“I have been an observant Jew since I was a baby,” says Miriam,* “and, to be honest, I was afraid to go to the seder last year because of who might see me there, especially that the rabbi would see me there.” In the first moments of this conversation, it is clear that Miriam is not talking about the usual Passover seder.
What frightened Miriam, and the dozen or so other women gathered at this seder, was that it was intended for Jewish women who have experienced domestic violence. It is a difficult concept for the Jewish community to grasp that domestic violence, in the form of physical, emotional and/or sexual abuse, occurs in our community because there is a deep-seated belief that it just doesn’t happen to us. For the participants in this Passover seder, the brainchild of Alison Iser at East Side Domestic Violence Program (EDVP), the acknowledgment was all too real. But so were the connection, the healing and the powerful understanding that the women had persevered and survived — just as the Jews had during the exodus from Egypt.
Members from Jewish Family Service, East Side Domestic Violence Program, Temple B’nai Torah, Herzl-Ner Tamid Congregation and Youth Eastside Services have organized a second annual Passover seder for Jewish women who have experienced abuse by an intimate partner. Held in a confidential location, the seder is prior to the actual holiday. It will be led again this year by Rabbi Lisa Gelber and Ruz Gulko of the Herzl-Ner Tamid Conservative Congregation.
There has already been a change in this community in terms of support for the seder. According to Alison Iser, “This year we have seen a real growth in terms of the numbers of sponsors for the seder. I think this indicates a growing awareness in this community that domestic violence is a problem, and it demonstrates that our community is responsive to this problem and wants to do something about it.”
Co-sponsors this year are: The Kenneth & Marleen Alhadeff Charitable Foundation, Herzl-Ner Tamid Women’s League, Jewish Family Service, Rabbi Lisa Gelber, Rabbi David Rose, Paint the Town, the Seattle Chapter of Hadassah, Sephardic Bikur Holim Ladies Auxiliary, Temple B’nai Torah, Temple Beth Am and the Washington State Coalition Against Domestic Violence Jewish Network. Additional supporters of the seder include: Congregation Eitz Or, National Council for Jewish Women, Northwest Network of Bisexual, Trans, and Lesbian Survivors of Abuse, and Temple De Hirsch Sinai’s Sisterhood.
The growth in recognition and acknowledgment in the Jewish community is due, in part, to JFS Project DVORA — Domestic Violence Outreach, Response and Advocacy, led by Program Coordinator Michelle Lifton, and launched in 1999 with a generous grant from the Women’s Endowment Fund of the Jewish Federation of Greater Seattle.
“The seder,” says Lifton, “is a bringing together of the domestic violence movement, the Jewish community, and survivors of partner abuse. When the Jewish community acknowledges that domestic violence exists, we send a clear message to those in our community who have experienced partner violence that, not only do we acknowledge the reality of their experiences, but we, the Jewish community, can be a source of safety, strength and healing.”
It is with this kind of support from the community that many courageous domestic violence survivors have been able to turn their lives around. The themes of the seder help them to express the struggle and journey they are on to break away from the isolation and bondage of domestic abuse and achieve their freedom.
On the theme of sacrifice, for example, one woman wrote in a creative writing activity prior to the seder: “I was dying. All that was left of me was a tiny apple seed on the top of my head that felt alive. I knew I had to escape in order to survive. One day my daughter and I left to spend one night at a friend’s house. We never went back. We had the clothes on our back and my daughter’s blankie. We gave up our home and possessions. We lost many friends who my husband contacted before I did and he told them lies to get them to reject me. Initially we lost nearly our entire support system. It forced me to find new support and to reach out to my community for help. Our community rose up around us, helped us and supported us.”
Misconceptions about domestic violence in the Jewish community have kept women fearful that no one would ever believe they could be telling the truth about their abusive partners. One of the biggest barriers is the importance of creating shalom bayit, a peaceful home. This is so ingrained in Jewish life that many women feel shame and failure to admit it doesn’t exist for them. Compounding the problem is the fact that, in many instances and because this is a small community, abusers may be prominent, educated men viewed with respect by people on the outside of the relationship. It is a recurring theme among the women who attend the seder that they were sure no one would believe them.
One of the defining characteristics of the Jewish Family Service program is advocacy-based counseling in which the primary focus is on safety planning and the empowerment of the survivor by reinforcing autonomy and self-determination. Advocates help people identify their obstacles to safety, clarify the issues, learn safety skills and increase strategies in coping and self-care.
According to the Washington State Coalition Against Domestic Violence and other like organizations, in Washington state, in the mid-1990s, nearly 7,000 women and children were sheltered by 45 battered women’s programs. Many programs turn away two to five times the number they shelter because they don’t have enough space.
Domestic violence occurs in the Jewish population with the same frequency as in the population at large. Studies estimate that 15–20 percent of Jewish women are abused.
For Miriam and the others, the relationship to Passover and the retelling of the ancient story in their terms was very clear. It spoke to the participants of the strength it took to leave a bad situation and lead a family out of such a desolate place into something better. ” A room full of women is very powerful,” Miriam said. “And a room full of battered women was more strength and gusto than I have ever experienced.”
*Name changed for safety
Holly M. Redell works for Jewish Family Service in the marketing/development department.