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Rabbi's Blog

rabbi 05 smallsf badge lgRabbi Joel Landau  ( has been the Rabbi of Adath Israel since May 2013. He was ordained by the Chief Rabbinate in Jerusalem and has served previously as a congregational Rabbi in Charleston, South Carolina and Irvine, California. A full biography of Rabbi Landau is available here.

 In honor of Shalom Bayit Awareness Shabbat this week, I invite you to read the following article:

This week’s parasha, speaks of the Israelites crossing the Red Sea: their treacherous path to freedom; the miracle that allowed them to reach safety; a moment of rejoicing in their escape from slavery. It is a story of liberation, but one wrought with many obstacles. You might think that what I’m going to say is a bit of a stretch, but this parasha might be able to help us to better understand the experiences of those who are impacted by domestic violence.   

Let us think for a moment about slavery. What does it mean to live your life at someone else’s mercy? To never be good enough, to always be subjugated, to live in fear. That is the reality for 1 in 4 Jewish women who experience domestic violence in their lifetime. Not unlike slavery, the penalty for escaping an abusive relationship can be severe punishment or death. The penalty for staying is loss of self.  

How did the enslaved Israelites come to the decision to flee? As Jews, what do we know from our own history about slavery and oppression? We know that power and control over another person is wrong. We also know that the road to freedom is not an easy path, but that it is one we undertake together. Was it so easy for the Israelites to decide to leave Egypt? No. God had to intervene with ten plagues before the Israelites decided to leave.  It is not so easy to leave when you have nowhere to go. And what lay before the Israelites? Many unknowns. Many perils. When they fled, the Egyptians followed; Pharaoh would not relinquish control. They narrowly escaped this stalking only because the waters of the Red Sea closed behind them. And when the Israelites reached the other side, their problems were just beginning: before them lay a desert with no food, no water, no home. And so began 40 years of wandering before they could reach the Promised Land.

It is not easy for a women in an abusive relationship to leave when she has nowhere to go. It is not so easy to choose between a horrible yet familiar life enslaved, and the great unknown that may bring even more peril. No one runs joyfully into the arms of hunger and homelessness.  Women are actually more likely to be killed AFTER they leave an abusive relationship than while they are still with their partner. Once she leaves the risks increase greatly. Will she be stalked? Will she find food, shelter? Can she support herself? Will she be able to survive the loneliness, the single parenthood, the legal battles, the criminal injustice system? I ask myself:  if faced with those decisions, what would I do? From our own history as a people, we know that it is not easy to run from our oppressor. But every so often, one brave woman finds the courage to flee against all odds. Despite the messages that say she is a horrible person for breaking up the family, she finds the inner strength to believe she deserves better. She knows somewhere deep inside of herself that she is worthy of respect and safety. Many familial, financial, religious, and societal currents move against her.  But still she runs. Perhaps with only the clothes on her back and bus fare in her purse, she goes. Knowing that if she is caught, retributions will be far greater, more violent than before, still she goes, praying to save her life. And like the Jews crossing the Red Sea, she, too, will be followed.

So, she arrives in a temporary safe haven.  In today’s story let us say this land is a shelter for abused women and their children. The woman arrives, shaken and scared, perhaps with children in tow.  She has no money, few possessions, no food. But she has herself. For now, she has escaped with her life. Women surround her with offerings of food, love, support, and words of comfort.  They tell her that she will be safe here. No one will find her here. Here she will not be judged; here there is no violence.  

Like Miriam who led the women and children in song and dance, she rejoices in this momentary breath of freedom. She feels her feet on this new free earth.  She can barely remember what it feels like to make her own decisions. She is not sure that she can survive on her own. But for now, her song is joyful, for she has tasted liberation.

Exactly how solid was our freedom when we left Egypt?  Did we not then wander for years without a home? The children of Israel complained of hunger and wanted to go back to Egypt, where even if they were enslaved, at least they had food. Is that not a logical response to a human problem? Yet always we chastise women who return to their abusers. We should not be so quick to judge another person’s choices until we have stood in their shoes. Would I have dragged myself and my children through the desert at the risk of illness, injury, starvation, even death, to run from Pharaoh?  Would I personally have taken that risk? I don’t know.

What I do know is that the difficulty of the journey continues after we leave, after we breathe a sigh of relief and take inventory of what lies before us. The woman of our story has found temporary refuge.  But after a few days she discovers her former partner has been following her. Like Pharaoh, batterers still think they own you: you are property. Battles ensue: Her abuser tries to kidnap the children from school.  She goes to court fighting for custody; that struggle will last for years. She will be called crazy and unfit. The courts will punish her for not providing a stable home. The judge will say that a man who beats his wife can still be a good father to his children. He is seen as a respectful businessman, a real macher in the community.  He is on the board of the day school, the synagogue, or the Federation. He is the soccer coach, the music teacher, the song leader. He would never do a thing like this. She must be a crazy liar. The courts, the counselors, the police, the neighbors believe him.

