JWI initiates new conversation on domestic violence

Fresh research, strategy sessions funded by Schusterman Family Philanthropies

Shoshannah Frydman spends a lot of time completing grant applications as the executive director of Shalom Task Force, Inc., a domestic violence prevention and support organization in the New York City area. But because most victims and survivors don’t want to talk about their experiences, she often struggles to provide the information that many funders request. Starting today, when Jewish Women International (JWI) releases “Domestic Violence in the Jewish Community: A National Needs Assessment,” she will have an easier time, she told eJewishPhilanthropy.

“There’s a dearth of literature for the Jewish community about domestic violence,” said Frydman, who served on the report’s advisory team. “We have a lot of anecdotal experience. We have limited research.”

JWI traces its roots to the founding in 1897 of the first women’s auxiliary of B’nai B’rith, the service organization. In the 1950s, it became an independent organization, and in the 1960s its focus shifted toward activism and a focus on women and girls. This report comes almost two decades after JWI first began to research domestic violence and found that most Jewish clergy denied its existence in the community, said JWI CEO Meredith Jacobs.

“We heard from rabbis [at the time] that domestic violence didn’t happen in their congregations,” said Deborah Rosenbloom, the report’s lead author and JWI’s chief program officer. “We’d ask, have you ever spoken about it? Have you been trained? If you don’t know what the red flags are, you aren’t going to see them. Rabbis don’t say that anymore.”

JWI responded by creating training for Jewish institutions and groups and becoming involved in advocacy, which it pursues today as a member of the steering committee of the National Task Force to End Sexual and Domestic Violence. Institutions that emerged as a result of the initial report — Clergy Task Force on Domestic Abuse in the Jewish Community, a provider of resources and training, and the Interfaith Coalition Against Domestic and Sexual Violence — still exist.

The coronavirus pandemic was a catalyst for this report, as concerns sharpened for people with a range of problems exacerbated by lockdowns: individuals with addictions, disabilities and in abusive domestic situations.  

“People understood domestic violence in new ways,” Jacobs said. “People were staying at home with their loved ones; they could understand what it was like to be with an abuser.”

Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Philanthropies reached out to JWI with an offer of support for new work on the issue. Together, the organizations generated several ideas before realizing that they needed to look again at the big picture. The resulting effort reached out to every domestic violence program serving the Jewish community, and also drew on JWI’s experience.

“We are clearly not immune from the same issues that persist in society,” said Schusterman Family Philanthropies Co-President Lisa Eisen. “At Schusterman, we feel a sense of urgency to help address this challenge as part of our gender and reproductive equity work.” 

The new report aimed to describe the problem, not quantify it. Such a number would be useful, Frydman said, but very difficult to obtain, given the challenges of researching a phenomenon that many people struggle to talk about. Services, not more research, should be the priority, she said.

The report states that nationally and in the Jewish community, the systems that respond to domestic violence — civil and criminal justice, child welfare, government benefits — need to be updated to help survivors stay safe and independent in the longer term. The new focus is on helping them remain in their communities and not be negatively affected by untrained and inexperienced service providers. These solutions will be expensive, Frydman said.

The report makes both general and Jewish community-specific recommendations. Jewish women across denominations say they benefit from the specialized support, Rosenbloom said: “They feel like they are speaking to family, and that going to go to a secular program would have made them like they had to explain themselves even more.”

The issue of legal services illustrates the broader problem, Rosenbloom said. Most Jewish organizations that help survivors of domestic violence rely on a roster of outside lawyers who volunteer their services, but those professionals usually can’t see protracted domestic violence cases through from start to finish. In some circumstances, the need for the survivor to re-explain their case can be traumatizing. The report recommends that Jewish domestic violence programs hire at least one lawyer trained both in family law and in how to interact with survivors.

The report also recommends the formation of a national program that does job training and advocates for low-interest loans for survivors, and the convening of Jewish leaders, real estate investors and funders to address the lack of transitional and long-term housing for survivors within their own communities. 

JWI also updates its policies and suggestions related to clergy, urging that seminaries make sure their pastoral offerings include the latest thinking on how to care for survivors, and that clergy networks reach out to domestic violence organizations.

“The needs assessment report we supported provides clear recommendations for how the Jewish community can recognize and understand domestic violence and respond in tangible ways that support survivors and their children on their path to safety,” Eisen said.

After the research is released, JWI will host virtual roundtables at which experts and leaders will discuss the issues, refine the solutions and start to commit to action. A panel discussion to announce the findings is scheduled for tomorrow.

“One of the goals was to raise awareness of the issue, to lift it as a funding priority,” Jacobs said.