“I never used to hit my kids. Since the lockdown began, I have already hit them several times this week.” Numerous testimonies such as this one have been received, in the wake of COVID-19, by Sacred Spaces, a US-based anti-abuse organization on whose board I sit, according to its CEO, Shira Berkovits. A Jerusalem-based professional in the field recently told me about her client who reported: “To be locked up with my husband is to be constantly available for abuse.”
Since the start of the pandemic, there has been an estimated 20 percent global increase in domestic abuse (precise statistics are hard to come by and vary widely. Most experts agree that domestic violence is significantly underreported). Here in Israel, the Ministry of Labor and Social Services reports that during just one month of COVID-19, calls to its domestic abuse hotline rose by 122%.
What accounts for the dramatic spike in violence? On the most basic level, the classic risk factors of abuse are all present, yet greatly magnified. For example, in the current crisis we are noting:
- Intense fear and anxiety concerning health and physical survival
- A catastrophic economic situation, with many lacking a perceivable path toward recovery
- Loss of routine, and of healthy outlets, for potential abusers
- Increased alcohol consumption
- Isolation of victims: social distancing minimizes contact with friends and relatives (including elderly parents), neighbors
- Fewer resources for those in need, due to a severely overburdened system
- Opportunity for abusers to use lockdowns to treat victims as virtual hostages, restricting and monitoring movements
Compounding the increased risks are the rules of “social distancing” necessitated by the pandemic. In pre-Corona times, we kept respectful, socially appropriate distances from one another, and especially from the closed doors of our neighbors’ homes; tragically, these distances were too often exploited by domestic abusers. With the social detachments brought on by the current crisis, the silence and secrecy that fuel domestic violence are now accorded great latitude, and there is staggering opportunity for undetected, and thus, undeterred, abuse.
With great insight and forthrightness, the Torah (Deut. 27) warns of the negative potential of courteous distance-keeping. Stepping into the spaces to which neither witnesses nor justice systems have access are a series of divine curses against those who prey upon the defenseless (the home-bound elderly, the orphan and widow, potential victims of incest). God’s curses are met with the people’s emphatic affirmation, a series of resounding “amen”s, which amount to a binding communal public pledge to do everything possible to repudiate abusive behavior that is conducted in secret.
In what ways does our age-old promise obligate us to combat the current surge in abuse — what some have termed the “shadow pandemic” — that has infected so many households throughout the planet?
Here are eight steps we can undertake immediately, which will help to transfigure our “amen”s into clear and decisive action.
- Disseminate clear, easily accessible contact information for assistance to abuse victims. All institutional newsletters, event and lecture flyers, and public service announcements must include such contacts, including text and online chat options (as many victims have little privacy).
- Expand hotlines and shelters to accommodate increased need; strongly advocate for increased funding for both. Reexamine, and find creative avenues to address and perhaps even reverse, the default of having abused spouses and children flee their homes, while leaving abusers in place.
- Enlist commercial establishments: shops, pharmacies and markets should disseminate contact information for hotlines and shelters (e.g., the Tesco supermarket chain in the UK offers helpline information on every customer receipt).
- Call upon mikveh attendants and medical professionals to be alert to physical signs of abuse, to ask direct questions and offer help when required.
- Encourage our leaders to appeal directly to potential abusers — via Zoom, social media, and in synagogues. I imagine a rabbi or Federation leader speaking directly into the camera and saying the following: “Given the stresses of the current situation, are you feeling unusual levels of anxiety, of fear, of rage? Are you at risk of harming others? If so, seek help immediately. Here is how to call or text.”
- Require teachers to raise the matter of abuse in all classes, in age-appropriate ways, to create an opening for students to speak up and to remove the taboo that surrounds the subject. Teachers should offer specific instructions and contact information, and whenever possible, should offer to act as first contacts, which, for students, could soften the difficult process of disclosing abuse.
- Organize routine synagogue “check-ins,” in which every member is called and asked if they need practical, financial, physical or emotional help. As needed, callers should provide contact information for help in each category.
- Launch campaigns that promote a new definition of the term “good neighbor”: from a respectfully detached acquaintance to a responsible citizen who is attentive and responsive to possible signs of abuse in his or her vicinity. Our rallying cry can be: “If you see something, say something;” or, more biblically: “We are our brothers’ — and our sisters’ — keepers.”
Of course, all these measures are remedial, addressing the symptoms. More challenging is to undertake the positive, albeit arduous, process of educating toward safe and healthy homes. From the earliest stages, we must define abuse and detail its warning signs. Above all, we must educate our young women and men toward self-worth, toward respecting the infinite value of the other, and toward constructive conflict resolution.
With the utmost urgency, we must begin the culture shift toward responsibly and conscientiously minding the business of others. Once again, we would do well to take our lead from our foundational book, the Torah. In an extraordinary instruction obligating us to return to their owners lost items of all sorts, the Torah commands: “You must not turn a blind eye” (Deut. 22:3); rather, you must take action to return the lost item it to its owner. In the Bible’s view, when something is lost, inaction is not neutral; failing to deliver it is a deliberate choice of active neglect.
In these difficult days of COVID-19, too many of our sisters, our children and our vulnerable home-bound elderly have lost something — not a mere object, but something of infinite and irreplaceable value: their fundamental freedom to live without fear of maltreatment or injury. Many have lost their sense of human dignity and self-worth. In our possession, we have the tools to help them restore their losses; it is our imperative to use them, in ways that respect their agency and safety. We do not have the prerogative of turning our eyes away; such willful sightlessness is tantamount to actively withholding life-saving possibilities.
When at long last, we include the problem of domestic abuse among the top priorities of our communal agenda — ensuring that when necessary, we replace social distancing with a judicious form of “social trespassing” — we will go a long toward converting God’s ancient curses into blessings. May we have the courage and the determination to say “amen” to undertaking this holy task.
 While sadly, many men are victims of domestic abuse, the phenomenon most severely affects women.
 I am addressing the matter of elder abuse only in the context of unseen abuse within homes during the Covid lockdown. There is much more to be said about the appalling crisis of elder abuse in institutions.