Supporting Victims of Domestic Violence in the Orthodox World

When I say I work at a domestic violence shelter that serves the religious community, reactions are divided and fall into two categories. Some people are shocked that such transgressions can occur in such a “God fearing” community, while others use it as further proof of the inequality of women in the religious world. The truth is these reactions are both wrong and right.

There are only 14 government-registered domestic violence shelters in Israel. Two shelters serve the Arabic-speaking population, two serve the religious Jewish community, and the remaining 10 serve the general population. Violence against women exists in every community, cultural group, and country. Religion does not exempt you from these statistics. However, what you do see is unique forms of abuse and coping from the Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox communities. Women have to rediscover their voice as a mother, but also as a religious example for their children. Women in the shelter are able to try activities they had never had access to before — including yoga, Zumba, drama, and art. They have a creative outlet that they never experienced before. Some women find new careers, taking vocational training while at the shelter. They rediscover their passions.

There were 755 women who stayed in Israeli shelters in 2014. Of those 755, or 24 percent, identified as religious, 25 percent identified as ultra-Orthodox and 39 percent as Arab. The term “religious” in Israel is used to define a wide variety of sects and practices. Those statistics alone seem to allude to a higher rate of abuse in minority groups in Israel. But domestic violence and the need for shelter is a much more complex issue.

The women who seek refuge in a shelter typically come as a last resort or life-saving measure. Most women who are in trouble have family to lean on or someone to take them in. However, if you are coming from a religious community where there is a lot of stigma attached to leaving your husband, you might opt to come to a shelter. Perhaps, you have family willing to take you in, but you have too many children and they have no room for you. Maybe you’re a convert or have a different level of observance than your family does, meaning you would not be comfortable staying with them. Maybe you’re an immigrant with no other connections in the country.

Yes, you can claim that women in religious communities are more susceptible to violence because of general attitudes toward women. We do see a unique form of abuse coming out of religious communities, what is known as “religious abuse.” You didn’t do what I told you so you’re not allowed to light Shabbat candles. You’re not allowed to pray because if you can’t get along with me, then God doesn’t want to hear from you. These examples of complete control over women’s religious life further support the acute need for a religious shelter. Bat Melech, where I work, operates the only two shelters in Israel that observe Shabbat and kashrut. Therapies offered in the shelter are sensitive to this form of “religious abuse” and rehabilitate women on a spiritual level.

Many view religious women as burdened, uneducated, or marginalized. Sure those words might apply in some instances, but for a religious victim of domestic violence, religion might be an escape or a saving grace. One might think their abuse comes from religion, but they might think their salvation comes from religion. They enter a religious shelter where they are welcomed with open arms. The women see that the religious world can now be their place of healing and not only their source of pain. Many women take shiurim, classes, in the shelter or learn in chevruta, with a partner, allowing them independence to practice religion as they wish.

Abuse is abuse, and it’s important not to make assumptions about the victims or their communities. Women come to us without a high school diploma or with a PhD, with no children or with eight children. Hasidic, Haredi (ultra-Orthodox), religious Zionist, Sephardic, Ashkenazic, Ethiopian, Russian, American, French, every woman has a different story, but they have a shared experience of abuse. In Israeli society where these differences would typically divide women, they live in unity in the Bat Melech shelter.

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