Talking about our dirty secret
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Talking about our dirty secret

Fair Lawn Jews discuss domestic violence

About ‘0 years ago, openly discussing the subject of domestic violence in the Jewish community was considered by most taboo. Mikvah ladies weren’t checking for bruises, rabbis were unschooled in how to respond to victims, teaching school children to recognize when they were being abused was unheard of in the day school system, the idea of dialing 911 was anathema. There was a lack of information in the Jewish community about where to go for help. The terms "domestic violence" and "Jewish community" were seldom uttered in the same sentence. Domestic violence was swept under the rug, Jewish women stayed in bad relationships longer than women from any other group, regardless of other factors, like economics and intellectual ability — even though violence occurred across the board, in 30 percent of families, even in very observant homes.

Some things have changed drastically in North Jersey in recent years, and the attitude toward domestic violence in the Jewish community is one of them — which is why a public educational panel and presentation about the issue will be held in Fair Lawn on March 1 at Temple Beth Sholom.

Change triggered by a confluence of events started about 10 years ago. In the "Goldstein" case, an ugly divorce case, an Orthodox father married off his 11-year-old daughter via proxy, with the assistance of a Hasidic rabbi in Brooklyn. The article about it in the New York Times inspired a discussion of domestic violence in the Jewish community bulletin boards on America Online, and the discussion spread to rabbis’ studies.

In Bergen County, a bright yellow and black Shalom Bayit Handbook, a compilation of all relevant materials on domestic violence — including phone numbers for local services — was hand-delivered to local rabbis. Discussions with women in leadership positions at various synagogues and organizations resulted in slow, but forward moving, actions.

Rabbi David Senter set up a women’s shelter for Orthodox women in Rockland County that also served the Bergen County community. And Esther East at the Passaic/Clifton Jewish Family Services became a pioneer in bringing the subject into the public arena.

The result was concrete action. Following the model set by Rabbi Boruch Taub in Toronto, local "mikveh ladies" were trained to check for bruises and report back to rabbis, so that families could be counseled. Shalom Task Force, an organization founded in New York, helped establish a warm line, open for people to call for help Sunday through Friday afternoons. A major problem under discussion at that time was that the phone service was closed when most violence occurred — on Shabbat and Jewish holidays. Issues of Shalom Bayit (literally, peace in the house) were, for the first time, being addressed from the pulpit.

Wallet-sized flyers containing information, phone numbers, and helpful guidelines for women were circulated via the Teaneck Nishei. Jewish Family Service began offering community education. Sarah Ducorsky at Jewish Women’s International provided vital materials.

And yet denial still existed and does still exist. When women posted notices about where to find help at their local mikvaot and in the women’s bathrooms at synagogues, the posters were ripped down.

Debate raged in certain circles about how to teach children to recognize when they were being abused. An educator in the ultra-Orthodox community, at that time, told this reporter: "We don’t want to put ideas in children’s heads."

But in Fair Lawn, the Jewish Community Council decided that it would discuss domestic violence on a continuing basis. Two years ago, Phyllis Flancbaum of Fair Lawn asked Rebitzen Shevi Yudin of Cong. Shomrei Torah how to bring "Flowers Aren’t Enough," a one-woman play about domestic violence, to the Jewish community. Yudin suggested she contact the Fair Lawn Jewish Community Council, and she did. The result was a very successful program.

The play was unique. Starring Naomi Ackerman, an American actress who made aliyah and now travels the world performing for different communities, it told the story of an upper-class woman trapped in a bad relationship. It re-enacts the cycle of domestic violence, in all its manifestations, from the small insults to the deepest cuts. Commissioned by the Jerusalem Ministry of Welfare for a conference on domestic violence, its performance was followed by a panel discussion with Debra Donnelly, Director of Bergen County Alternatives to Domestic Violence; Elaine K. Meyerson, executive director of Shelter Our Sisters; Elke Stein, coordinator of Project Sarah, an anti-domestic violence organization serving the Orthodox community in northern New Jersey; Janet Bauer of JFS of North Jersey; and Lt. Kinear of the Fair Lawn police department’s anti-domestic violence unit, Project Fair.

This year’s program features "When the Vow Breaks," a film provided by Jewish Women’s International in New York, and a lecture by noted psychologist Dr. David Pelcovitz.

Meir Flancbaum, who shares his mother’s personal interest in the subject, joined the committee as an advisor, recommending both the film and the speaker. A recent graduate of YU, he majored in psychology and is interested in the dynamics of relationships. He is researching ethical behavior in yeshiva students at YU and quality-of-life issues with lung cancer patients at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York City.

"As a future psychologist, committed to bettering humanity, I am also an Orthodox Jew," he said. "It’s my job to address issues that affect the larger community. It’s my mission to address those issues in the Orthodox community."

Pelcovitz, a clinical child psychologist, is the Gwendolyn and Joseph Straus Professor of Jewish Education at Yeshiva University’s Azrieli Graduate School of Jewish Education and Administration. Before joining the YU faculty in ‘004, he was a professor of clinical psychology at New York University School of Medicine and director of psychology at North Shore University Hospital-NYU School of Medicine.

The film presentation and panel discussion will take place at Temple Beth Shalom, 40-‘5 Fair Lawn Ave. in Fair Lawn, on March 1 at 8 p.m. All the synagogue sisterhoods in Fair Lawn and Elmwood Park are cosponsoring the program.

Shelter our Sisters’ Meyerson will introduce Dr. Pelcovitz. After the official presentation, representatives from the organizations that participated on last year’s panel will be on hand to answer questions from attendees and to distribute information. The program is free and open to the public.

"Although the program is sponsored by the Jewish community, it is open to everyone, as domestic violence doesn’t discriminate," said Annette Kranson, the evening’s chairman and a former president of the Fair Lawn Jewish Community Council. "It occurs in every ethnic group, age group, economic group. It happens, and it happens a lot."

Jeanette Friedman was the author of "Our Dirty Little Secret is No More" in the Shma journal of CLAL, the Center for Learning and Leadership. She opened the Agunah Girls bulletin board on America Online in response to the Goldstein case and was the compiler and distributor of both the Shalom Bayit handbook and the Nishei flyer.

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