The word Shiloh has several biblical interpretations. It was the resting place for the Ark of the Covenant. It was known as one of the biblical cities of refuge, where one could escape revenge. And it was said to mean, by the medieval French Hebrew scholar and commentator Rashi, "till peace cometh."
Place of Rest
Mimi Scarf has found yet another use for the term, a 20th-Century meaning. Scarf is the executive director of Shiloh, a kosher shelter and hot line for battered Jewish women, which has been in operation in the San Fernando Valley for several months. And, indeed, it is a place of rest and refuge.
"Traditionally," said Scarf, who holds a master's degree in Jewish Communal Service from Hebrew Union College, "the stereotypical Jewish husband is seen as smart, successful, generous to his family and gentle. The Jewish home is seen as a bulwark against the outside world. Unfortunately, this idealized concept of the Jewish family is fallacious. Wife-beating cuts across all socioeconomic and religious boundaries."
Scarf first became interested in this issue through a strange set of circumstances about seven years ago. Required to write a paper on an undiscovered social problem for a graduate seminar, she found herself at a loss for a topic. Then, by chance, she was approached by a distraught woman at a college library parking lot who asked if they could talk.
"She began to cry," Scarf explained during a recent interview, "and to tell me about the horrible business of verbal abuse against Jewish women. Then she said, 'I'm probably the only Jewish woman who has ever been beaten by her husband.' "
Troubled by the idea, Scarf undertook to see if this was true. It wasn't. She had no difficulty finding other battered Jewish women. "I went to hospitals and to the police. I began speaking to people. It turned out that everyone had a story to tell."
Subject for Dissertation
Scarf was so moved by the subject that she wrote her assignment and eventually her master's dissertation on Jewish wife-battering. For the latter, she placed an ad in a local newspaper. "I got hundreds and hundreds of phone calls from women saying, 'I thought I was the only one. I'd like to tell you my story.' The hot line started through that. And then I realized we needed a grass-roots movement to create a shelter."
Shiloh, which can house as many as 12 women and children, takes in residents of all races and religions. "Everyone is welcome here," Scarf explained during a tour of the tidy, newly furnished suburban house. "Indeed we've had at one time two "born-again" Southern Baptists, a Hasidic (highly Orthodox Jewish) woman and two black women and their children. We don't have the restriction that you have to be Jewish to come in. But this is a place where religious Jewish women can come and feel at home. There are Mezuzoth (small tubes encasing tiny rolled scrolls of prayer) on the door posts so they know the house has been blessed. And they can eat the food and use the same plates and pots and pans as everyone else."
Scarf views this environmental familiarity as vitally important. "Jewish women leave their homes because of battering as a last resort," she explained. "Even if they are non-religious, non-believing, non-observant women, often their Jewish identity is all they have left after leaving their families, friends and personal treasures. So, it is important for them to come into a shelter that feels like a Jewish home.
"For example, we celebrate Hanukkah and Passover rather than Christmas and Easter. When Jewish women go into other shelters, even though the love and caring is there, they often don't stay because they feel uncomfortable. Frequently they return home, to the battering situation."
According to Scarf, the necessity of kosher food goes beyond the strict observation of dietary laws. "The other shelters may also provide kosher food," she explained, "but it's treated as 'special' food. There, observant women have to eat from special utensils because they can't use those that have held forbidden foods like pork. One of the most important aspects of the shelter experience is the support that the women get from one another, even if it's sitting around talking, having coffee, making meals together and eating. If the Jewish women are segregated because they can't eat from the same pots or dishes this separates them from the other women in the shelter."
Hot Line Staffed
Shiloh's singularity of purpose extends even to its hot line. Its counselor-advocates are Jewish women trained to be especially aware of the specific needs of the Jewish family. Counselors who speak Hebrew, Yiddish, German, Russian and Farsi are available.