reflects the women’s potential for agency and self-advocacy.
When a woman from the group meets with the rabbi in his office, another person must be present so as to uphold the laws of modesty. For this intervention, I propose a Jewish female social worker with an extensive knowledge of Orthodox Judaism. Together the rabbi and social worker can perform crisis assessments. This intervention is concerned with women for whom partner abuse is fixed within a religious context – their husbands believe that their masculinity allows them, even requires them, to exert their superiority in abuse. Since such cases can be seen as a serious misinterpretation of Jewish law within an already patriarchal religious system, the social worker and the rabbi must intervene directly in addition to referring the victim to various community resources.
In furthering the work with such clients, Madsen (1999) suggests not asking these survivors what they have done to attempt to solve the problem in the past. In this case, with such an isolated and disempowered group, this line of questioning would likely lead to the woman being reminded that nothing she has done has been able to change her husband’s behavior. She may blame herself even further, and be even less convinced of her own agency. Similarly, when dealing with a domestic violence relationship, putting too much focus on the survivor’s behavior may inadvertently blame them for their husband’s abuse. It may be beneficial to ask the woman what she would like to see different in her marriage. Whether or not she originally believes she can make changes, listing out her desires in detail is a step toward achieving them.
The rabbi and the social worker provide an opportunity for a partnership with the woman, leaving subsequent steps to her discretion, and thereby showing faith in her insight and her expert knowledge of her own family. Home visits by the rabbi and social worker are one such option, and if a woman chooses to have the social worker and rabbi provide a therapeutic home visit, she has the choice of explicitly telling the husband why she has invited them over, or the rabbi and social worker can disguise it as a routine visit where the rabbi has an opportunity to examine the happiness and health of his congregation. Depending on the marriage and the husband’s trust of the rabbi, the woman may feel comfortable making the purpose of the home visit explicit, or she may prefer that it be masked. She may also prefer that she and her husband attend couple’s therapy, at which point she would be referred to a trusted agency that has experience with this community. Whatever intervention the woman wants will be implemented, even if she just wishes to consult with the rabbi about how to handle the problem herself.
It must be reinforced that the woman has the right to self-determination, and to pursue her desired outcome by whatever means she chooses. If the woman chooses to try to solve her problems in a way that does not involve their assistance, this may be a struggle for both the social worker and the rabbi. However, regardless of their personal beliefs about interpersonal violence, if the woman does not believe herself to be in an imminent state of danger, she deserves to choose her own intervention. Whether or not it is the choice that the social worker or rabbi would make themselves, it is the woman’s fundamental right to choose her own path (Weick and Pope 1988). Allowing her to do so can be an incredibly empowering experience, and may work to alleviate the no-control stance that was previously discussed. The woman’s own expertise and opinion is trusted by the rabbi and social worker; if they can be of no further direct service to her, at least they have given her confidence, optimism and a referral elsewhere.
If the woman does decide to proceed with a home visit, having leaders of both genders present at the meeting will affirm to the husband and wife that both men and women have meaningful wisdom to share. The rabbi will be there to discuss the marriage from the perspective of Jewish laws and traditions, and the social worker will help encourage positive communication and collaborative goal-setting. In order to engage the husband from the outset, the rabbi and social worker will identify their interest in helping the couple achieve a state of improved harmony. As Jews themselves, the visitors can use their emotional connection to the issue of healthy Jewish marriages in order to build a trusting relationship with the couple. The rabbi and social worker must then ascertain some information about the couple’s current state of functioning. The rabbi or social worker may first ask the husband to describe the couple’s home life. It will be meaningful to know if they fight frequently, and what occurs when those fights begin. How are conflicts resolved; is it through talking, through ignoring the problem, or through physical tactics? Also, it will be important to ask about the various tasks and roles performed by each partner. Is the husband satisfied with this delegation of tasks? He will be asked how he communicates with his wife; are they tender or hostile with one another, and if there is still a strong love between them. At this point, the rabbi will turn to the woman and ask her to tell the story of their marriage, from her own perspective. Each partner will be asked by the social worker to listen to the other, without responding directly, as both perspectives are valid.
The violence may or may not be mentioned explicitly during this interaction. If the wife has requested it, the rabbi and social worker must not bring up that they know she is being abused. Perhaps it will emerge at a later point in the meeting, and perhaps not. Honesty is one of the foremost commandments of the Judeo-Christian faiths, but this does not mean that husband or wife will yet be comfortable or trusting enough of the situation to admit their violence. If such an admission occurs, the rabbi and social worker shall not immediately demonize or criticize the choice of this tactic in conflict. As long as the wife wants to solve this problem mutually with her husband, neither party can be alienated from the intervention. Angering the husband may in fact be quite dangerous; outbursts of violence tend to be more extreme after a victim leaves her partner or attempts to involve the authorities. Instead, the social worker and rabbi will attempt to help the family by respecting both stories, and helping both partners think about how their actions affect the other (Nichols and Schwartz 2005, 275).
