Clergy Must Help “Break the Cycle”

By Rabbi Richard Hirsh

Clergy play an important role in combating domestic abuse: they speak out about the issues; they listen to victims; they offer counseling, referrals and spiritual resources; they seek to create safe environments within the institutions where they work. And clergy are often the first people that victims of domestic abuse will reach out to for support. 

To support clergy in this essential work, Jewish Women International’s Clergy Task Force to End Domestic Abuse in the Jewish Community has just released Hearing, Helping, Hearing – A Clergy Guide to Domestic Abuse.  Information, insight and advice are provided about the ways domestic abuse can be manifest; how to provide appropriate, safe and effective counseling and referral; when to raise concerns; and what to do – and not to do – when someone confides in a rabbi or cantor about real or suspected abuse.

The role of clergy is to provide support and offer resources, not to make decisions for someone who is experiencing abuse. One of the most important things that rabbis and cantors can do is to help a victim mobilize resources by introducing an awareness of abuse – victims often may not recognize that patterns of abusive behavior are neither normal or acceptable. But as many rabbis and cantors know, despite difficult and even dangerous circumstances, some victims of abuse will choose to stay in a precarious relationship. 

The conditions of the current pandemic have made it more difficult for some victims of abuse to take action to ensure their safety. COVID-19 continues to afflict communities in North America, Israel, and around the world, and the pandemic has spawned a significant and troubling increase in domestic abuse, as documented in this recent article by Deborah Rosenbloom and Rob Valente. 

In homes where abuse may already have been present, many families are trying to make it through unending days and weeks of proximity, worry, anger and frustration – an unhealthy mix of agitating circumstances that can make an already dangerous situation worse. Unemployment may also be contributing to domestic abuse, as frustrations and anger become magnified amid difficult financial, work-related, medical and other circumstances. 

Many of the best practices for victims and for the clergy who seek to support them have been compromised by Covid-19. Hearing, Helping, Healing updates and expands the ways that clergy can reach out, in general as well as to individuals. During this time of compromised privacy and communication, and in the absence of community gatherings, religious services and other familiar opportunities for safe conversation, new techniques and new technologies are needed for clergy to reach out to, and be available for, contact with those experiencing domestic abuse.

Intimate-partner abuse is not the only form of domestic abuse in need of attention. With increasing numbers of older adults in the Jewish community, elder abuse is also a cause for concern. Factors such as isolation, or physical or emotional frailty, can make it hard for older adults to maintain contact with clergy. Rabbis and cantors need to make an extra effort to reach out to older Jewish adults, who may not have access to the technologies being used during the pandemic in place of in-person gatherings.

Domestic abuse can also affect organizations, synagogues,  and workplaces, especially if both partners in a relationship are participants in or members of the same institution or community. The #MeToo movement has called attention to the ways in which institutions and organizations can be complicit in perpetuating cultures of harassment and abuse, and creating climates characterized by an absence of safety. 

Jewish institutions need to have protective policies and procedures in place – both for professional staff and for lay leaders. Such policies can include suspension of membership; withholding of ritual honors; and removal from leadership and governance roles. Public policies convey that an organization is prepared to respond to issues of domestic violence, and is committed to creating a culture of safe spaces. 

Not every Jewish home is a home of peace. For many rabbis and cantors, being a resource to those suffering domestic violence may not have been part of clergy training; yet they may well be the person a victim feels safest turning to. With the support and guidance in Hearing, Helping, Healing – A Clergy Guide to Domestic Abuse, each of us can become a better and stronger advocate for, and resource to, those in our communities who are seeking help in dealing with domestic violence. 

October is National Domestic Violence Awareness Month; please share these resources with your clergy networks:

  • Click here to download your copy of Hearing. Helping. Healing. Clergy Guide on Domestic Abuse. 
  • Participate in a training webinar for clergy on confronting domestic abuse during COVID-19 October 22 from 1:00-2:00 EDT.
  • Share JWI’s Needs Assessment Survey with congregational clergy and chaplains. 

Rabbi Richard Hirsh served as the curriculum consultant and facilitator for JWI’s “Men As Alliespilot project in the Greater Washington area. He is a past co-chair and current member of the JWI Clergy Task Force To End Domestic Abuse in the Jewish Community.