Haredi Society Discovers Family Violence, but Slowly

About three years ago, on International Woman's Day, B. called the hotline of the Crisis Center for Religious Women, and asked for help.

About three years ago, on International Woman's Day, B. called the hotline of the Crisis Center for Religious Women, and asked for help. It was already dark when she summoned the courage to dial the number being broadcast over the radio all that day. The next day, a Friday, she packed a few suitcases with trembling hands, and fled with her young children to a shelter for battered women, far from the Haredi city where she lived. She couldn't bear the thought of spending another Shabbat with her husband's violence.

At the height of the crisis, she says, there was something calming and "less threatening" in the knowledge that she had found refuge in a Haredi shelter. Long before she fled to the shelter, she had endured more than her share of suffering. After several years of marriage, during which her husband abused her physically and emotionally, B. divorced him, but was forced to leave her two children in his custody.

After some time, when her husband was in the process of becoming newly religious and she failed to get the children back, she remarried him and adopted a Haredi lifestyle. She hoped the family values so sacred to Haredi society would spread to her home. But her hopes were in vain.

The more extreme her husband became in religious observance, the more frequent became his outbursts of violence toward her and the children. B. was isolated in the heart of a community where everyone knows everything about everyone.

Several times B. turned to the community rabbi, hoping he would be able to influence her husband, who had a criminal record, and bring an end to the violence. But, she says, the rabbi made do with half-hearted comments about shalom bayit ("peace in the home," or marital harmony). "I often had a feeling he was afraid of my husband," says B. The years went by, and three more children were born. It had become more difficult to leave.

It took another six years for her to get up her courage again. Like many battered women, B. came to her senses when her husband began to cause greater harm to the children. A few weeks before she fled to the shelter, he closed the credit account in the neighborhood grocery, and as a result, her children often went to bed hungry. After he threw their 10-year-old daughter out of the house one night in one of his fits of rage, B. decided to run away.

For an outside observer it may be difficult to understand the necessity for a Haredi framework in a situation that is defined as pikuah nefesh (life threatening). However, B. paid a high price for staying in the ordinary WIZO shelter she was forced to move to after her husband discovered the address of the Haredi shelter and began to threaten to murder her.

When her husband complained in the rabbinic court that his children were violating the Sabbath in the secular shelter, the dayanim (rabbinic court judges) decided the three children under the age of six would be transferred to his custody, despite his violent past. Only after she appealed to the Supreme Court did B. win custody of the children.

Banished women

In 1995 Noach Korman, a Haredi attorney, founded the non-profit organization Bat Melech (King's Daughter, a Talmudic reference to a modest Jewish woman), which operates the only shelter in the country for religious and Haredi women. He did so when during his work as a rabbinic advocate (the equivalent of a defense attorney in the rabbinic courts) in the legal aid department in Jerusalem - a government body that provides free legal advice to the financially distressed - he encountered cases of women who had nowhere to go.

One day, he says, a young Hasidic woman with an infant, who had fled from an abusive husband, was sent to him. She used to sleep in the lobbies of hotels, and walk around in shops during the day, to escape the cold. Korman tried to find a Haredi family to take her in. He contacted various bodies, rabbis, Knesset members and charitable organizations, but in vain.

"Nobody wanted to interfere in the case of a married woman," he says. The explanation was that there is a halakhic (religious law) problem of yihud, which prohibits a woman from being alone with a man other than her husband. But the real reason was actually deeper. When he suggested she go to a shelter, the woman refused, arguing that they would try to make her secular there.

Another case that shocked Korman was that of a 20-year-old girl from a Lithuanian Haredi background who fled from an abusive husband. She and her baby were living in a room in the seminary where she had studied before her marriage. During the school day she was in effect kept prisoner in her room, so that the students wouldn't meet her.

The association began to operate a shelter in an apartment, which the Ministry of Labor and Social Affairs officially recognized in 2000. About 100 women turned to the shelter in 2002, and a similar number in 2003. Twenty-two women actually stayed in the shelter, and twice that number wanted to be accepted, but were turned away for lack of space. They arrive with a large number of children, which is why a Haredi shelter can accept fewer women than other shelters - up to seven at a time compared to 10 or more in other shelters.