Using Core Conflictual Relationship Themes and Goal-Setting. The social worker may find it helpful to search for the Core Conflictual Relationship Themes (CCRTs) expressed by both the husband and wife. Throughout the home visit, the social worker should attend to stories about relationship episodes; such episodes consist ofa person expressing a clear wish for something to happen within a relationship, there is a response to that wish from their partner, and a final response from the original person (Book 1998). An example of a CCRT in an Orthodox marriage may be the wife wishing that she could feel like an equal to her husband, but when she attempts to assert some control, he hits her or reprimands her harshly. Her response to him may be to isolate, to engage in self-blame, and to be reluctant to assert herself in the future. Describing this CCRT in front of her husband could be a very powerful experience; if his actions have encouraged her to hide her feelings, he may have been relatively unaware of the damaging affect of his behavior on her psyche. The design here borrows from the narrative approach of family therapy, for if violence is acknowledged, this is part of her story, and the husband will be asked to hear about the pain and fear that he causes his wife. Perhaps the husband has his own story and therefore the wife will be asked to listen to any stories of shame or guilt that he tells about his behavior. Because both Orthodox men and women spend much of their lives, except for their young childhoods, secluded from the opposite sex and their social groups rarely extending beyond other Orthodox Jews who were raised in the same manner, the husband and wife may find themselves endlessly repeating the roles that they were taught to play as children (Hurst and Mott 2006. This intervention is designed both to put a stop to this repetition, and to foster new patterns of marital interaction that are still compatible with Orthodox Jewish tradition.
In addition to the use of CCRTs and the desired areas of change, the intervention features a collaborative goal-setting process. Without stating outright that the clients have “a problem” that requires action, the social worker will ask them to come up with one mutual goal for their marriage that is meaningful to each of them. The social worker will ask the clients questions to elicit details of the goal; for example, what it will look like when the goal has been accomplished, and what behaviors could they each do to step toward the goal. With any family for whom violence is an issue, the rabbi and the social worker will request at least one follow-up session either at the home, or at a private office in the synagogue – whatever the couple chooses. It is important to let the couple know that any information disclosed in any session will be kept utterly private from the other families in the congregation, to encourage trust and a feeling of safety. Throughout the visit, the rabbi will help the couple conceptualize their problems within the context of Jewish traditions.
Here the work of Rabbi Mark Dratch (2006c) – and his powerful series of sermons addressing many topics that Jewish couples will need to consider as they explore the inequities in their marriage – is very useful and relevant. For example, in his sermon on Shalom Bayit, or family peace, Dratch addresses the Orthodox law which states that any money that the woman earns must go toward the betterment of the household, and must be given to the husband to spend as he sees fit. While acknowledging this law, Dratch shows that because it is the husband’s responsibility under the law to spend his money wisely and provide well for his wife, the law actually creates a form of reciprocity. Dratch’s sermons consistently demonstrate that the gender roles outlined in Jewish law need not result in an imbalance of power or in violence.
The Role of Jewish Law and the Community. The intervention’s design is meant to foster, where possible, such a sense of mutuality. It suggests a recognition that Jewish law states most marital obligations are not required if the couple mutually chooses to abandon them. Therefore, it is appropriate under Jewish law for Orthodox couples to rewrite their household division of labor, or for a wife to help her husband make financial decisions, if they mutually conclude that doing so would be beneficial to their frayed relationship. The rabbi can provide the religious context in which couples seek out new ways to interact, and the social worker ensures that both partners get a chance to talk, encourages them to listen to and acknowledge each other’s painful stories, and sees that they are actively working toward their mutual goal.
