There’s a reason why slips of paper with domestic abuse hotlines and support are hidden on the inside of bathroom stalls at JCCs and synagogues.
Domestic violence is a stigmatized topic within the Jewish community and beyond, Shana Weiner believes.
“There’s sort of two approaches that people will respond,” Weiner said. “One is: It’s not a problem here. Just flat out, this isn’t something that Jews do. The other is: It’s not our type of Judaism; it’s the other group.”
As the founder and executive director of Dinah, a Philadelphia-based domestic abuse nonprofit and legal services center, Weiner, 34, is concerned with addressing and dismantling that stigma.
Since its founding in 2015, Dinah has provided legal counsel to domestic abuse survivors, as well as trauma-informed education workshops to clergy, schools and community leaders. In 2020, Weiner was honored on Drexel University’s 40 Under 40 list.
Weiner, a South Philadelphia resident and Temple Beth Zion-Beth Israel member, knew she wanted to become involved in advocating for domestic abuse survivors from a young age.
Growing up in Annapolis, Maryland, Weiner was an avid student of taekwondo, earning her black belt at age 10.
“I started when I was 6. I was in this world of very structured, very controlled, but still, violence,” she said.
As she started climbing the ranks, Weiner enrolled in various courses, including street fighting and women’s self-defense. By 9, she had an understanding, albeit basic, about violence toward women.
Weiner’s mother is a Holocaust survivor born in a refugee camp in Austria; her father’s family fled from pogroms in Russia to the U.S. Her consciousness of the Holocaust and antisemitism in Europe as a child further fueled her desire to address violence.
“I was always very aware that there was a dark, dangerous world out there,” Weiner said. “There were people who needed people to fight for them. And that was it.”
After graduating from the University of Maryland in 2010 and receiving her law degree from Drexel University Thomas R. Kline School of Law in 2013, Weiner knew she wanted to advocate for abuse survivors, but upon searching for Jewish organizations doing that area of work, she found nothing.
Some friends recommended that she apply to become a Tribe 12 fellow and pitch a domestic violence organization with Jewish values and clients in mind. After a six-month program, Weiner launched Dinah at the now-Weitzman National Museum of American Jewish History in spring 2015.
Though Dinah was the first organization of its kind in the Philadelphia area, it was slow to gain traction. The #MeToo movement, though originally founded in 2006, had not yet become popular. When the movement took off in 2017, Dinah began to find a place in the Philadelphia Jewish community.
“I noticed a very clear difference from 2015 and ’16, when I was shopping this around and pitching this program, and trying to recruit volunteers and board members that do publicity…,” Weiner said. “But back then, I was getting a lot of, ‘Is this really a problem?’ and framed not as a rhetorical question.”
To effectively serve a majority Jewish clientele, Dinah — named for the biblical figure Dinah, who was abducted and raped — is built on Jewish principles and addresses the specific forms abuse may take in the Jewish community.
For example, a gett, or the document that allows for divorce in Jewish law, is brought to a woman by her husband. Because of the power the man holds in this situation, gett refusal can be a manipulation or abuse tactic.
“We would like to get the community or the court of public opinion, as well as our civil court systems, to start to recognize that refusing or withholding or negotiating a gett with someone…is abuse,” Weiner said.
Weiner also outlined the values that are “baked into Jewish DNA” that may prevent people from speaking out about their abusive partner. Survivors may be concerned about lashon hara, harmful speech; or shalom bayit, keeping a peaceful home. By speaking ill of their partner or confronting them in a verbally or physically violent situation, a survivor could risk violating their Jewish principles.
To reach clients, Weiner and her colleagues reinterpret those same concepts: What if keeping a shalom bayit means finding inner peace? What if it means making sure your children don’t have to witness one parent abusing the other?
“We put an emphasis on these concepts as a foundation in ways that a lot of other organizations don’t because, to an extent, they don’t have to,” Weiner said. JE