The sign stood ominously to the right of the podium during the Jewish Community Center’s annual meeting on Sept. 9, its width extending out to about 8 feet, its height towering well above the heads of those gathered in the crowded room. A “Pledge to End Gender Violence” in large bold typeface letters asked everyone to take a moment to learn about the JCC’s stance on a phenomenon that affects so many men and women each year.
The organizers’ goal was to have 500 men put their John Hancock to the sign, and at the start of the meeting, board chairman Marc Brown announced his excitement around that goal already being fulfilled long before the annual meeting began. He pointed to a new banner in the JCC’s lobby, already filling up on its way to reaching 1,000 signatures.
The first 50-something men included executives from the Heinz Endowment, the United Way, representatives from Mayor Bill Peduto’s office and Councilman Corey O’Connor of Squirrel Hill.
For Brown, the statistics were shocking, and he read aloud handfuls of blaring facts that point to the issue that is at hand in all cultures and religions in the U.S., including the Jewish community. “Every 15 seconds in the U.S., a woman is beaten by her husband or partner,” Brown said, adding that it is just as “prevalent in the Jewish community.”
Brown spoke just a day after footage surfaced of star NFL running back Ray Rice of the Baltimore Ravens knocking his wife unconscious. He said it’s crucial that the JCC take the anti-violence stance now.
“We don’t have to lead it, but we better be a part of it,” he said in reference to the pledge to end gender violence.
According to statistics provided by the Jewish Coalition Against Domestic Abuse, gender-based violence “occurs in Jewish families at about the same rate as in the general community — about 15 percent — and the abuse takes place among all branches of Judaism and at all socioeconomic levels.”
However, there are particular cultural concerns relating to domestic violence in Jewish relationships, such as shalom bayit — meaning, “peace in the home” — which asks that women maintain homeostatic conditions. Some women, the coalition maintains, may not tell anyone of the abuse because they don’t want to shatter that tenet of Judaism.
The coalition also points out that the desire to maintain Shabbat, be close to their children’s school and to be able to find kosher food at a domestic violence shelter also prevents many victims from talking about their abuse.
The JCC pledge, which mirrors a statewide pledge, specifically asks people to stand up against the shame.
Those who signed the banner pledged to adhere to four components of the larger statewide effort: “Not use violence of any form in my relationships; speak up if another man is abusing his partner or is disrespectful or abusive to women and girls; be an ally to women who are working to end all forms of gender violence” and “mentor and teach young boys about how to be men in ways that don’t involve degrading or abusing girls and women.”
The push happened quickly, following a March presentation attended by eight members of the JCC who spoke to the issue of violence not only being a women’s issue.
Heinz Endowment president Grant Oliphant then wrote a June 14 op-ed in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette asking fathers to step up and take action in the fight to end gender violence. “Men are hurting and killing women every day,” he wrote.
Oliphant was in attendance at last week’s JCC meeting.
The JCC also reached out to young men who coach and play in the Maccabi games at the center, offering them guidance on how to use best practices in relationships they encounter.
The feat, said Kristy Trautmann, executive director of the FISA Foundation, which aims to improve the lives of women and girls with disabilities, is major.
“[I am] incredibly impressed by this undertaking,” Trautmann said at the annual meeting.
“Your willingness to use your influence is unprecedented in the state and should be recognized.”
She said many men feel uncomfortable about the idea of the pledge, but with statistics highlighting three women who are killed in the U.S. every day by partners, husbands, boyfriends or exes, and a staggering 85 percent of the crimes against women and girls being perpetrated by men, Trautmann said it’s hard to not step up to the plate and make a change.
But just signing one’s name is not the end of the story, she said.
“You work at it every day,” Trautmann said. “[You must] take action.”
To do this, Trautmann said the conversation around violence against women needs to switch from “Why didn’t she leave,” to “Did he really think he could get away with it?” — moving away from putting the blame on the victim.
What’s more, Brown reminded those in attendance of the foundation of Judaism that demands global peace and harmony.
Closing the meeting, he said, “May we create a more peaceful world together.”
Bee Schindler can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.