Since giving a religious justification for equality in an Orthodox marriage will likely not be enough to stop acts of violence from occurring, the intervention also anticipates that participating rabbis explicitly provide a religious justification for nonviolence. According to the Talmud, abuse and forced sex are completely prohibited within Jewish relationships (Dratch 2006d). But the issue here is more complicated and suggests the unique aspects of this community. Jews, the rabbi may remind them, are an oppressed and scarce people. Centuries of violence and genocide attempts have taught Jews to stick fiercely to their traditions, part of the reason that Jews still turn to Orthodoxy to this day. Jews have been disgraced and beaten by oppressors countless times throughout history. Perhaps it gives Jewish men a feeling of strength if they are able to be aggressive to someone else. After a lifetime of battling anti-Semitism and history books full of painful stories, Orthodox Jewish men may take their position of relative authority and use it to identify with the oppressor; they may attempt to regain their dignity at the expense of another. The aggressive husband pulls his wife into a re-enactment of all the abuse that has befallen the Jewish people. It could be that he identifies with some of the negative stereotypes about Jews that still last in American today and in his shame, in an attempt to feel powerful, he may act aggressively toward a Jewish women when he sees those qualities in her. It is not really she whom he is angry at, but at those people who hurt all Jews. It may be easier, sometimes, to identify with the powerful oppressor and temporarily feel disconnected from his Jewish self. It may be an act of projective identification, for the husband to take all the unbearably painful parts of his Jewish history and project them onto his wife for her to hold (Stark 1999). Both the rabbi and the social worker, therefore, are encouraged to draw the connections, where appropriate and necessary, between a lifetime of shame and oppression, and the ways such feelings manifest in a way that damages their relationship.
When turning couples toward reconciliation, Jewish law again has an important part to play. The abusive partner can be shown that domestic violence is not only in violation of Jewish law – which commands that married partners treat each other with kindness and respect – but it is a sin that cannot solely be forgiven by God. For sins against another human being, it is necessary to earn the forgiveness of the person wronged before the divine forgiveness is bestowed, and only sincere apologies need be forgiven under God’s law (Dratch 2002). Once the wife is in a place where she can forgive him, he can also experience the gift of forgiveness by forgiving his wife when he feels angry. Instead of letting anger rule him, he too can practice forgiveness. Both parties can endeavor together to be more forgiving; it fits in accordance with Jewish tradition and it can be another goal that the social worker can help them work toward.
Throughout all stages of the intervention, the tone of meetings must be carefully monitored by the social worker. The woman will have been provided with domestic violence resources beforehand, and told that if the home visit becomes volatile then she is free to leave with the rabbi and social worker. They will help her get any things that she may need, and set up a safe, secret place for her to stay if she chooses not to go to a shelter. If the meeting does not appear to have taken a turn that could result in more violence afterward, the rabbi will ask that each member of the couple check in with him privately on the next occasion that they enter the synagogue. This provides a built-in opportunity for the rabbi to inquire about the continuation of violence and evaluate whether further action needs to be taken to protect the wife. Before leaving the couple alone, the rabbi will ask that they attempt alternate forms of dealing with conflict throughout the following week, and that they reflect on the new ideas they have heard about Orthodox marriages. The rabbi will assert that in order for the couple to continue getting confidential assistance that does not involve outside agencies, the violence must end immediately. Even if the urges for it have not ended, the social worker can continue to address that in future sessions. Hopefully, given the Orthodox Jew’s desire for privacy within a close-knit community, this will provide an incentive to stop the violence before any other party becomes involved. It gives the husband and wife a choice about whether to involve other agencies or law enforcement.
In order for this intervention to appear viable, the rabbi needs to set up the congregation as a place of safety for domestic violence survivors. Interestingly, the place where the holy books are kept in the synagogue is referred to as the sanctuary. The rabbi can turn the idea of sanctuary into a metaphor that encompasses the whole congregation by announcing to them that the sanctuary holds the most sacred of objects, and now this synagogue will be a sanctuary for all of God’s sacred people. The sanctuary keeps the holy books safe and protected from intrusion, and the synagogue will now be such a place for those who are suffering at the hands of another. For those women who do not have money at their disposal, the rabbi can set up a fund where part of the synagogue’s financial resources goes to support women in the congregation who are planning to leave violent husbands. Resources for domestic violence shelters, counselors, and support groups – both geared toward Orthodox women and more mainstream programs – will be permanently posted in the Women’s Rooms at the synagogue. The social worker can help recruit families to offer room in their homes to women in the congregation who are trying to secretly and safely leave their husbands and seek help.