In the past year, for example, a mother of nine stayed there. In most cases, the older children don't come with the mother, and that's a source of pressure on her to return home. A significant part of the therapy is directed toward the children. Esther Plant, the director of the shelter, believes that this is likely to prevent them from becoming victims of abuse in the future. Haredi women stay in the shelter longer than do other women, because they are banished from the community, and therefore their rehabilitation is slower.

In 2002, 10 women stayed in two temporary apartments that the NPO provides for women who have left the shelter, and in 2003, there were four such women. As opposed to other shelters, here they employ a woman who is in contact with the women who leave the shelter, and helps them to manage. Sixty percent of the budget of the shelter is paid for by the Ministry of Labor and Social Services. The Haredi shelter has additional expenses, including the cost of extra-strict kashrut supervision and private education in religious schools. The rest of the budget comes from donations, a minority of them from Haredis. It turns out that it is still difficult to get them to donate for that purpose.

Chaya Rozenfeld, the director of the department for family violence in the Jerusalem Municipality, who is also the consultant to the mayor for promoting the status of women, says that the woman who is the breadwinner in Haredi society has amassed a great deal of power, which undermines the supremacy of the man. (Haredi society has created a social structure in which two-thirds of the men study, and many of women are bread winners.)

"The woman is more educated, and has more contact with the outside world. In a society where they emphasize the centrality of the man, this causes pressures within the family, some of which are expressed in violence against the woman," she says.

The conspiracy of silence about abuse, says Rozenfeld, is one of the characteristics of conservative and closed societies in general, not necessarily just Haredi society. "Such a society educates toward an ethos that the integrity and the welfare of society is more important than the welfare of the individual," she says. "Sometimes it's difficult for us to understand to what extent the integrity of the family is a supreme value in Haredi society." The battered Haredi woman pays the price. "When she complains of violence, they tell her, `Sacrifice yourself for the community,' and therefore women will remain in a problematic marriage."

No statistics

Apparently keeping the family secret, which perpetuates the pattern of violence, has deeper roots in Haredi society, because of the taboo related to abuse and because of the fear of ruining the family name and the shiddukh (match). One of the battered women in the shelter says her husband imprisoned her in her house in a Haredi city when she was pregnant, for over 24 hours, without electricity and water. She could have opened the window and called out to passersby, but she didn't do so for fear that it would be discovered that her family was defective.

Professionals in the field, virtually all of them religious, believe that fewer women in the Haredi sector will turn to shelters, which for them are the last resort, because of the significance attributed to marriage. Rabbis will prefer to send violent men to violence-prevention therapy groups that have opened in Jerusalem and in Bnei Brak, rather than sending women to a shelter, although it's still not clear whether the therapy for men is successful. The difficult economic situation, says Plant, is also a reason why fewer women come to the shelter.

The experience of the Haredi shelter shows that Haredi women turn to a shelter after many years of marriage, sometimes after they have married off their older children. "They wait with their suffering, because the price they will pay if they leave the community is high," says Plant.

Rozenfeld says "there have still been no Haredi women who murdered by their husbands." It may be just chance. This past August a violent husband tried to set his wife on fire at the entrance to the Haredi shelter, and afterward committed suicide in prison.

There are no statistics on the extent of violence against women in the Haredi sector. However, Plant estimates that the dimensions of the problem are similar to those in society as a whole. She says that the phenomenon crosses denominations and ethnic groups. "Not all the Haredi communities are willing to acknowledge the problem as yet," she says, "and therefore it is difficult to gather statistics."

There are a few professional bodies in the field - like the center for domestic violence in the Yad Sarah organization in Jerusalem, which serves mainly a Haredi population, or the Crisis Center for Religious Women in Jerusalem, which was founded by a religious woman, Debby Gross, over a decade ago. Even they are cautious about publishing statistics about the number of those who contact them. This may be interpreted as a desire to protect the community, but apparently the fear is that revealing the statistics will prevent cooperation with the Haredi community, which is interested in being portrayed as a nonviolent society.

