When women, or men, are abused by their domestic partners, the people to whom they most often turn for guidance are their clergy.
But if those clergy are not properly trained in the issues associated with abuse, the results can be life threatening — if not fatal — for the victims.
The Rev. Linda Miller-Pretz, an ordained minister in the United Church of Christ, recalled one particularly harrowing case in point.
“A woman came to me bruised and bloody,” Miller-Pretz said. “I thought she had been mugged on the street. But it was her husband. She asked me, ‘Are you going to send me away?’ And the reason she asked this is because [clergy at] the first church she went to for help told her to go home and be kind to her husband.”
Miller-Pretz will join other local female clergy, Tuesday, May 8, at Rodef Shalom Congregation for an interfaith workshop on intimate partner violence. Jewish Women International, Pittsburgh chapter, is sponsoring the program.
“I’ve known many women who have been killed because they stayed too long in an abusive relationship,” said Miller-Pretz, who is co-creator of the workshop. “God doesn’t expect us to be punching bags for our spouses. I just don’t think that’s what God had in mind for anyone.”
Nearly three in 10 women, and one in 10 men, in the United States have been the victim of rape, physical violence and/or stalking by a domestic partner, according to the Centers for Disease Control. And a victim of such abuse is five times more likely to turn to her clergy than to anyone else for help, reported the Georgia Domestic Violence Fatality Review Annual Report in 2009.
Faith’s Response to Intimate Partner Violence Female Clergy Workshop will mark the first time such a program has been offered in Pittsburgh to a group of female-only, interfaith clergy, according to Rochelle Sufrin, co-chair of JWI’s Council of Jewish Domestic Violence Coalitions, and a co-creator of the workshop. It may even be the first interfaith, all-female clergy workshop of any kind to be offered here.
“I’ve been in this area in the ministry for over 20 years,” said Miller-Pretz, “and I was never aware of any women-only interfaith clergy gathering.”
A workshop directed specifically to female clergy may foster a more open dialogue on the subject of intimate partner violence, according to Miller-Pretz.
“I think it gives us the opportunity to talk about domestic violence issues as women, without our male counterparts sitting there,” she said. “There are some personal issues that women share. Most of us are in marital relationships or intimate relationships ourselves. We know the heartbreak of it, and maybe why women stay in these relationships longer than they should; we are women of faith, and we assume commitments are forever.”
Sufrin hopes that limiting the workshop to female clergy will boost attendance and allow for a more frank conversation.
“There are a number of opportunities for mixed (male and female) clergy to learn and study together,” she said. “But there is not a whole lot of turnout for the mixed sessions. When you separate the genders, more information comes out. Women tend to think about it, talk about it, and then are more exposed to it.”
Rabbi Donna Kirshbaum, a member of JWI’s Clergy Task Force on Domestic Abuse, and the spiritual leader of String of Pearls Congregation in Princeton, N.J., will lead the keynote discussion on “Can biblical women serve as healthy role models?”
Kirshbaum has a personal insight into the issues surrounding abusive domestic relationships, having herself been a victim of such abuse many years ago. She knows firsthand that Jewish women who are abused are often reluctant to seek help because of a sense of shame.
“For me, it was not being able to give it a name,” she recalled. “I could see [the physical manifestations of the violence] in the mirror, but I could not give it a name, that this was abuse. This is a typical reaction of young women who face this. I looked for reasons that I brought this on.”
(Toby Tabachnick can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)