Jewish community must castigate abuser, not victim

Two and a half years ago, I opened the paper and read the headline "Law professor murders wife." Curiosity led me to read the story; I was not prepared to find out that the woman who had been killed was my college roommate's sister.

Nina Leibman's husband entered the room in which she was sleeping, beat her in the face and then stabbed her more than 20 times with a kitchen knife. Standing on the other side of the door, the last words her 7-year-old son heard her say were, "I don't want to die."

The media, judges and lawyers minimized the horror of the murder. It was called a tragedy, a private affair that simply got out of control. Worse, many blamed Nina Leibman for her own murder — confident that if she had stayed in the marriage and not sought a divorce, she would still be alive.

Leibman's story shattered all the stereotypes I held concerning domestic violence and the Jewish community. She had a doctorate, published a book and taught at a college. Her husband was a lawyer. I had, like so many in our community, always believed that domestic violence happens to "other" people, not to educated, middle-class Jewish professionals in Santa Cruz like Leibman.

Over the last two years I have studied the problem of domestic violence and now chair a task force on the subject for the S.F.-based Jewish Family and Children's Services. What I have learned is startling. The use of emotional, physical or sexual abuse to gain power and control over one's intimate partner is the most prevalent cause of injury to women in the United States. In 95 percent of all documented domestic assaults, the crimes were committed by men against women. The San Francisco District Attorney's Office reported that in 1997, 55 percent of all solved female homicide cases were due to domestic or family violence.

Domestic violence is also one of the major factors in homelessness for women and children, a fact that is clearly reflected by the clients of JFCS' transitional living program, Dream House. In the five years that the Dream House has been in existence, more than half of the clients have been survivors of domestic violence.

The Jewish community is not immune from the problem of domestic violence. Studies estimate that 15 to 20 percent of Jewish women are abused by their intimate partners — a rate comparable to that of non-Jewish women. However, we in the Jewish community, as well as the rest of society, do not place the blame for domestic violence where it properly belongs — with the batterer. When the issue is raised, the question most often asked is, "Why doesn't the woman simply leave?" Few ask, "What are the obstacles to women leaving?"

The fact is the hurdles a woman must jump in order to leave an abusive partner are very high. She may need legal assistance, financial assistance, job placement, emotional support and therapy. She may have to leave her home. If she has children, issues of child support and visitation rights must be addressed.

Often women fear retaliation. Women who leave violent relationships have a 75 percent greater risk of being killed by the batterer than those who stay. Leibman is a case in point. She was murdered the night before she and her husband were supposed to separate, pending a divorce.

Finally, because batterers are rarely held accountable, leaving an abusive relationship may mean that a woman must give up her circle of friends or place in the community. The sad truth is that we often do not believe the woman. After all, her husband may be a pillar of the community, or perhaps battering is just too painful a subject for us to think about. These factors, not her unwillingness, make it hard for a woman "to simply leave."

What about the children who live in such homes? Violence is a learned behavior. It is hard for children in violent homes to learn trust or empathy. They grow up thinking that violence is part of the "normal" interaction between people, including those who purport to love each other. Not only are children subjected to domestic violence robbed of their childhood, it is much more likely that these children will become abusers or victims as adults.

The organized Jewish community needs to bring the issue of domestic violence out in the open, to accept its presence within our families and work to eradicate it. Our rabbis need to speak about the issue from the bimah. We need to provide better services — nonjudgmental counseling, safe houses, youth programs, and legal and financial aid. Batterers must be told that the community no longer has a place for their "leadership," and that it is committed to standing behind the victims of abuse, not the perpetrators.

The Bay Area Jewish community can take the necessary steps to stop the cycle of violence. As a first step, clergy and lay leaders can educate themselves by participating in events such as the Interfaith Conference on Domestic Violence co-sponsored by JFCS on Sept. 3 at the Hall of Flowers in San Francisco's Golden Gate Park. By taking action, we will not only be helping families now, but for generations to come.

May Leibman's two children remember her with love, and may we honor her memory by preventing her fate from being visited on another Jewish family.