From the increase in the number of staff at the center in Yad Sarah - from one female social worker to 10 male and female social workers within two years - we can at least learn of the sharp rise in the number of requests.

Rabbis won't believe

On one of the days of Hanukkah a party was planned in the shelter, but the four women who were staying there were too upset to celebrate, and it took time until they were convinced to participate. The youngest, in her early twenties, shares a room in the shelter with her four children. In the next room, which is clean and well-kept, lives a women in her forties, with her young daughter. She arrived at the shelter from Bnei Brak, where she enjoyed a high economic and social status.

Nobody, she says, imagined that for six years her husband, a respected rabbi, beat her, and later even threatened to kill her. According to her description, before marriage she was an independent woman, and she says that her husband succeeded with threats and beatings to cause her to become frightened and emotionally disturbed. This is her second time in the shelter. She came in the summer, and after a month returned to her husband. "Now," she declares, "it's final."

Even after they have publicly announced their intention to divorce, over 25 percent of the women who come to the shelter return to their husbands; about half the usual percentage among women who stay in shelters. "Anyone who has left the Haredi community no longer has a place to return to," explains Plant. When a woman wants to return to her husband, the approach is "to go along with the woman and her wishes," as she puts it. Therefore, although the professionals don't always believe in it, they help her by enlisting support in the community, and particularly that of the rabbis, in order to scare the husband and to prevent a repeat of the violence.

The success of the treatment for violence against Haredi women, like that for children at risk and other problems, depends on the delicate communication that takes place behind the scenes with the rabbinic establishment, says Shlomit Gidron, who until last year was the director of the social services department in the Bnei Brak municipality. She says that "when the Haredis are convinced that there is a need, they establish a wonderful system of services."

And in fact, in the social services departments in the Bnei Brak and Jerusalem municipalities, extensive work contacts have been established between the rabbis and the professionals. Rozenfeld believes that the rabbis' consent to the establishment of services in fields that are already considered legitimate, such as special education, has paved the way for areas that are still considered more problematic, such as violence in the family.

All those involved in the field are of the opinion that more and more rabbis and community leaders are beginning to be aware of the problem of violence against women in Haredi society. And in fact, R., who is now staying in the shelter, said that a rabbi who is considered a supreme authority in the Haredi community where she lives told her explicitly to go to the shelter.

Plant lectures in women's forums in closed Haredi communities that invite her with the consent of rabbis. She reports a daily dialogue with neighborhood and community rabbis. Some understand the problem, but there are many, she says, who still deny its existence, and try to pressure her to send the woman from the shelter for another attempt at shalom bayit.

The lack of awareness also stems from the fact that the rabbis have no direct contact with the women, says Rozenfeld. "Violent men are characterized by strictness, which goes very well with punctiliousness regarding prayers and study times. It makes a wonderful impression on the rabbi. He sees before him a man who comes to prayers, a wonderful student in the kollel (yeshiva for married men). And then comes the woman and tells a story that sounds strange. `But I know him,' says the rabbi, `it can't be.' That's why even rabbis who in principle will say that the problem should be dealt with, will make endless demands of the woman to prove that there is violence."

Attorney Korman says that frequently the rabbis have difficulty understanding the psychology of the battered woman, her feeling of guilt that she herself has brought about her situation. "In a society where they still teach women that the altar cries over every couple that divorces, as it says in the sources, a battered woman feels that she must preserve shalom bayit."

"There is no society in which the woman pays a price of banishment as in the Haredi community," says Plant. "A battered woman is considered a blot on the entire society."

D., who fled to the shelter three years ago after many years of marriage to a violent husband, paid a high price for her decision to stop obeying the edict of community and to end her marriage. She came from an ultra-Haredi community, and the fact that she turned to the authorities and to the police was unforgivable. Her family ignored her, the community banished her and gave full support to her husband. After her stay in the shelter she never returned to her community. Her children, who were incited against her, ignore her to this day.

