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jewish community confronts violence & abuse

Report by Sharon Shenhav, Chair, Committee on the Status of Women in Jewish Law.

Over 600 lawyers, judges, psychologists, social workers, rabbis, politicians, educators and victims participated in this landmark three day international conference in Israel. The conference was geared toward the Orthodox community and the Chief Rabbi of Israel, Rabbi David Lau spoke at the opening plenary session of the need to address violence and abuse against women and children. While the majority of the participants were women, remarkably 30% of the participants were men!

Participants from South Africa, Australia, Canada, the US and Israel spoke at 65 sessions about the new willingness to deal with the painful issues of violence and abuse in the Jewish community, especially in the Orthodox community. It wasn't so long ago that the Jewish community refused to admit that violence against women was a problem.

There was a powerful myth that Jewish men did not abuse their wives and that Jewish children were never victims of sexual and/ or physical abuse in their schools and homes. Even after the wider Jewish community began to deal with the issue of domestic violence, the Orthodox community continued to claim that "it doesn't happen in our community". As the organizer of the conference, Debbie Gross, Director of the Crisis Center for Religious Women, stated: "Such a conference could not have taken place ten, or even five years ago".

Representing ICJW, I spoke about get refusal as a form of abuse in the Jewish community.
There were several sessions on the problem of agunot and the emotional abuse suffered by women denied the right to remarry and form a family. Rabbis, lawyers, judges and agunot spoke about the need to free agunot and I had an opportunity to have lunch with one of the dayanim on the newly formed international Bet Din in New York. They are keeping a low profile at this stage as they use creative solutions to freeing agunot and are mustering support from leading Orthodox rabbis worldwide. Pre-nuptial agreements were discussed as well as the development of the "Collaborative Divorce" which uses a team approach to divorce rather than an adversarial approach.

Many of the sessions dealt with the problem of pedophiles and the need to protect children in schools, homes and synagogues. Mandatory reporting to the police as well as the construction of "safe-school" policies for religious schools and dormitories were discussed. The need for training safety monitors in schools and workplaces were proposed as well as the setting up of workshops for parents, teachers, rabbis and others. Prevention workshops for pre-school and school age children along with books and films to be used by parents and teachers in educating their children to beware of sexual predators were presented.

A number of sessions dealt with the role of the rabbis in preventing abuse as well as supporting victims and relating to the criminal justice system. The large number of therapists attending the conference conducted sessions on treatment modes. Lawyers, judges and dayanim presented sessions on the role of the legal system and the need for sensitivity in dealing with victims of abuse as well as coordinating with therapists. 

One session I attended was a workshop on "Violence Prevention and Resolution through Empowerment Self Defence". I found this workshop to be most enlightening as we learned how to react effectively to threats of violence. The group presenting the workshop had screened a film showing courses of self-defence being taught to all ages, including girls in pre-school, grade school, high school, universities as well as adult women and elderly women in nursing homes. 

Several decades ago, after being threatened by some angry husbands whose wives I represented in divorce cases, I decided to take a self-defence course and found that it enabled me to feel in control of potentially abusive situations rather than panicking. I heartily recommend that all of our ICJW affiliates consider offering these self-defence courses to girls and women in their communities!

Probably the most interesting session was given by a Canadian Neuro-Psychologist, Dr. James Cantor. He described his research in brain mapping based on MRI results. This is a fairly new field, but early results show that pedophiles have a different brain image and that this difference may exist from birth. According to Dr. Cantor, the MRI can detect pedophiles as a group, but not yet as individuals. He emphasized that due to undeveloped parts of brain tissue, pedophiles have a sexual instinct toward children rather than a nurturing instinct and there is no treatment for this problem to date. He also distinguished between pedophiles and sex offenders, making it clear that not all pedophiles will attack children. The challenge for the community is to protect children by educating them to beware of potential sex offenders. Another session dealt with whether infants "remember" trauma and again, MRI tests showed differences in brain mapping of infants and children who had observed traumatic events or been the victims of abuse. There is no doubt that ongoing research in the field of brain mapping will produce more results and that this tool will be used by lawyers, judges and therapists in the future.

On a personal level, this international conference enabled me to renew contact with colleagues from the US, Australia, South Africa and Canada. Several women reminded me that I had spoken to their organizations on behalf of ICJW's work on get refusal during my visits to their communities. An interesting outcome of the conference was the request that each of the 65 sessions develop a plan of action and/or a recommendation. When these are compiled and published I will forward them to our ICJW affiliates.