‘While the scourge of domestic violence is found within all communities, ultra-Orthodox Jewish women face additional and unique challenges. Understanding how someone’s culture heavily informs the choices they make, enables us to better serve domestic violence survivors and also eliminates barriers.’ 

Adi Talwar

Family court in lower Manhattan.

The COVID-19 pandemic has fostered an increase in domestic violence world-wide. It has also created an agonizing dilemma for the victims in fear of their safety from both their abuser and COVID-19.  

While the scourge of domestic violence is found within all communities, ultra-Orthodox Jewish women face additional barriers and unique challenges when they are victims of domestic violence. Due to the pandemic, getting help is now even more difficult for these survivors. If she chooses to leave her home, where can she find shelter while continuing to keep Kosher and maintain her religious observance in this time of COVID? Can she keep her location confidential and continue to send her children to their Yeshiva or Jewish day school if in session? 

The wife’s responsibility for Shalom Bayit or “peace in the home” can lengthen the time before she takes action against her abusive spouse. Similarly, the notion of mesirah (not turning another Jew in to secular authorities) and the fear of the shanda (shame) that can affect a family’s standing are used to dissuade survivors from calling police or obtaining an Order of Protection.

As a Jewish woman and volunteer attorney for survivors at New York Legal Assistance Group (NYLAG), I have come to learn how critical it is for victims within the ultra-Orthodox Jewish communities to be served by culturally sensitive advocates. Otherwise, community members may feel unheard, misunderstood, and less likely to obtain services, keeping them trapped in violence or worse. In addition to more commonly known forms of abuse (physical, emotional and financial), the abusive husband within this community may accuse his wife of not following religious laws or force her non-observance. The significance of this form of abuse requires a knowledgeable attorney who can educate the court.

The abusive spouse may use the pandemic to further isolate a survivor from sources of support. We have seen a downturn in ultra-Orthodox survivors seeking legal services which we equate with increased isolation with the abuser at home. Acutely aware of the barriers survivors face to reach out for help, particularly now, we provide a safe online option for survivors to pursue legal services and learn important safety planning tips. Government and non-profit social service agencies we work with also offer safe text and live chat options and virtual support services, some specifically tailored for the ultra-Orthodox community.

For months during this pandemic, New York State Courts were only providing “essential” services which included granting Orders of Protection but did not include commencing actions for divorce, custody and visitation or child support. Even now, New York City Family Courts are not hearing new filings for custody and visitation and child support cases and there are no plans as to when they will. 

Divorce, which can be seen as essential to those anxious to be free from an abusive marriage, encompasses unique challenges for ultra-Orthodox survivors. The intricacies of two court systems are involved, obtaining a religious divorce or get, under the auspices of a Beit Din, rabbinical court, in addition to the civil divorce from New York State Supreme Court. The wife may choose to first obtain rabbinic permission before commencing civil litigation. Sometimes clients have been called to the Beit Din before we are retained to represent them and asked to sign a shtar birurim which serves as an arbitration agreement between the parties. It is our role as counsel to protect our client’s rights throughout this process in accordance with New York law. 

Neither party can remarry under Jewish law without a get, which only the husband can give of his own free will and a wife must accept. Abusers often withhold the get to keep control over their partner or force their agreement to unfavorable terms regarding custody or other aspects of the divorce to obtain it. When I appeared with my experienced colleague at the Beit Din, and our client received her get, I wondered how she would have fared if not represented by counsel with expertise in this unique system.  

Fear of community backlash against survivor clients throughout the divorce process can extend to their children, as their standing might affect their childrens’ shidduch (matchmaking) prospects, an enduring dilemma for mothers. If there is a court order or a Beit Din decision in place for visitation of the children, how can she comply and be secure her children are kept safe during COVID? For survivor parents who wish to leave the community and live a more secular life, it is crucial to have an advocate who understands the survivor’s predicament and the legal issues surrounding religious observance in the context of children.  

As the movement to help domestic violence survivors has grown, we have learned  there is no “one size fits all.” We must individualize our advocacy to respond to each survivor’s needs in order to provide the most effective representation. Legal services providers should take the initiative to develop culturally sensitive practices for their clients. This can be done by getting to know the members of the community we represent and working with social service agencies that serve their local community. In this way, we can engender trust and confidence with our clients. But this alone is not enough. 

Trainings on implicit bias and the impact of trauma on survivors should be required to be completed by all legal services providers as well as the judiciary, court personnel and law enforcement. The judiciary should better reflect the communities it serves. The justice system, as a whole, needs to treat each survivor as an individual taking into account the historical and other unique influences in their life.  Understanding how someone’s culture heavily informs the choices they make, enables us to better serve domestic violence survivors and also eliminates barriers they may face to achieve safety, particularly in this most challenging time of COVID. I am proud to be part of an organization that provides culturally sensitive and trauma informed advocacy to all its clients and continues to fight for fair and equal access to justice.  

Pam Wexler is a volunteer attorney with New York Legal Assistance Group’s Domestic Violence Law Unit.