Nearly 500 women packed the Oholei Torah ballroom in Crown Heights, on a rainy and gusty Wednesday evening, to learn about domestic abuse.
The educational event was hosted by Shalom Task Force and co-sponsored by over a dozen local, educational and community organizations as well as many individuals.
The sheer number of women present demonstrated just how important an issue this is for the community. The women came with a keen interest in understanding the subject, as well as learning how they could be supportive of those suffering in such tragic circumstances.
The evening began with an introduction by Avital Levin LMSW, director of the women’s education programs for Shalom Task Force who informed the audience of the various programs and services they offer.
Next, Rebbetzin Bronya Schaffer shared a dvar Torah and concluded with a message distinguishing between the noble quest of enhancing a marriage, working on sholom bayis, and the futile attempt of building on an utterly broken foundation, the situation of domestic abuse.
Two short and powerful video clips set the stage for the feature presentation.
In the first video, Rabbi Dr. Abraham J. Twerski, the courageous pioneer who brought awareness of the issue of domestic abuse within the frum community, spoke of the uphill battle he faced until well known rabbinic authorities acknowledged the existence of domestic abuse and advocated for community awareness and support mechanisms for the victims.
He described how abusive men can be seen as tzaddikim in their community, because of their outward persona, while acting as ruthless tyrants within their homes, and how difficult it is for people to even imagine the truth.
The second video was presented by the Ohel organization. It featured a woman bravely recounting her personal horrifying experience living with an abusive husband and receiving the support she needed that enabled her to extricate herself to safety and a bright future.
Lisa Twerski, LCSW, the keynote speaker, then delivered a very informative overview of what domestic abuse is, how it’s employed, and what others need to know in order to effectively support people in such a situation. She began by defining what a healthy relationship looks like. She went on to enumerate different types of unhealthy relationships that are caused by multiple factors such as mental health issues, poor skill sets etc.
She pointed out that many unhealthy relationships can be helped and even repaired with proper therapy, education, assistance and effort. However, domestic abuse refers to an -unhealthy relationship that cannot be repaired by the most valiant efforts or a perfect spouse.
She emphasized that it has nothing to do with satisfying a person’s needs and desires. Rather, it is all about power and control. An abusive spouse whether male or female, uses many tactics to dominate and control every aspect of the other’s life, depriving the other of a sense of self and the freedom to make any decisions.
She described some of the methods abusers use to assert control. They isolate their spouses by restricting their ability to communicate with family and friends, curtailing any outside support. They control all finances, making the spouses completely dependent for the most basic and essential needs. They employ methods of humiliation, intimidation and deprecation to eliminate any sense of self and self worth.
Abusers will play mind games so that the spouse begins questioning her/his sanity and abilities. They will deny any wrong doing, or offer false apologies while always blaming the victim for everything. They will react with threats and severe consequences to any hint of disobedience or self assertion in ways that strike fear and bring submission, with or without physical violence.
Twerski shared a vivid account of a woman who was ordered to put out her husband’s clothes on his bed exactly at the moment he went to take a shower before Shabbos. A therapist, unfamiliar with domestic abuse, challenged her, asking her why she just didn’t say no or not do it? Finally, one Friday she thought she had the courage, thinking perhaps she carried irrational fears. She didn’t put out his clothes and then went to light Shabbos candles. There was silence, no commotion, and she breathed a sigh of relief. Until she entered her kitchen. Her husband had emptied all the food from the fridge and cabinets, removed the food off the blech and dumped everything in the outside garbage, leaving the whole family without food or snacks for Shabbos. Even without violence, there are resounding consequences.
Twerski then explained why people suffering do not come forward, or take steps to leave. She listed many reasons including fear, great shame, being blamed, not being believed, lack of resources, concern for children involved, male privilege, social pressure and responsibility. She described the necessity for a person to find her/his sense of self and self worth to rally the courage and temerity necessary. She justified the many fears, citing statistics of the worst consequences escalating when someone tries leaving. She said, no one knows the situation better than they do, mentioning five homicides within the frum community that occurred when a spouse attempted to leave.
Finally, Twerski explored the role of family and friends. She addressed the range of reactions and difficulties that surface from these horrifying situations. She acknowledged that most people would like to jump in and rescue the victim in all ways possible. As altruistic and instinctive as that may be, she noted in many ways how that can backfire by being counterproductive and dangerous. She underscored how it is essential for victims of domestic abuse to take the steps that they can when they are ready, willing, and able to go forward. It must be their own decision and choice.
She also noted that it is crucial to be in touch with qualified therapists who specialize in domestic abuse to properly assist and support someone at such a precarious time. She said the best support someone can offer to victims is to show trust and belief in them, empowering them to trust themselves, to trust their judgments and perceptions of right and wrong; to believe in them, that they can and will make the right choices.
The abuser has worked hard at wearing down the spouse’s sense of self and confidence, drilling into the spouse the notion of being incapable of anything. To be supportive and helpful is not to employ any method of control and take- over; it is precisely through self-empowerment that the victim can regain healthy footing and indeed regain a sense of freedom to take steps independently with full confidence.
After Lisa Twerski’s presentation she remained well over an hour taking numerous questions from the audience. Many women expressed interest in learning more on the subject including, what makes an individual abusive, how to support the children in these relationships, how to recognize the red flags while dating, and how the abuse affects the victim.
The evening concluded with a beautiful buffet of salads, chocolates, fruit, nuts and pastries. A wonderful resource fair presented many communal educational organizations that offer vital resources on topics such as parenting, child safety, relationships, dating prep, early childhood education, domestic abuse, etc.
Representatives reported that they were very pleased with the opportunity they had to engage with the community members and were so grateful to be a part of the event.
Shalom Task Force, founded 20 years ago, promotes peaceful family resolutions and healthy marriages for Jewish families. They offer legal services and maintain an anonymous Hotline (718-337-3700). The organization also provides workshops for engaged and married couples to give them tools for better communication, and relationship workshops for high schools, yeshivas, and seminaries within America and Israel. For more information, please call212-742-1478 or www.shalomtaskforce.org.