Ahead of Monday’s UN International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women, Alex Galbinski hears the stories of two women abused by their husbands and finds out about the work of Jewish Women’s Aid, a charity that helps victims recover.[divider]
Louise was thrilled. She had just married the man with whom she planned to spend the rest of her life. It was going to be a modern, blended family as they both had children from previous relationships.
She looked forward to sending their children to the same school, taking holidays together and just being the family she had always wanted. However, just days after their “dream” wedding, Louise – not her real name – realised her husband was not quite the kind and gentle man she had thought.
“He was charming for the first week of our marriage. On the second weekend, he showed his temper for the first time. By the third week, he was making a huge issue out of many things. His temper was frightening – for me and for my children,” explained Louise, a professional woman with a higher qualification, aged in her forties.
“The dark moods and temper tantrums continued daily. He started to threaten me with divorce. I spent hours trying to appease him, and I became gradually more passive. My self- respect drained away. “He started to pick on my kids and became increasingly manipulative. Then he started to bully my son – mocking him, and twisting his words. My son became more and more withdrawn. Eventually, I took my kids and left.”
Louise’s situation is sadly not an isolated one. British Crime Survey figures suggest that domestic abuse – which can be emotional, psychological and sexual as well as physical – affects one in four women in the general population. Jewish women are no different.
Emma Bell, executive director of Jewish Women’s Aid – the only specialist UK charity that works with Jewish women affected by abuse, and their children, and which runs face-to-face and telephone counselling – explains: “Everyone likes to think the Jewish community is different. Men and women from every part of the community tell us: ‘It’s not us, it’s them,’ but Jewish people are exactly like other people. Domestic abuse doesn’t discriminate between religions, levels of observance, wealth, age or socioeconomic groups.
“Jewish culture and religion puts a great emphasis on family life, the idea of shalom bayit or peace in the home. There’s an enormous shame and stigma in admitting to yourself and to others that things aren’t as they should be.” However, it’s not just the taboo of speaking out that is of concern. On average, women are abused 35 times before they seek help.
An American study has revealed that Jewish women are more likely to wait even longer. Another woman who sought help from JWA is Hannah (a pseudonym). She says of her husband: “I should have spotted the warning signs before I married him. He was trying to control my behaviour even when we were engaged. He started off gently, but was a control freak and a bully, and it got worse over time. “He used to tell me I was worthless, and a lazy cow – he chipped away at my self-esteem over time and I ended up feeling worthless. I was a lawyer, and after our second child he made me give up work. I had no financial independence – he kept total control of all the money.”
When they should have been celebrating their son’s tenth birthday, her husband told her he wanted out of the marriage but refused to move out of their bedroom, never mind their home. Hannah says: “He had a girlfriend while he was still living with me, and when he broke up with her, he beat me up so violently he broke my nose. My son heard me screaming – he was the one who pulled his dad off me.”
The police later put her in touch with JWA, through which she had two years’ of counselling and which also helped her three children, who are now teenagers. Hannah, whose earliest memory is of her father beating her mother unconscious, explains: “The abuse has had a horrendous impact on all of them, in different ways. At one point, I had three very angry kids. I’ve realised I can’t go through the rest of my life as a victim. I’m the only one who can break this chain of domestic violence and I’m determined my children will go forward in a different way.”
The most common question asked of women experiencing domestic abuse is why they stayed. There are many reasons, including: fear, both of what their partner might do to them if they leave and of managing outside the relationship; a sense of failure, guilt or shame; because they have nowhere to go; because they don’t recognise the situation as abuse; or because they still love him. Bell says the tipping point for many women is when they see their children are being affected.
“It was watching my kids becoming increasingly miserable that was the final trigger to get out of the relationship,” admits Louise, who comes from a traditional Jewish background. In the last financial year, JWA helped hundreds of vulnerable women – like Louise and Hannah – struggling to deal with the impact of domestic abuse. A total of 23 women and 13 children lived in JWA’s refuge, the only kosher and Shabbat observant sanctuary in Europe. It’s just relaunched its website as a resource.
“I stayed in the marriage for eight years,” says Louise. “The psychological scars are enormous but sometimes I wished he’d hit me, so I had proof of the abuse.” Rabbi Laura Janner-Klausner likens a woman who speaks out about domestic abuse to a whistle-blower.
“It takes enormous courage to say the truth and you never know the repercussions of it,” she explains. “Will anyone love you or will they hurt you more?”
According to a 2011 JWA report, 62 percent of people replying to its questionnaire on domestic abuse said they were not aware of a rabbi in their community publicly addressing the issue in the community. However, Lord Jonathan Sacks was an open supporter of JWA and actively spoke out against do- mestic abuse, while a statement from Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis says: “No community is immune from the issue of abuse and it is something that must be acknowledged in order to address it.
Abuse of whatever kind is unacceptable and it is something we need to work on together to eradicate. That is why the work of organisations such as JWA is so important for our community.”
In his book, The Shame Borne in Silence: Spouse Abuse in the Jewish Community, the American Chasidic rabbi Abraham J Twerski describes becoming uneasy at not confronting the issue.
He writes: “Someone pointed out to me the Talmud says that ‘Anyone who has the ability to correct a situation and is derelict in doing so, bears the responsibility for whatever results therefrom’. I realised that I have no option, and that I must speak out.”
• On Monday JWA representatives, along with other charities dealing with domestic abuse, will be at Brent Cross Shopping Centre near Kanteen restaurant to raise awareness of the issue.
Jewish Women’s Aid www.jwa.org.uk, 0808 801 0500 or 020 8445 8060
Jewish Care Direct www.jewishcare.org, 020 8922 2222
Jewish Marriage Council www.jmc-uk.org, 020 8203 6311
Migdal Emunah www.migdalemunah.com
National Domestic Violence Helpline www.nationaldomesticviolencehelp line.org.uk, 08457 2000 247
Norwood www.norwood.org.uk, 020 8809 8809
Home Office Website http://thisisabuse.direct.gov.uk
Other helpful organisations are listed on the JWA website’s Useful Contacts page
For male victims: Men’s Advice Line www.mensadviceline.org.uk, 0808 801 0327