The COVID-19 crisis has not only stolen hundreds of thousands of American lives, it has revealed grievous fault lines across and within communities—sometimes running right through our homes. Representing the majority of domestic violence survivors in the United States, women are suffering a shadow crisis that reflects a longstanding reality. A mantra of the past year that resonated for many people — “safer at home” — was simply not true for those forced to shelter with an abuser. 

The risk of domestic abuse has risen sharply in the last year, but it has always been a dangerous presence, leaving survivors often unsupported to recover, or not, on their own. Direct services have had to recalibrate quickly in order to offer hybrid models that rely on telehealth technologies, and service providers have needed to grapple with confidentiality challenges to such adaptive systems.

The pandemic hasn’t created a new problem—it’s badly exacerbated an old one. 

The community of which I’m a member, the American-Jewish community, is no exception; indeed, new research my organization, Jewish Women International, conducted has found just how much work lies before us. 

The multi-pronged study, “Raising Awareness and Understanding of Domestic Violence in the Jewish Community: A National Needs Assessment,” looks at domestic abuse through deep inquiry of survivors, service professionals, legal experts, and those who are often survivors’ first point of support: clergy. The results reveal significant unmet survivor and service provider needs—and are intended to help Jewish communities identify clear paths to improvement by prioritizing new funding, collaborations, and initiatives.

In addressing domestic abuse, Americans have relied for too long on systems that weren’t developed with survivors in mind. Rather than consider the particular set of problems survivors face, we’ve been shoehorning them into the inadequate solutions provided by child welfare, government benefits, and the civil and criminal justice systems, all of which more often re-victimize survivors than help. As the domestic abuse treatment and prevention field increasingly prioritizes survivor-centered and community-based responses, those to whom survivors turn first must do the same, rethinking how survivors’ needs can be met. The Jewish communal response to domestic violence must evolve to be more supportive of those who have experienced abuse and the programs that serve them, and work to systemically address the issues that survivors particularly face within our own community.

When we consider survivors’ legal needs, for instance, we must bear in mind that many are also victims of financial abuse, their access to funds controlled or cut off by their abuser, including or especially their own paychecks. It’s not enough, then, to refer them to lawyers or to provide pro bono legal assistance for short term legal needs—we must also create and provide access to long-term legal support provided by trauma-informed lawyers. Further, our study elucidated the importance of culturally specific approaches. We need to make affordable housing available within Jewish communities. We need pathways for survivors to emerge from financial abuse and build long-term economic security. We need clergy, who are often the first professionals turned to for support, to have received trauma-informed, survivor-centered training to address, advocate and raise awareness in their congregations. 

The survivors with whom JWI spoke raised all these issues and more. What happens, for instance, when the abuser is a powerful figure? “He was a real estate developer, I mean, mega-wealthy guy,” one woman reported, “and the community basically shunned me…. That was incredibly hurtful…. I mean, he was physically, sexually, emotionally and psychologically abusive to me.” 

At their most vulnerable, when most in need of connection and community, women are made to feel shunned and ashamed of experiencing domestic violence — excluded by friends, family and institutions. We heard about this in different forms — the victim who no longer was invited to Shabbat meals, or whose children no longer had play dates, or who was blamed for somehow causing the abuse. 

“It’s hard enough to lose your marriage, but to lose your world too is devastating,” noted one survey respondent. And yet we were heartened to also hear, “Within the Jewish community, I was able to find the help I needed, and give my kids a sense of normalcy in an abnormal situation.” So, the question we’re left with is: How do we make inclusion and support by our communal institutions the norm rather than the exception?

We begin by listening to survivors, following their lead as we fortify systems of support. It means caring for and strengthening the resiliency of their children. Sharing what we learn and what we do and how we do it, as we work together to create a world free of violence. 

Deborah Rosenbloom, JD/MPA, is JWI’s chief program officer and lead author of Raising Awareness and Understanding of Domestic Violence in the Jewish Community: A National Needs Assessment.