No Denying: Domestic Violence in Israel’s Religious Community

No woman dreams of living in a shelter for victims of domestic violence.  Years ago, no one dreamed that shelters would be needed in the Jewish state, let alone for the religious sector. 

The story below, however, points either to a growing reality or to a willingness to come forward and face reality.

Rachel moved to Israel from America on her own and married there. After a decade of isolation from her family and physical abuse from her spouse, she became pregnant with her fifth child. 

As always during her pregnancies, her husband's violence intensified, and Rachel knew that she could not protect this child and would not forgive herself if the newborn baby came to harm. She packed for the hospital, knowing that she would be saying a more permanent farewell to her home. 

Rachel came to one of Israel's religious women's shelters straight from the hospital, two days after delivery, with her four children in tow and a sweet baby girl. As of this writing, there is no happy end for this story and perhaps there is not going to be one, but Rachel, bravely, made the optimal choice under the circumstances.

Domestic abuse plagues all societies. Men, too, can be abused by their wives, although we tend to think only of women suffering at the hands of a violent husband. This article deals with women, but is by no means intended to give the impression that abuse is a one-way street.

According to the United Nation’s Women’s Division, 1.3 million women each year are victims of spousal violence.  Another published UN study reported that 40-70% of murder victims in the United States, Canada, Australia, South Africa and Israel are killed by their intimate partners. Studies by social science researcher Adam Koblenz have confirmed that 25% of American women will encounter domestic violence in their lifetime.

These statistics bear a certain degree of cognitive dissonance.  After all, if 25% of American women are truly victims of domestic violence, then surely every American knows many of them – women in our communities, in our synagogues and in our neighborhoods. There tends to be an even greater sense of disbelief when considering the issue of domestic violence in the Jewish community, yet statistics show that spousal abuse in the Jewish community in the above countries is between 15-20%, and these are only the reported cases. 

Domestic violence is heavily influenced by the values and norms of any society, and therefore is manifested differently in the observant Jewish community, especially in Israel, with marked differences between ethnic groups. 

Religious Jewish women are also likely to stay in an abusive relationship longer than others. According to the California JCRC, Jewish women everywhere will stay with their abuser for an average of 7-13 years, as opposed to the national average of 3-5 years. It is possible that Jewish women are more likely to take the guilt or responsibility for saving a marriage onto their own shoulders.  The same principles that support healthy relationships, such as the concept of shalom bayit (keeping the home peaceful) can sometimes lock a woman into attempting to save a relationship that has no chance of improving.

An Israeli expression aptly summarizes this situation: “Isha bona, Isha harsa.”  This translates to “A woman builds [her family], yet a woman also destroys it.”  That is to say that the happiness or dysfunctionality of the family ultimately rests on the shoulders of the woman.

The observant Jewish community places an inordinate amount of pressure on its women. Worrying about a good match for their children and not wanting to bring shame upon parents and family, women often stay in abusive relationships, sacrificing themselves for those they love.

Many of these women do not realize that, statistically, children raised in abusive environments will predominantly become future victims of abuse or conversely, future abusers. Most religious Jewish women will flee to a shelter only once they have the wake-up call that proves that the situation is life-threatening or see that the children are being harmed by remaining at home with the abuser.  Rachel’s three year-old son had already picked up his father’s habits. When his baby sister began crying, the three year old walked over and slapped the baby hard in the face to stop her tears.  This is clearly a learned behavior, and one that needs intervention. 

Social service organizations in Israel are beginning to advocate for culture-specific services in cases of domestic violence.  After all, the language, values, healing process and even nature of abuse endured by an Ethiopian woman who made aliyah will almost certainly be different than the experience and traumas of a sabra raised on a kibbutz. Within the religious sector, hareidi and religious Zionist women have much in common, but also very different  social and familial codes.

This is an area where the State of Israel has initiated and implemented best practices way ahead of the curve. There are fourteen shelters for victims of domestic violence in Israel, of which ten are secular, two are for Arab women with Arabic language therapy and two are for religious Jewish women.  The religious ones are founded and operated by the Bat Melech Organization in partnership with the Israeli Ministry of Welfare, and provide residents with strictly kosher food, a Sabbath-observant environment, and an atmosphere suitable for children attending Religious Zionist or hareidi schools. A religious woman will hesitate to leave a dangerous situation at home unless she knows this will not expose her children to things like television shows on Shabbat .

In all women's shelters, women learn to breathe again and are able to begin their long culturally-specific process of healing and rehabilitation. The religious shelters are leaders in the field of culturally sensitized treatment besides providing the norm of food, housing, therapy, childcare and legal representation. Often called "the national Jewish women’s shelters" due to the diverse geographic representation of their residents, who of necessity come from all over Israel, they are also very much children’s shelters as residents have an average of 3-8 children compared to the national average of 1.2 children per woman in secular shelters. Children are placed in schools suited to their specific religious backgrounds, no easy task.

Due to the shelters' practice of crafting a unique rehabilitation and transition plan for each woman and her children, taking varied levels and types of religious backgrounds into account, the Orthodox shelters have the lowest recidivism rate of all shelters in Israel and share their best practices with MASHAV, Israel’s foreign development conference that offers strategic consulting on issues of family violence to countries around the world.

Using the most conservative estimates, if even fifteen percent of Israel's Jewish community is plagued by the crime of domestic violence, we must speak more publicly about the reality of abuse and begin a conversation that explores the unique manifestations of abuse within the religious Jewish community as well.  Only then can we successfully talk about identifying signs of abuse and violence in order to protect and strengthen the most vulnerable within Israeli society in the hope that shalom bayit can truly be upheld behind the closed doors of more Jewish homes.

Amy Oppenheimer-Abitbol, Overseas Director at Bat Melech Shelter for Religious Women, lectures on healthy relationships and signs of abuse within the Jewish community.


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