TORONTO — A Canadian Jewish organization initiated a Passover-timed billboard campaign to raise awareness about domestic violence, with the theme “There is a Jewish woman you know being abused.”
Three 10-by-20-foot billboards, carrying that message beside an image of a distressed woman with a black eye, were strategically placed along Bathurst Street, the main thoroughfare of Toronto’s Jewish community.
In addition, retail shops in the community were asked to put poster-size versions in their windows to show their commitment to the cause. And synagogues were urged to give the posters visibility on their bulletin boards and Web sites.
“We’ve gotten an excellent response,” said Penny Krowitz, national executive director of Jewish Women International of Canada. The organization’s 3,000 members have made combating domestic violence their priority since the 1980s.
“The time has come for the Jewish community to take responsibility and not sweep this problem under the carpet,” Krowitz said. The campaign, she added, was intended to debunk “the stereotype that exists in the Jewish community that Jewish men are all wonderful husbands.”
Krowitz said that her organization was hoping to commission a survey to identify the level of abuse among Jewish couples in Toronto in order to better identify community needs surrounding the issue.
Even without such a study, Krowitz is convinced that “the prevalence of abuse in this community is equal to what exists in the broader [non-Jewish] one.”
Krowitz cited a 1993 survey conducted by Canada’s official statistics agency, which found that one in four Canadian women was a victim of assault by a spouse or partner. (A more recent Statistics Canada study reported that 7% of women in a current or previous marital relationship encountered spousal violence during the five years up to and including 2004.)
The caseloads of Jewish social service agencies show that abused Jewish women stay in a relationship “five to seven times longer” than women in other communities, Krowitz said.
“This speaks to the whole cultural taboo around the issue,” she said. “It speaks to the incredible shanda [shame] that a Jewish woman feels if she finds herself in this situation.”
A battered Jewish woman often separates from her spouse temporarily and then returns. “She wants to make her marriage work,” Krowitz said. “Very often the husband will say he’s sorry, ‘please come back.’ Jewish women go back many more times than non-Jewish women. It’s part of our culture of shalom bayit [peace in the home].”
Canada lags a decade behind the United States in talking openly about the problem, Rabbi Tina Grimberg said. The religious leader of Darchei Noam Congregation, Toronto’s Reconstructionist synagogue, Grimberg is an experienced marital therapist. “It’s hidden,” she said. “Whom can you tell that your spouse slapped you last night? Whom are you going to say this to and then ask them to come over for Shabbos?”
Grimberg said that the key to combating the problem is raising awareness among abused women. “Because,” she said, “usually awareness comes with resources: ‘Here’s a phone number. Call these people who really care. There’s a shelter for you.’”
Jewish Women International of Canada operates shelters, in partnership with Jewish Family & Child Service, in Toronto, Montreal, Winnipeg and Vancouver. The Toronto shelter, which has been operating for 17 years, accepts four families at a time, each staying for as long as three to four months. The women’s organization provides a trained team of 16 volunteers who accompany the abused women to lawyers’ and doctors’ appointments, baby-sit their children, and make sure the shelter is clean and stocked with food.
Helen Davis, who chairs the volunteers’ group, estimates that 40% of the women who come to the shelter are Orthodox. “A lot of the [Orthodox] couples marry young, and a lot are arranged marriages,” she said. “Sometimes they don’t know each other that well before they get married. Some of the boys have been sitting in the yeshiva and don’t know how to behave with women.”
What all the abuse cases have in common, Davis said, “is the control that the husband wants to have over the wife — mentally, physically, financially.
“They try to keep her away from her family and friends. If the abusive husbands go for counseling, a lot of them will say, ‘I saw that in my [parents’] home; that’s the way I think life should be in a marriage, and I am doing the same thing.’”