Every nine seconds in the U.S., a woman is assaulted or beaten. October is Domestic Violence Awareness Month, providing an opportunity to address this serious and difficult conversational topic. The Jewish community is no more immune from this ugly reality than it is from mental health issues, addiction, cancer or the flu. As a member of the Jewish community, I feel compelled to share my personal experience.
Our Jewish community is inter-connected, strong philanthropically and socially engaged in the service of tikkun olam, or an act of kindness to repair and heal. The Jewish community is commanding and vocal when the injustices are outside of our community or in opposition to our community. What we do less skillfully is recognizing and addressing violence existing within our own Jewish sphere, where the faces and people are familiar and known to us. When both the perpetrator and victim are people we know, whose paths frequently cross our own, distinctions between victim and aggressor can become blurred or unrecognizable.
My Experience with Domestic Abuse
I am indistinguishable from any of the middle-to-upper-middle class mothers that you see in a normal week. I am a mainstream Jewish woman in the Twin Cities who attends a mainstream synagogue. My children have attended formal Jewish education. I am well educated and my family of origin had no problems with domestic violence or chemical abuse.
My marriage became physically abusive nearing a decade after our relationship began. The abuse became severe with observable injuries, broken bones and medical visits for “accidents.”
Threatening to take my children away from me was an overt intimidation tactic and a powerful incentive to stay. We all rationalize our choices.
My ex-spouse is a well-educated, intelligent, successful career man who can be charming on demand. He does not fit the abuser stereotype of say, a two-time loser, drug abuser/drunk, in a sweaty sleeveless t-shirt. No, when my batterer kicked me while on the ground until several ribs snapped, he was completely sober and wearing a tie.
I also did not fit neatly into the victim stereotype of a cowering ball of submissiveness. Domestic violence does not only darken the door of the meek. I did not stay because I was a weak person. Despite ongoing psychological, physical and emotional abuse, I thought I was being strong in keeping the family together and trying to shield the children. Yet, it was no more within my control than his fists, kicks, and verbal insults. Threatening to take my children away from me was an overt intimidation tactic and a powerful incentive to stay. We all rationalize our choices.
I found out that my spouse wanted a divorce when he had me removed from our home without my children, clothing or my car. All of my credit cards had been canceled and cash accounts depleted. An officer brought me to Tubman, a Minneapolis women’s overnight shelter. I did not sleep that night. I did not cry. I was in shock. I thought that my spouse was showing me who was “boss” in an aggressive way to ensure my compliance and obedience. I would have done exactly that had he allowed me to return to my children. But, he did not.
I was left without money or resources. Fortunately, my family arrived and provided the funds for an apartment. For the next six months I slept on the floor of my empty apartment adorned only with two photos and a free laptop that the apartment complex provided as a bonus for signing the lease. In the interim, I obtained clothing from another shelter and still have a few items that serve as a reminder of how I benefited from the generosity of strangers.
Those were very dark days for me and the children. I was not allowed access to my children for months and then after that, only a few hours a week for the next nine months until we finally had a custody court date to establish a normal parenting time schedule.
Our rabbi reached out very early on in the process. Although well-meaning and kind, the intensity and complexity of the situation left the rabbi ill-equipped. I was referred to a Jewish organization. I needed legal representation, transportation and clothing. At that time they were not positioned to help.
Can Anyone Help Me?
Almost as painful to me was my perception of the Jewish community’s inaction or dismissive reaction to the abuse, especially when I felt that it was clearly observable. Only one friend gently challenged the “accident” version of my repeatedly mangled face. Most victims do not want pity, but rather understanding, compassion, and to be believed.
How could have someone helped me when I did not even know what I needed or what resources were available? A private conversation or any words of concern or support would’ve been appreciated, as in: “I’m concerned and even though I might be wrong, I want to be helpful;” “Here are some local resources that can help, if you need it;” “I’m here if you need help or want to talk;” “You are not alone.” Isolation is the most consequential tool the abuser has at their disposal. There is an obvious awkwardness to reaching out.
Afterwards, the most distressing statements made by acquaintances, family and friends alike and how I internalized them, were:
- It’s hard to believe that he would do that; he seems so nice. (He warned me that no one would believe me.)
- Why didn’t you just leave? (It’s your own fault the abuse continued; you are complicit with your own abuse.)
- Why is he so angry with you? (You must have provoked such a dramatic reaction.)
- Things will calm down when he has a girlfriend/wife. (It did not and they too often become victims themselves, or unwitting emissaries of the abuser.)
- I’m not going to take sides; I want to support the children. (I’d prefer not to hear disconcerting details; I’d prefer to pretend that I don’t know.)
- The courts will fix everything. (Simply, a fallacy.)
If one now asks why I just did not leave, you’re missing the point. If I knew everything that would happen subsequently, to this day, I might very well have elected to return to that ugly place. Truthfully, it likely would have been less painful to endure his blows than to endure constant litigation.
I have since been involved in several women’s groups; groups for domestic violence survivors and for mothers dealing with custody nightmares in the ugly shadow of domestic violence. These shared experiences have been incredibly valuable to me. I learned that I am not alone. My situation is not unique. There are others like me.
To my surprise, I’ve encountered a number of Jewish women in these groups!! They have been faced with similar perceptions of stigma that led me to seek and find support outside of our Jewish community. They, like me, still struggle with continuing to keep the discomforting secrets of our abusers with challenges in our community around openness. The truth is that some in the community want us to keep quiet; it is an uncomfortable topic that some want to avoid, altogether. This is especially true when the perpetrator is affluent or well-liked within our close-knit community. Astonishingly, it seems that the comfort of others has often taken precedence.
What the Jewish Community Can Do
Following the Jewish High Holidays, I am reminded of the phrases “Kol Yisrael arevim zeh la-zeh,” “all Jews are responsible for one another” and Leviticus’ “do not stand idly by the blood of your neighbor.” In Judaism, these phrases are the basis for collective responsibility. There is an obligation not to stand by on the sidelines. Even more, it implies an obligation on all Jews to ensure that others have basic needs met of food, clothing, and shelter.
With respect to domestic violence within the Jewish community, I leave the reader to contemplate the following:
- What is my individual responsibility if I see or know about domestic violence?
- What is the clergy’s responsibility (complicated further if the victim and the perpetrator are both congregants)?
- What is the Jewish community’s moral responsibility?
- Is it acceptable to remain “pareve” or neutral?
- How should we approach or discuss this topic with those affected? Should we?
- Should we, as a community, discuss why this topic is so uncomfortable?
“It is not upon you to finish the work, but you are not free to ignore it.” (Mishna, Ethics, 2:21)
“In the end what will hurt most is not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.” ~ Martin Luther King Jr.
If you need a better understanding of what domestic abuse is (because it comes in many forms; physical, emotional and financial) or if you are a victim of domestic violence or know someone who is, here are some resources that may be helpful. You are not alone!
- Battered Women’s Justice Project (BWJP): 612.824.8768
- Cornerstone: 612.374.9077
- Domestic Abuse Project (DAP): 612.874.7063
- Jewish Domestic Abuse Collaborative (JDAC): 952.546.0616
- Minnesota Coalition for Battered Women (MCBW): 651.646.6177
- National Coalition Against Domestic Violence: http://www.ncadv.org/
- National Domestic Violence Hotline: 1-800-799-7233
- Sojourner Project: 952.933.7422
- Tubman Chrysalis Center: 612.871.0118