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Abuse, Awareness, and Alleviation

10/27/2023 10:31:08 AM


Shabbat Shalom. This week’s Torah portion is Parashat Lech Lecha, the beginning of our people’s covenant with God, when Abraham (still Abram) first heeds God’s call. It also tells us of Sarai’s difficulty in getting pregnant, and her “giving” her maidservant Hagar to Abram as a surrogate. However, once Hagar gives birth, Sarai is jealous and treats her poorly, so Hagar runs away. She is told by a messenger from God to “shuvi v’hitani” - “go back and submit”. 

Tonight, we are honoring Purple Shabbat, the final Friday in October, which is Domestic Abuse Awareness Month. According to JCADA, the Jewish Coalition Against Domestic Abuse, survivors of intimate partner violence leave and return to their abusive partner on average 7 times before leaving for good. It is common that for the one in four (1 in 4) women and one in seven (1 in 7 men) that are victims of intimate partner violence, they will hear phrases similar to that of Hagar, encouraging them to return, to try harder, to work it out. However, survivors deserve to be safe, respected, and supported. This is one of the reasons why Purple Shabbat exists: to raise awareness and to give us the strength to address abuse within Jewish communities. Supporting survivors with a holistic approach means meeting a survivor where they are at, and helping them to “lech lecha” “go forth” in their journey to safety. 

We like to think that such things don’t happen in Jewish communities, but of course they do. They happen in every community. I’ve spoken on this topic before, and will keep doing so until intimate partner violence is eradicated. We all know Jewish survivors of abuse, even if we do not know who they are, and we likely know Jewish abusers, even though we are even less likely to know who they are unless we are on the receiving end of their violence. This is why JCADA exists, to offer resources, and why the Central Conferance of American Rabbis has recently reviewed and reissued an ethics code for all Reform Jews to be aware of. That ethics code pertains to rabbis who abuse their power, whether senior rabbis misusing their power over associate, assistant, or student rabbis, or any rabbi misusing their social dynamic over a congregant. The CCAR realized in recent years, following the #MeToo movement (also largely directed at a Jewish man who abused his power as a major Hollywood producer), that they did not have the adequate steps set up for younger clergy, staff, or congregants to seek justice against an abusive rabbi. 

After the new CCAR ethics code was written and voted upon for the rabbinic union, staff members began reaching out to Reform synagogues around the country to encourage each of us to write our own ethics code. This request came to Ner Shalom the same week I attended a JCADA webinar in which the question was raised: “How do clergy or synagogue leadership respond if there are accusations of abuse within the membership?” To address both concerns, we asked two Ner Shalom members who are specialists in ethics and the law to write up our ethics code. It has not yet been formally voted upon and enacted here at Ner Shalom, and thankfully we have not had any reason to need to speed up the process. However, now seems as good a time as any to let you know that Ner Shalom leadership is aware that all our members are human, and subject to human flaws, and we will take any concerns about safety against abuse very seriously. 

If anyone has a concern about abuse within the congregation, or from a fellow member, they may lodge a complaint with the rabbi or with the president of the synagogue, and hopefully eventually we will also have an ethics committee chairperson who may receive the complaint. Obviously, if the concern is about the rabbi abusing power, go to the president or ethics chair. Similarly, if we were to appoint an ethics committee chairperson who, unbeknownst to us, had committed some abuse against another member, be sure to go to the rabbi or president. Once the complaint has been received, an ad hoc committee will be formed to investigate the abuse and/or the synagogue’s official responsibility to address it. Our hope will be to focus on teshuvah and reconciliation, but our topmost priority is the safety - physical and emotional - of the survivor of violence and abuse. 

To any and all survivors out there, known and unknown, we are here for you. Ner Shalom should always be a safe place for people to come and find spiritual peace, away from the dangers of intimate partner violence, parental or elder abuse, where all are treated with dignity and equity. May this Purple Shabbat be one of calm and safety, and may we soon see a day where Domestic Violence Awareness Month is no longer needed. Amen and Shabbat Shalom. 

Tue, July 23 2024 17 Tammuz 5784