Religious leaders are often the first to hear cries for help from family abuse victims. A New York program counsels pastors and rabbis and encourages them to work with secular services. Part of our "Dangerous Trends, Innovative Responses" series.

Rabbi Diana Manber

NEW YORK (WOMENSENEWS)–The ears of a battered Christian woman might ring with biblical messages such as "turn the other cheek" and "divorce is sin."

How can she leave her husband when God hates divorce and she has vowed to serve him in the name of the Lord, Jesus Christ?

This is the kind of question that Rabbi Diana Manber asked an audience of 28 Brooklyn pastors and parishioners from a large cross-section of Christian denominations to consider late last month. Some in the crowd had zero experience with domestic violence. Others had lost members of their congregation to intimate partner abuse.

"People are using scripture as a battering ram to justify abuse against their partners," Manber said as she flipped through a Power Point presentation on the behavioral and psychological dynamics that often fuel domestic violence. "It happens in every congregation and in every community. Our job as clergy is to link people to the experts."

Manber has been training Jewish clergy to spot and help prevent domestic abuse since 2005 when the New York Board of Rabbis, where she is a board member, began an initiative called Dayenu! (Enough!). So far it has reached over 300 clergy members and this year it formed a partnership with the New York Council of Churches–an interdenominational organization bringing together church leaders–to extend its work to the Protestant community.

But her recent presentation–the first of four interfaith trainings to be held this year–marks an emerging effort in New York to weld together not only different faiths but also public government into a bulwark for confronting and preventing abuse.

The trainings are organized by the New York City mayor’s office at the Family Justice Center, a public-private partnership that drew its first funding from a federal grant issued under the Violence Against Women Act of 2004. Many of the 15 family justice centers nationwide have faith-based partners but not all of them have taken the step of training clergy to address domestic violence. One exception is the center in Monroe, La., that introduced clergy trainings last year.

Clergy Should Be Well Versed

Kathleen Rafferty, communications director at the mayor’s office to combat domestic violence, says that victims come forward to report abuse and seek help after interactions with police, medical care providers and clergy. "We want to ensure that because clergies are individuals that may be confided in, that they are well versed and well trained on how to assist the members of their congregation in these situations."

The New York City Family Justice Center, a pioneer in knitting together legal, civil and religious advocacy on the issue, handles nearly 1,000 visits by someone suffering domestic violence each month and keeps a staff of spiritual leaders, including Manber, on call.

"All of us," Manber told her audience, "can be either a resource or a roadblock to the victim. I’m not saying outsource your congregation. But work in tandem with the experts on the field."

Manber peppers her presentation with painful personal stories of religious leaders failing to help those who reach out for help, including her own.

Teacher Ignored Pleas

One of her stories is about being a 6-year-old girl in religion school who thought that Yom Kippur, the Jewish Day of Atonement, gave her the chance to talk about what was going on at home. "My daddy says he’s sorry but he doesn’t mean it because he repeats the behavior," she quotes her childhood self. The teacher paid no attention.

Later she reached out to another religion instructor. "The Ten Commandments say honor your father and mother. What if your father does not honor your mother?" Again, the instructor failed to pick up on the cue.

Luckily she survived, but each year about 1,200 homicides in the United States are linked to intimate-partner violence and an estimated 2 million women are victims of physical assault by an intimate partner, according to a Feb. 6 report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. One in 4 households suffers some form of domestic violence and a woman is struck every 9 seconds in this country.

No comparative statistics are kept on the prevalence of domestic violence across religious groups, but Manber says spiritual leaders often receive the first signals of distress.

Clergy as First Line of Defense

"In instances of domestic violence the first line of defense is you," Manber told her audience last month. "They go to you before they go to a social worker, a lawyer, a hospital, a best friend, a neighbor. They come to you looking for answers. But do you know the answers?"

She thinks that too often the answer is no because clergy are not trained to identify and respond to domestic violence.

Manber says that during five years of rabbinical school–she graduated from the Hebrew Union College Jewish Institute of Religion, in New York–the subject of domestic violence did not come up once.

"Rabbis, imams, pastors are all in a position to connect victims to social workers and legal services," Manber told her audience at the Family Justice Center. "With domestic violence, it is not enough to pray. You have to act."

Linda Lewis, national institution chaplain for the Church of God in Christ, agrees. "A lot of times prayer is the first thing because pastors are not trained in domestic violence or because they are stuck. But if you have to counsel an individual three times on the same matter, then it is time to refer them to a professional."

Dominique Soguel is Women’s eNews Arabic editor.

This series is supported by a special grant from Mary Kay Inc.

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Women’s eNews series, Dangerous Trends, Innovative Responses:


Mayor’s Office to Combat Domestic Violence: Family Justice Center:

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