“When I left my husband so my kids and I could survive, the community left me.”
The above quote is from Mindi, describing how her Ultra-Orthodox community rejected her when she left her abusive husband.
How can friends, advocates and communities help Ultra-Orthodox Jewish women who are being abused by their husbands? First, a little background. Jews in the U.S. and around the world are diverse in many ways. A small but highly visible sliver of the Jewish community is made up of Hasidic Jews, who form part of the broader Ultra-Orthodox community*. Hasidic people (called Hasidim, from the Hebrew), tend to dress distinctively; men typically wear dark coats and hats, and married women wear high-neck dresses and cover their hair with wigs or scarves. They constitute less than 6% of U.S. Jews. However, their absolute numbers and percentage of the Jewish population is growing because of their large families.
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Hasidic communities are guided by a singular leader whom they view as their liaison to God. Most Hasidim live in communities in Jerusalem, Israel or in the greater New York City area, although there are small communities in other places. Hasidim often educate their children in private schools called Yeshivas, where they typically teach in Yiddish and Hebrew. Boys’ education focuses on religious texts, and they often reach adulthood with severely limited English and little knowledge of secular subjects, such as science. Girls often have a bit more secular education. Both sexes often face pressures not to pursue an education beyond high school. The language barrier and lack of familiarity with the world outside their communities often leave adult Hasidim unable to find employment or function easily beyond their religious community. Hasidic rabbis try to shield children and adults from modern secular communication through banning smart phones, Internet access and non-religious books.
Hasidic communities tend to be tight-knit and gender-segregated, relying on the community for many of their needs, while often dipping into public subsidies for housing and wage support. Many Hasidic communities have robust organizations that serve as safety nets for people with low incomes, illness or disabilities. Living separate and disconnected from the secular world can isolate victims of abuse and lead to a lack of protection.
Gender Relations in Hasidic Couples
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Hasidic boys and girls usually marry young, often as young as the law allows. (In fact, in New Jersey, the Hasidic community was the primary force opposed to raising the legal age of marriage to 18). Hasidic parents typically arrange their children’s marriages and young people usually have little say in the choice of their future spouses, with whom they spend a limited amount of time, generally just a few hours, before they marry.
Once married, in most Hasidic couples, the wives are responsible for all household duties such as cooking, cleaning and childcare, and often also work for wages in the community, at least until they have children Husbands devote their lives to studying the Torah and also earning a living, often within the community.
Many Hasidic men value their wives and treat them well, making their lives easier by providing love and practical support. However, some Hasidic men have difficulty relating to women and vice versa. Men may have had little contact with girls or women other than their mothers while growing up. The lucky ones have had models of loving relationships in their homes. The less lucky ones enter marriage unprepared to be caring partners. Hasidim typically have no sexuality education and no training in consent or sexual relationships, which can lead to regular coercive sexual acts in marriage, even "unintentional rape."
Highly observant Jews obey 613 laws regarding all aspects of their lives. Many Hasidic men believe it is their role to force, cajole and corral their family members into adherence. The culture is also highly patriarchal, with men’s opinions and goals seen as more valuable than those of women. While many families expect female subservience, this is different from the extreme domination of coercive control. That is, while some Hasidic men try to justify their coercive control and even physical violence with cultural explanations, neither their religion nor their culture justify this kind of domination of their wives.
When Hasidic Husbands Abuse their Wives
What happens when a Hasidic husband abuses his wife? Her family and friends are apt to tell her not to complain or make trouble in order to preserve the marriage. The woman may turn to rabbis and their wives for guidance. Hasidic rabbis aim to keep families together and preserve the community, so they often urge abused women to be patient. They may counsel husbands to stop engaging in physical violence because it is not permissible in Judaism. However, most rabbis do not understand other forms of abuse such as coercive control, and economic or sexual abuse in marriage.
Many abused Hasidic women initially do everything in their power to make their marriages work. Some tolerate the abuse in silence throughout their lives, knowing they would be blamed if word gets out.
When Hasidic Women Separate from their Abusers
If abuse victims ultimately decide to end their marriage, they know they risk being shunned, shamed, stigmatized and considered selfish. Any “stain” on the family, such as divorce, makes the children less valuable as future marriage partners. (A Hasidic man who ends his marriage faces similar pressures). Some divorcing Hasidic survivors of domestic abuse try to stay in the community as divorcees, but they are usually pushed out by rabbis and friends who shun divorce.
The community may harshly judge women fleeing to safety, rather than their abusive husbands. A father sometimes elicits community support to help him fight for child custody by slandering his children’s mother. Some fathers have raised hundreds of thousands of dollars to pay for their attorneys by using GoFundMe Campaigns in Yiddish, at times including false allegations that a mother was abusive or was converting their children to other religions. Hasidim see taking children out of the community as risking their souls. Custody disputes can be extraordinarily complicated for Hasidic abuse victims, involving both religious and secular courts.
Helping Hasidic Survivors Escape Abuse
Keep the following issues in mind if you are trying to help a Hasidic domestic violence survivor who is freeing herself from an abusive partner:
Community: Because Hasidic women who leave an abusive partner may be shunned by their former communities and even their families, they need new formal and informal supports. Women’s support groups, collective housing for women and their children, gatherings for religious holidays, collective workplaces and organizations specifically dedicated to people leaving Hasidic communities (e.g. Footsteps) can all help a person build a new sense of belonging.
Dietary and Sabbath Needs: Observant Jewish women who are fleeing abuse may have special dietary restrictions and may need to engage in certain activities on their Sabbath and holidays while avoiding others. These religious mandates should be honored wherever they are seeking shelter. Domestic violence shelters in Toronto and Rockland County, NY, have kosher kitchens available.
Interpersonal Dynamics: People who have grown up in small ethnic communities, such as Hasidim, may have initial difficulty interacting with people from other groups. They may feel insecure and unsure of social norms. Even those who have spent their entire lives in the U.S. may not speak English well, and may need the kind of support and help with daily life that one would offer to refugees from a far-off land. They may not know how to use smart phones, the Internet, or public transportation.
Lack of Financial Resources: When fleeing an abusive partner, Hasidic women are often not only financially impoverished themselves, they are also not apt to know anyone who is willing to share resources with them. In fact, members of their former communities may try to deprive them of housing and employment.
Fear of Losing Custody of Children or Child Abduction: Hasidic women will be terrified of losing their children to their vengeful ex-husbands and communities. Try to connect them with attorneys and organizations that understand these dynamics in Hasidic communities including:
- Footsteps provides a list of resources for people leaving Hasidic communities.
- In Israel, Bat Melech provides resources on domestic violence for Jewish women.
- The Shalom task force is an educational organization dedicated to providing support and education to Orthodox couples, including those living with domestic violence.
- In the U.S., most Hasidic women will seek services from their local domestic violence agency.
*Please note, the terms Hasidic and Haredi and Ultra-Orthodox are not exactly the same. Please see here for a full explanation.
Editor's Note: Lisa Aronson Fontes, PhD, is a senior lecturer at the University of Massachusetts and author of Invisible Chains: Overcoming Coercive Control in Your Intimate Relationship.
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