TORONTO — After two of his congregants approached him over the past year about domestic violence in their homes, Rabbi Sean Gorman of Beth Tzedec Congregation decided he needed to learn more about the issue.
“I called Jewish Family & Child as well as Jewish Women International and said ‘I need to get smart,’” he said in an interview at his synagogue office.
He attended a conference in Baltimore, Md., read books about domestic violence in general and within the Jewish community in particular, and learned how rabbis can help deal with the issue, he said.
As well, he has spoken about domestic violence twice from the bimah.
“My angle is that it exists in our city, and that Beth Tzedec will be a safe place for women to turn.”
The statistics are frightening, he said. “In 2005, 1,050 men, women and children passed through the doors of Jewish Family & Child seeking help in abusive situations. That averages out to three times a day, every day.
“Women are victims of abuse at a rate 16 times that of men, and Jewish women live with abuse at the same rate – 15 to 20 per cent – as the national population. That means if there are 200 women [sitting in the Beth Tzedec sanctuary], approximately 30 suffer at the hands of their husbands.”
The issues that domestic violence present are beyond his training, he said, “but I can be a gatekeeper. My goal is to receive women, listen to them, refer them and then follow through. It is a very big deal for women to know that they can come here [and be heard.]”
Domestic violence manifests itself in many ways, he said, but it is definitely a control problem, not an anger problem.
“Abuse is defined as a means of control, and anger management is not remotely useful. What is useful is for men to learn that spouses and children are meant to be loved and nurtured,” Rabbi Gorman said.
“The husband didn’t go to work and hit his boss, so we know he can control his anger.”
Problems rarely begin with a black eye, he said.
“Abuse begins well before in things that on the surface look almost loving. A man may want his wife to call every hour so he can ‘hear her voice,’ but that is really a control issue in that she has to check in.
“It’s OK for him to keep an eye on the chequebook to make sure bills get paid, but it ceases to be OK if she gets an allowance and has no control over the account.”
There are many reasons why women stay in abusive relationships, Rabbi Gorman said.
“The psychological torture within these relationships often leaves the woman with such little self-worth that she doesn’t have the ability to leave.”
The bottom line, he said, is that she should not have to leave. “If a man robs a bank, we don’t tell the bank to move to a safer neighbourhood. We try to protect the bank from further incidents. Why in domestic violence do we put the responsibility on the victim to leave?”
When a woman realizes how bad a problem is, she may be presented with the choice of a warm home for her and her children, or being homeless, he said.
Rabbi Gorman said in his sermon that when rabbis talk about kosher kitchens but fail to talk about kosher marriages, “we have neglected our responsibilities to you. When communities fail to provide adequate support for shelters and for social workers, we tell these women they are on their own.
“When communities place the burden of maintaining shalom bayit on the women, the communities by extension also place on those women the blame.”
One of the rabbi’s roles in dealing with domestic violence is to have phone numbers handy, and to make sure there are flyers in washrooms, and information in bulletins and on synagogue websites, he said.
“And when women come in, we have to believe, believe, believe. Don’t say, ‘It can’t be him.’ Never say anything that undercuts what she says. She has taken the strength to say she needs help, and we must help her.”
Rabbis also need to talk about domestic violence, he said. “Every time we open our mouths about it, we give a woman a chance to open her mouth.”
Rabbi Gorman will speak on a panel at Beth Tzedec about domestic violence on March 26 at 8 p.m., after a performance of Flowers aren’t enough, a one-woman show, written and performed by Naomi Ackerman, that tells the story of a young woman from an upper-middle-class family who is in an abusive relationship.
The evening is sponsored by Beth Tzedec, Beth Tzedec Men’s Club and Sisterhood, Jewish Family & Child, Jewish Women International and United Synagogue Day School’s Bathurst campus.
In related news, a Toronto couple, Lewis and Charlotte Steinberg, have donated $100,000 through UJA Federation of Greater Toronto, to the women’s abuse program at Jewish Family & Child, to pay for the services of a Russian and Hebrew speaking social worker. Last year – this is the third year the Steinbergs have donated to the initiative – the program served nearly 100 Russian- and Hebrew-speaking women.