Full-length film

She married at the age of 17. D.'s husband was known in the community as a problematic and violent young man, even before their marriage, but this fact was concealed from her. At an early stage in the marriage, she says, she saw the first signs of his tyranny. He used to take out sacred texts and show her that they said that the husband rules over his wife and that he is allowed to hit her. Later on his domineering behavior was expressed in religious restrictions. He forbade her to open her mouth in front of a man, and used to check whether the clothes she bought were sufficiently modest.

D. was beaten every day. Her husband made sure to hit her in places on her body that would be covered by her clothes. Over the years she had six children. Today she is 40 years old, and is angry that the community considered her to blame for her situation. The worst was her mother, who is a marriage counselor in the community, who told her in response to her description of the daily beatings that "it's normal."

"In cases where there is violence toward the woman, rabbis pressure the couple to preserve shalom bayit, but behind this concept hides the assumption that both of them are equally to blame," says D.

However, she has a positive recollection of an important and influential rabbi in the closed community where she lived, who understood her situation and helped her with a very painful issue, going to the mikveh (ritual bath), which in religious society is a condition for having sexual relations with one's husband.

The rabbi told her explicitly that she was forbidden to immerse herself in the mikveh when her husband treated her disrespectfully, and even indicated a list of rabbis who forbade it. "For me that was the beginning of the end. Because a woman who doesn't go to the mikveh can't continue to live with her husband," she says.

So in effect, although the rabbi didn't tell her outright to break up the marriage, she reached the point with his help. The final push to contact the shelter arose when she discovered that her children were imitating their father's behavior. She understood that she had to save them.

D. is now remarried. She returned to Haredi society. B., on the other hand, is confronting many problems. While her husband remained in his community and prays in his synagogue, she was exiled from her city and lives in social isolation. She is unemployed, lives in financial distress in a shabby and crowded apartment, deals with bounced checks and a daily fear that her landlady will throw her out.

"Single mothers have no future in Haredi society," says a Haredi community leader. Two weeks ago the principal of the religious school threatened to remove her children from the school in the Haredi city if she didn't pay the monthly tuition. When she told him that she had nothing left to do but pray, he replied, "Then pray somewhere else."

Bat Melech is now trying to increase awareness of violence against women in Haredi society, and to educate toward violence prevention. The association's newspaper is distributed in mikvehs, synagogues and places where women congregate. Debby Gross says that thanks to the growing awareness, there are today more divorces at an early age than in the past, because young women know how to say no to violent husbands.

However, the attempt to educate toward nonviolence seems to contradict the tendency of the Haredi public to avoid discussing these subjects. Very few articles on the subject have been published in the Haredi press. And of course, it's impossible to bring these subjects into the schools, because the Haredi public considers them a threat to the pure souls of its children.

The only attempt is being made at present by Bat Melech, which is planning to distribute a full-length film for home computers, on the subject of domestic violence. The problematic subject matter was treated very cautiously, between the lines, so the film wouldn't be rejected.

The problem of preventing violence is much more serious. "According to the halakha, a husband who doesn't respect his wife cannot be honored in anything related to the community, such as being called up to the Torah, and all the more so is it forbidden for the community to defend him," says D. Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, spiritual leader of Shas, spoke in favor of the Haredi shelter about a year and a half ago, but Rozenfeld says that there is no other rabbi or posek halakha (arbiter who makes halakhic decisions) who will get up and declare publicly that there is a halakha that forbids a husband to beat his wife. Plant says that she would like to see a list of abusive husbands in every synagogue.

In other words, the condemnation should be clear. However, she says: "We are not in favor of radical change. If this is a revolution, it's a quiet one. One woman and then another and another, a rabbi and another rabbi." Plant and Rozenfeld plan to develop awareness among rabbis' wives, mikveh supervisors, women who advise brides-to-be: "We want them to know how to identify the phenomenon so they can come to the woman and say to her, you are not alone."