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Born out of Backlash

On July 5, 2002, Shoshanna Kramer left her 2,500-square-foot home that she shared with her ex-husband, escaping a relationship filled with emotional and verbal abuse and fear.  But as she learned, the road wouldn’t get any easier.
After harassment from her ex trying to locate her after she left her marriage and having to move in secret to different parts of the country, she also found backlash in her Jewish community.  When talking to her rabbi about the abuse, he said, “Well, if you had been a good wife, it wouldn’t have happened.”
It was this perception of domestic violence being something that wasn’t a problem in the community that made it difficult for Kramer to find help.
“I didn’t find resources that I could connect to as a young Jewish woman,” she said.  After extensive research several years later, she discovered that there weren’t a lot of services catering to victims of domestic violence and sexual assault in the Jewish community.  It was with this spirit that she created Hands of Ahava, a nonprofit that currently is in process for its 501(c)3 designation.
“There is an absolute idea that domestic violence does not happen to Jewish people,” she said.  “It’s adopted in the Jewish and [secular] communities.  But it happens at the same rate in both.”
Convincing people that domestic violence and sexual assault happen in this community has been a difficult road for Kramer despite the research, with people responding both positively and negatively.
However, through Jewish Federation & Family Services, the organization has been able to provide referral services and educational programs, including a screening of the movie Sin by Silence, a documentary about the organization Convicted Women Against Abuse, which teaches women in California prisons to break the cycle.
For Kramer, education is a very important component of Hands of Ahava, particularly when it comes to working with teens.  Some statistics say that one in three teenagers have been in a domestic violence situation.
“Most teens have been in or know someone in a domestic violence situation,” she said.  It’s also important that teenagers know from a young age what to look for and what constitutes abuse.  “In addition, [education] is used as a preventative measure in order to be able to put an end to domestic violence.”
Kramer has faced several obstacles in trying to keep her organization going, particularly money.  Around the time that Hands of Ahava was started, the state of California cut funding for domestic violence programs, so she wasn’t able to get a lot of the funding.
“This is a private organization, and we rely on private donations,” Kramer said.  Knowing that this is an issue in this community will help keep the organization growing.
One of Kramer’s biggest goals is to open a shelter for domestic violence and sexual assault victims – one that will be kosher, accept pets and provide counseling, spiritual and medical services.  For Kramer, accepting pets is one of the biggest priorities for the shelter.
“Pets are particularly important, because a lot of people will not leave abusive situations without their pets,” she said.  “That would give a lot more incentive to leave.”
Kramer’s design for a shelter would make it the first of its kind in the United States and a first for the Jewish community.
Domestic violence does not necessarily equal physical abuse, and also includes verbal, emotional and even financial abuse.  The key is looking out for the signs of what could be an abusive situation.
Kramer says that some of these include people degrading their victims to feel powerless, controlling behavior and extreme jealousy.  For those who are victims of physical abuse, looking for bruises and unexplained injuries may also be key.
Hands of Ahava organization never falls into the stereotypes of abuse.  The organization serves men and women, straight and gay, as well as all denominations of Judaism.
“I work with Orthodox all the way to culturally Jewish,” she said.
According to Kramer, the High Holy Days are one of the biggest times for domestic violence in the Jewish community – as is Christmas in the non-Jewish world.
“It’s because of the stress of the holidays,” she said.  “It takes a toll on people.”
However, Kramer understands that leaving an abusive situation can be difficult and frightening – in fact, numerous studies have shown that the first two years after leaving can be the most dangerous time in a victim’s life.
“When a person leaves a relationship, the abuser has lost control of the victim,” she said.  “The abuser wants to regain that control, and people go to extreme lengths.  It has led to victims losing their lives, because the abuser cannot let go of the fact that he or she has lost control.”  This has become even more of an issue as social media and the Internet have allowed more opportunities for stalking.
Despite Kramer’s goal to get people out of domestic violence situations, she understands that not everyone is ready to make the next step to leave, and some people can’t.  For that, Hands of Ahava provides guidance about how to cope with these relationships until the person has the strength to leave.
However, she wants people who are in those situations to know that there are people to help, and she suggests contacting either her organization, a counselor or a rabbi if that is an option.  The most important thing to know in these situations is that there is a way out.
“Reaching out for help is the first step,” she said.  “Know that you’re not alone, and that there are people who can guide you and can guide you out safely.”

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