Addressing Domestic Violence in the Jewish Community at this time of Covid-19

By Nancy Aiken, PhD and Rabbi David M. Rosenberg

As we celebrate liberation, we reaffirm our commitment to make all safe in their homes and in their relationships. (Adapted from the Passover Dedication)

The time period between Passover and Shavuot reminds us that we were liberated from Egyptian slavery for freedom and to learn as a people committed to tzedek (justice) and chesed (lovingkindness). Yet, in this year of Covid-19, Passover may not have felt much like a celebration of freedom. Instead, it was an occasion for sadness to be present as our isolation was felt more deeply.

Imagine if one always experienced isolation and sadness. For those living in an abusive relationship, this is their reality. Imagine if one lived in an abusive relationship, not only during times of health and prosperity, but also during the time of Covid-19. For many, this is now their terrifying reality. 

In an emergency such as the current one, abusers may more likely escalate violent behavior in an effort to assert a sense of control. As reported on April 10th by the Congressional Research Service in “Domestic Violence in the Context of Covid-19,” some law enforcement agencies have experienced an increase in reports of domestic violence (DV) while others cannot find the privacy to report. At the same time, police departments and courts are finding it more challenging to respond now. 

In a recent JWI webinar, Naomi Tucker of Shalom Bayit of Northern California described three categories of individuals experiencing DV under COVID: Individuals who have not yet identified themselves as living in an abusive relationship. As social distancing continues and as tensions rise, such individuals may no longer be able to deny their situation. Considering this group, we expect domestic violence organizations may find themselves flooded with calls for help as restrictions are lifted   

For individuals who have left their partner, social distancing increases the experience of isolation from support networks. Many are raising children, which is difficult enough for happily partnered parents at this time. Some feel so isolated and desperate that they are considering returning to an abusive partner.  

And, finally, individuals who are living with their abusers are particularly vulnerable as it is unsafe in their home and also unsafe to reach out for help. They are particularly vulnerable as they feel trapped between a bad choice and a worse one. One woman told a counselor, she hoped to contract COVID-19 because fighting the virus in a hospital would be preferable to remaining at home.

Victims of DV are not only facing difficulties in reaching out for help; they are also suffering from a lack of information. Many mistakenly conclude that shelters are closed to new clients and that DV organizations are inactive. That is not so.

Local DV organizations are open and have transferred their interventions to online platforms. Organizations are providing food, supplies, and money for rent. Shelters continue to operate and are finding safe ways to provide emergency housing in hotels or temporary housing. At times a 14 days in quarantine is arranged to protect from spreading the virus to staff and other shelter families. Their dedication is overcoming the obstacles this crisis presents  

The age of Covid-19 has changed the experience of domestic violence for its victims. It has also inspired DV organizations and professionals to be creative and resourceful. A professional may encourage a client to steal a few minutes outside the house, perhaps while running to the grocery store, for safety planning. Professionals and clients may share coded language to indicate a threat to safety. 

In the Jewish community, DV professionals address emotional and spiritual as well as physical well-being. They share prayer and meditation resources and encourage victims of abuse to find safe spaces at home for the spirit as well as the body. Here, too, creativity is essential. A woman who used to find comfort in lighting Shabbat candles and whose partner will not permit her to do so, may be encouraged to spend some time looking at a video of a candle burning. 

Jewish communities and organizations that do not focus on DV have an important role to play in supporting victims. Congregational leadership – both clergy and lay – can and do reach out to their members, paying special attention to vulnerable ones. They can and do share local resources, including DV resources, providing much-needed information and encouragement. Rabbis and cantors can remind their congregants of the essential importance of caring for isolated victims of DV at a time when we are, as a community, experiencing isolation. Philanthropists can support the essential work done by Jewish DV organizations at this time and beyond when referrals are likely to rise.

At Passover Seders this year we offered help to “all who are in need.” At Shavuot, we will celebrate the gift of Torah and the imperatives of tzedek and chesed. Let us continue to respond to “all who are in need,” including those in the Jewish community who experience domestic violence. Let us express our concern and offer our practical and financial assistance to those who are so seriously impacted by the “Egypt” of domestic violence and so in need of lovingkindness and justice in this time of Covid-19.

Dr. Nancy Aiken is the former executive director of CHANA in Baltimore. Rabbi David Rosenberg is co-chair of JWI’s Clergy Task Force to End Domestic Violence in the Jewish Community. We are inspired by the active commitment of Jewish communities, philanthropists, and clergy to this essential work.