In order to spread the idea of the sanctuary throughout the congregation, the rabbi will address domestic violence in his sermons as a community issue that demands attention. The rabbi must acknowledge how hard it is for Jews to admit that fellow Jews are capable of such violent actions. However, Jewish law states that Jews have an obligation to both support and rely on each other. Abuse against one Jew weakens the strength of the community, particularly in the small neighborhoods in which Orthodox Jews tend to live (Dratch 2006a). Another sermon topic that could expand the notion of synagogue as a sanctuary is to encourage congregants to speak up to the rabbi or other authorities when violence occurs. Lashon Hara means gossip or slander, and it is typically prohibited in Orthodox Jewish communities. The rabbi must identify Lashon Hara as a law that is frequently misused as a tool to keep victims from speaking out against their abusers. The rabbi must remind the congregation that God commands the Orthodox Jews to follow all laws, unless it would be dangerous to do so. For example, the young, the old, and the sick are not to fast on Yom Kippur for the sake of their own health. In this vein, abused women are hereby exempt at this synagogue from the principle of Lashon Hara, and those congregants who become aware of interpersonal violence in their community are in fact obligated to report it and protect others from danger (Dratch 2006b). Such sermons encourage community involvement and engagement in the issue of domestic violence. They also tie all Jews together as people who have suffered and must protect each other from suffering. The synagogue is identified as a safe space with trusted authorities who will listen to and support victims. Domestic violence and other issues rarely talked about in Orthodox life are thereby unearthed and acknowledged. This acknowledgement empowers the victims in the congregation by giving validation to their experiences and support for their mental and physical health. All of these principles fit with Bloom’s (2000) notion of what constitutes a therapeutic sanctuary, and the synagogue would start to become a place where the traumatized can go to seek healing.
Project S.A.R.A.H. There are very few formal interventions designed to work with women who have experienced domestic violence in the American Orthodox Jewish community. One program that involves similar components to the intervention proposed here is called Project S.A.R.A.H., a response to domestic violence in the New Jersey Orthodox community. Project S.A.R.A.H. is also a multi-armed approach. There are multiple reasons for its success, but chief among them is the program’s premise that neither domestic violence training nor an understanding of Jewish law is sufficient on their own to be of service to these families.
Not all of the social workers involved in Project S.A.R.A.H. were Jewish themselves, and they were likely not all domestic violence survivors either. The assumption that a social worker must be the same race or religion as a client in order to understand them is very misleading. As evidenced by Leary’s case example, this assumption can have a damaging effect on a therapeutic relationship (Leary 2002). However, since the purpose of a domestic violence intervention requires quick action to promote safety, it is important that a social worker intervening with an Orthodox woman must have an understanding of her customs and knowledge about domestic violence more generally. There is no time, as there would be in conventional psychoanalysis, for the social worker to slowly uncover information about Orthodox practices. At the same time, the client will always have something to teach even the most knowledgeable social worker. It is important to note that Project S.A.R.A.H. does not limit their service providers by only hiring religious Jewish community members, but it remains necessary to ensure that social workers engaged in such work at least had some existing knowledge of the Orthodox community that they planned to serve.
Project S.A.R.A.H. provided rabbis with information – including sermons, pamphlets, and many more suggestions for resources that they can use in their own synagogues – to improve the health and safety of their congregations, as well as to reduce denial about the existence of this problem within Jewish circles (East and Stein 2008). This training is ideal for all communities that contain a Jewish population, and the rabbis mentioned in Project S.A.R.A.H. would be prime candidates to participate in my proposed intervention. Project S.A.R.A.H. also trained the attendants who work at Orthodox women’s bathhouses to pay attention to the women who visit the bathhouse, and to engage with those women who seem hesitant to go home and rejoin their husbands (East and Stein 2008). The bathhouses are a safe space for women, a sanctuary from their home life where women can speak or sing without fear of being heard or criticized.
While Project S.A.R.A.H. does not explicitly discuss how the developmental issues of Orthodox women may affect their perception of what constitutes an unacceptably violent relationship, the intervention proposed here fulfills that need. It does this for those women who need to plan an immediate escape but also accounts for a therapeutic dimension that involves both partners, for it assumes that not all women who are being hit may wish to leave their marriage, and that it is not empowering to force them to do so. It is grounded in the idea that we must not alienate women who need support by damning their choices and belittling their desire to heal their relationships – an Orthodox Jewish woman may truly believe that her marriage will be improved by a series of home visits that helps each partner learn about their actions from the perspective of Jewish law, and that encourages the husband and wife to honor each other once more.
Mainstream domestic violence projects, and even Project S.A.R.A.H., seem to respond to every instance of violence by separating the husband and wife and giving them separate counseling. This intervention presented here will always give the couple a greater range of agency and choice. Survivors are given a great deal of self-determination as they choose how to respond to their difficult family situations. Singing and studying in a women’s group may help female congregants feel a sense of empowerment, while the entire congregation will learn from the rabbi’s sermons that the synagogue is now a place of sanctuary for the abused. The home visit intervention will take into careful consideration all the developmental issues with which Orthodox men and women have been raised. The social worker and rabbi, trained and prepared, will help call attention to instances of old relationships being re-enacted, or a husband’s self-loathing being projected onto his wife, or how the long history of Jewish oppression can still affect Jews living today. By integrating these components, the intervention helps Orthodox Jewish women, a population frequently misunderstood and underserved, realize that there is the opportunity to make some changes in her life.
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