Getting Involved with Anti-DV work

October is Domestic Violence Awareness Month. Pass it on.

By Rabbi Richard Hirsh, executive director of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical Association and the co-chair of JWI’s Clergy Task Force on Domestic Abuse

Rabbi Richard Hirsh

When I stepped into the position of Executive Director of the Philadelphia Board of Rabbis in 1988, I inherited an already-planned program on countering domestic violence in the Jewish community. Rabbi Julie Spitzer (z”l) was the speaker, and she was among the first and few people bringing this issue to the attention of the Jewish community. After her challenging presentation, in which she outlined ‘best practices’ one of our senior (male) colleagues ‘explained’ that such things don’t happen in the Jewish community, and even if they did, all we rabbis needed to do was call up the husband, have the two of them in, explain that this is not nice, and shalom bayit (peaceful home) is a Jewish value. Rabbi Spitzer replied that was precisely the wrong thing to do, putting the woman who had come forward at risk. Our senior colleague replied “you’re young, you’ll see, it’s not such a big deal.”

When I worked in a synagogue outside of Chicago in 1994, our local Board of Rabbis had a program on countering domestic violence in the Jewish community. The change in those few years was remarkable. No one denied the issue was present. No one contested the “best practices” shared by the guest speaker from Shalva, the Chicago-area Jewish agency working with DV. No one suggested that “we rabbis” knew better. But when I placed those now-common tear-off posters with hotline numbers in the washrooms of our synagogue, another staff member removed them because “we have a lot of guests at Bar and Bat Mitzva services, and this is a busha (embarrassment) for the Jewish community.”

When I began to teach at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College in 1998, and designed a course that included guest speakers on important areas, I began inviting professionals from JWI to come and explain the issues of DV, best practices of response, roles rabbis can play, and how to help put out the word that people affected by DV can find a safe space for discussion with a rabbi.

Each generation of rabbis improves on the previous ones — not because the prior ones were deficient but because the issues and approaches change, and we have learned that Jews, like every other population, are subject to social, familial, economic and other distresses and dangers.

And there is still the denial of the larger community in which we live. On the day I wrote this post, the NY Times carried an article titled “Facing Cuts, a City Repeals Its Domestic Violence Law” as if the victims of DV were simply a budgetary expense like tree-trimming. We still have a long way to go.

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