At night she dreams people are following her, attacking her.  By day she feels shadows behind her. She still feels unsafe and remembers his threats. He said he will find her and kill her, no matter how far she travels.  The courts tell her she must stay in the area so that he can see the children.

She is out of his home but is she out of his grasp?  Has she reached the Promised Land yet?  

And what of the psychic aftermath? Bruises from physical abuse heal quickly, most of the time. Wounds of spirit take a long time to heal. How long will she live with the memories, the emotional scars, the constant fear in her gut?

How long must women wander, homeless in an urban desert?  How long will abused women be followed by shadows that bear weapons and roses in the same frightening arms?  How many women will be homeless this year because they had to flee for their lives or their sanity? When we cook meals for the homeless or include homelessness in our Tzedakah or go to the polls to vote on issues relating to the “homelessness problem” we consider that fifty percent of the women and children experiencing homeless in the U.S. are homeless as a result of intimate partner violence? 

While somebody of any gender can be a victim of domestic violence. The vast majority of those affected are women. Every fifteen seconds a woman is battered in this country. How many thousands of women were battered since this morning? We cannot be silent any longer in regard to the single greatest cause of injury to women in this country.  

That is why I am on an inter-denominational Rabbinic Advisory Council for Shalom Bayit, a Bay Area organization which aims to end domestic violence in the Jewish community. This Shabbat rabbis from all over the Bay Area, like me, are joining Shalom Bayit to raise awareness about this issue. 

Shalom Bayit receives calls from about 100 women each year who are in abusive relationships. These women are from every city of the Bay Area, including right here. They are professional women, poor women, highly educated women, young women, older women; moms and those without kids, well-known donors in the community. They come from every congregation, every denomination, all sexual orientations, all walks of Jewish life. Shalom Bayit offers free confidential phone and in-person support, as well as safety planning and support groups.  

We are often reminded of the Jewish teaching, “You shall not oppress the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” As Jews we are especially commanded not to oppress others, as well as to help the oppressed, because we remember our own slavery. We are all interconnected, interdependent. Judaism teaches us that none of us is free until we are all free. Sure, we each want to separate ourselves out and say, “that could never happen to me...if my partner hit me I would just leave...I would never put up with only happens to low-income families or alcoholics or the unemployed or...Jews just don’t do that.” We say these things, because it is too frightening to think that we are not immune; that at least one-fourth of the women in this room will experience, or have already experienced, abuse from a partner. At such a magnitude we cannot name this violence an “interpersonal issue,” a “family matter.” It is a societal and communal issue that requires a societal and communal response.

So how can we respond as a community?  When a survivor of domestic violence tells her story, we can listen and believe her; validate and support her. We can ask, what do you need? How can I help you?  We can offer Shalom Bayit as a resource. If she chooses to leave, we can act as guides, like Moses, to part the waters and aid her escape. When she crosses that dangerous threshold to freedom, we can be like Miriam, who led the women in singing and dancing when they reached dry land.  We can rejoice and celebrate her escape and tell her how brave she is. We know that the path to freedom is risky; that many more obstacles lie ahead. We can help ease the way from slavery into a new life of freedom. We can supply sustenance, like manna from heaven, that comes in different forms depending on the individual’s needs. We can offer childcare, transportation, emotional support. We can respect her choices.

Led by Moses, the Israelites demonstrated an incredible faith in their belief in the universe as a benevolent place that would somehow take care of them.  Survivors of domestic violence have to make a similar leap of faith, because so far in their life the universe has not been kind to them at all. We can call upon our faith as a creative, spiritual strength to empower ourselves individually and collectively, and to carry us through crisis. 

There is a quiet exodus happening all around us, every day.  Which role will each of us play? What is our Jewish obligation to address abuse? It is a mitzvah to break the chains that bind women to abusive partners. It is a mitzvah to say NO to abuse and oppression; to clear a path through the waters of terror; to create a sukkah in the desert to protect women until they reach a promised land. 

If you or someone you know is not safe at home, please seek the support you need. You are not alone. And you are not to blame for harm that has been done to you. You can speak with me or you can call Shalom Bayit’s free confidential Helpline. The Helpline is also available to concerned friends and family who are trying to support someone in their life. 

Each of us can lend a hand in helping women find empowerment and freedom. We can be there to dance and sing like Miriam to honor the moments when one person feels less alone, one person finds happiness, and when one life is saved. From that we draw strength and renewal for the work that is still to be done.