Congregational Awareness Clergy from around the state learn how to address domestic violence

Shmuel Fischler speaks to clergy at a domestic violence workshop in Annapolis. (Daniel Schere)

Shmuel Fischler speaks to clergy at a domestic violence workshop in Annapolis. (Daniel Schere)

More than 270 clergy members from across Maryland gathered in Annapolis on Oct. 14 for the Interfaith Domestic Violence Coalition’s third annual training session. The event features a number of speakers from various faith and advocacy groups aimed at educating members of the faith community on how they can provide resources to their congregations.

Baltimore City Circuit Court Judge Karen Chaya Friedman started the event after serving as the board chair of CHANA, during which time the organization challenged every rabbi to do something in his or her congregation to address domestic violence during October. Friedman had to resign from the board when she became a judge but wanted to find another outlet for her passion.

“I have spent days and days listening to these cases and some days issuing as many as 30 or 40  [protective orders],” she said. “And it was very frustrating. And I asked myself, ‘How can we make some kind of difference in this problem?’ And it just came to me: Why can’t we take what CHANA was doing in the Jewish community, spread it to the entire community and ask every religion of every denomination to do something about domestic violence in October, which is Domestic Violence Awareness Month.”

The event originally included only Baltimore City but gradually expanded to include more surrounding counties, and last year, it drew 150 clergy members.

“I think it’s very clear that for a lot of people, the first person they reveal their situation to is their clergy person,” she said. “And that clergy person’s initial reaction will really be key in determining what steps that person will take next.”

As a call to action, Friedman has asked every congregation in the state to include something related to domestic violence awareness in their service during the weekend of Oct. 23-25.

“We don’t expect the clergy to solve this problem or even to directly deal with the problem,” she said. “They have an entire congregation with a myriad of problems and community issues. So workloadwise it’s impossible, and domestic violence is an incredibly complex problem with a tremendous amount of subtleties surrounding it that the clergy would be in absolutely no position to deal with.”

Throughout the session, speakers emphasized to clergy the importance of including language in their congregation’s bylaws on how to address situations in which an abuser or a victim is a member. Shmuel Fischler, CHANA’s director of outreach and advocacy, began his presentation by asking how many spiritual leaders had such bylaws, to which very few raised their hands.

“Having a policy sends a statement,” he said. “When you share with the congregation that we have a policy that addresses domestic violence, that sends a real statement to victims, survivors and potential perpetrators that we’re not bystanders. We’re doing something about it.”

Fischler said a victim-sensitive policy that facilitates open communication with congregants, addressing domestic violence from the pulpit and agreed-upon hiring and firing procedures should be staples of any domestic violence policy. He also recommended congregations create a diverse committee of five to eight members to tackle the issue.

“This is not going to cross every ‘t’ and dot every ‘i,’” he said. “What we have is a mechanism for what to do when a congregant comes to us and says this and this is happening.”

Fischler presented a variety of scenarios including a board member of a congregation who has a restraining order, an alleged abuser having donated $10,000 and an abuser who wants to attend the victim’s family event. He said in the latter instance, a spiritual leader has the right to restrict access to his or her place of worship.

“It’s not necessarily public that anyone can come,” he said. “You have the power in many instances to disallow someone who’s coming to an event. Be prepared to do that.”

Friedman, in addressing attendees, warned of many abusers who ask their spiritual leader to accompany them to court — something that can be devastating for the victim.

“When she walks into court and sees that her abuser is with his pastor or their pastor, that is very demoralizing,” she said. “And it’s something that I would implore you to think very closely about before you agree to accompany a respondent to court.”

Rabbi Moshe Weisblum of Congregation Kneseth Israel in Annapolis said he has been approached in the past by victims of abuse and said people are often more comfortable coming to his home for counseling.

“One word of encouragement, one word of hope, one word of admission to the right person at the right time changes people,” he said.

Weisblum gives two sermons every year about domestic violence and said congregants should not turn a blind eye.

“Sometimes people think that it only applies to them, but the reality is that it’s everywhere,” he said. “And it’s happening behind closed doors.”

Friedman echoed those concerns and said she hopes the number of men at the annual event increases.

“What we really want the community to understand is that this is not a female issue,” she said. “This is a human issue, this is a family issue, and this is a community issue.”

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