After Shana Weiner graduated from Drexel University’s law school, she began looking for a way to combine her passions for working with survivors of domestic abuse and the Jewish community, and figured she would reach out to places specializing in Jewish domestic violence legal services.
She knew of places in the Washington, D.C., and Baltimore areas — as she got her undergraduate degree from the University of Maryland — but finding any in Philadelphia proved tricky.
She was shocked to learn there were no such services in the city.
“I expressed my frustration with a friend, who then said, ‘Well, if nobody’s doing it then you’re the perfect person to start it,’” she recalled with a laugh.
Thus, the first inkling of Dinah — a legal services center providing low-cost and pro bono representation to survivors of domestic abuse — was born.
Weiner, who belongs to Temple Beth Zion-Beth Israel and serves as its United Synagogue Youth (USY) director, became a Tribe 12 Fellow in 2013, and Dinah went as far as Weiner’s fellowship application.
“The mission was to provide legal services to survivors of domestic abuse in the greater Philadelphia Jewish community,” she said. “We’ve adapted a bit, but we’ve stayed with that core mission.”
Dinah launched with Tribe 12 in May 2015, received 501(c)(3) status in September 2017 and got its first case in February.
Its name was inspired by the story of Dinah, Jacob and Leah’s daughter, who is often overlooked in favor of Jacob’s sons. When she was 11, Weiner was studying with her rebbetzin and they discussed the story of the “rape of Dinah,” which appears in Parshat Vayishlach. Amid the story details, Weiner noticed Dinah’s brothers retaliated for her.
“I read it again and realized, first of all, there’s no mention of rape per se, but what we do have is a woman’s entire life and fate decided by the men around her,” she said. “The idea was let’s name it after Dinah, and let’s rectify the situation. Let’s give people a voice, and let’s give them the resources and access and education to be able to speak for themselves.”
Further, she hopes the work she does illuminates the notion that domestic violence exists in the Jewish community.
“There’s definitely a stigma about domestic violence within the Jewish community that it doesn’t exist,” she said. As it’s not as widely talked about, survivors may feel hesitant to speak out because they feel like they are the only ones, she noted.
“You’re led to believe no one will believe you anyway,” she added. “Jews are affected by domestic abuse at the same rate as the national average, but Jews stay in abusive relationships twice that time. So not only does it happen here, but the impact is actually greater.”
Through Dinah, Weiner and her board have started cultivating relationships with synagogues, volunteer attorneys and community organizations to provide educational resources to be better equipped to ask the right questions when they think someone is in trouble.
She also hopes to collaborate with clergy toward the idea of prenups, as the notion of gets is a unique element to Jewish weddings — and divorces.
“That’s a piece of the puzzle that is unique to Judaism, that we have this system that still requires in order to be divorced under Jewish law you have to get a get, which the power to do so is completely held by the husband,” she said.
Domestic violence caught Weiner’s attention when she was young. Growing up outside of Annapolis, she took taekwondo and earned her black belt at 11 years old. Having a black belt allowed her to take other classes, such as kickboxing and women’s self defense.
“It triggered something in me at that age, that there’s this world that exists that a lot of people want to do a lot of bad things and somebody’s gotta do something about it,” she said.
In college, she took classes on victim psychology and developed an interest in the field of domestic violence.
She also found herself in an emotionally and psychologically abusive relationship, which she said did not turn violent but very well could have. It inspired her to to dedicate herself to this work.
“When I first started talking about this stuff, I was starting at the place of, how do we fix this problem? And I quickly realized there was a question before that I needed to answer, which was is this even a problem?” she said.
Her biggest takeaway for the Jewish community is to understand that domestic violence does happen — and across all streams of Judaism.
“We are not safe or special because we’re Jewish,” she said. “It happens, and then the next step is to equip yourself with the tools to be an effective ally when a situation presents itself and we want to be the resource where you can send your friends to call.”
She hopes Dinah can serve as a friend for those in need as well with the help of its name.
“There’s a certain sense of anonymity in the name that somebody could say, ‘Have you called Dinah?’ And it could be your friend or sister, whoever,” she said. “We sort of like to have that persona of your friend Dinah.”
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