Shalom Bayit marks 10th year of helping abused women

In the 10 years she has volunteered for Shalom Bayit, Sherry Brown-Ryther has been awed and inspired by the women she encounters.

As the facilitator of a support group for women who have experienced domestic violence, the Daly City resident has heard real horror stories.

Yet, "I'm totally amazed," she said, "amazed that the human spirit is so strong to go through such incredibly horrifying situations and that the women are still raising children, still holding down jobs, still doing their own volunteer work, trying to figure things out."

Brown-Ryther is among the 140 people who were in attendance Sunday as Shalom Bayit, which means "peace in the home," marked its 10th anniversary with a celebratory dinner at Sur La Table in San Francisco, which included a cooking demonstration by local chef Joyce Goldstein.

The Jewish women's domestic violence organization was founded 10 years ago by Naomi Tucker, who, for most of its existence, ran it with others on a part-time basis.

Last September, major changes took place, with the aid of two major grants totaling $110,000 from the Walter and Elise Haas Fund and the Richard and Rhoda Goldman Fund. But the group also has received steady support in much smaller amounts; for example, 92-year-old Harry Yaffe was honored at the benefit for collecting tzedakah for Shalom Bayit from Tiburon Congregation Kol Shofar's Thursday Morning Minyan.

Shalom Bayit got its own office in Oakland, and Tucker became director. A part-time counseling director was hired, too. And perhaps most importantly, when women called, for the first time, they got a live person at the other end of the line, rather than voice mail.

Tucker said that one woman who called recently had tried to reach a counselor in the past but was always afraid to leave a message, because she did not feel safe having someone from the organization calling her back. Now, she has finally spoken to someone and is receiving support.

Most recently, Rebecca Schwartz, a long-time volunteer with the organization, was hired as a part-time assistant director. This summer, the organization will have its first intern.

When the organization was founded a decade ago, Tucker was a French teacher long involved in the area of domestic violence.

According to Tucker, domestic violence is just as likely to happen in Jewish families as in the general community. But Jewish women are less likely to seek help because of a greater stigma about it. Because of that, she thought that an organization that aided solely Jewish women was needed.

One Bay Area woman, who previously had been battered and who agreed to speak to the Jewish Bulletin anonymously, said that when she was being abused by her husband, she did not know where to turn — especially within the Jewish community.

"I didn't have any vehicle at all to talk about it," she said. "I had a couple of friends, but there was so much denial, and it was so hard to put the story together."

She was active in a synagogue, but her sense was that "people in the community didn't want to hear about it."

This woman was already separated from her husband when she sought out help from Shalom Bayit, after learning about the organization in her synagogue bulletin.

After attending a meeting, she soon became a volunteer and continues as one now.

"After I began using their services, I wanted to contribute mine to them," she said.

Through Shalom Bayit, she received counseling, "which provided support for me. It helped me to gain a sense of who I was in that situation."

It's been nine years since this 50-something woman left her abusive husband, and she is thankful to be in a position where she can help other women.

"I totally understand their stories," she said. "Women do not lie about this sort of thing. When it comes forward, the floodgates open, and stories pour out. I not only have empathy for them because I was in a similar situation but [also] completely understand their circumstances."

Brown-Rhyther, who is 57, says she can look back on her volunteer work with the organization and see the difference she's made.

In the 1960s, she thought, as was the vogue at the time, that she could change the world.

"Now I believe the world does change through each individual person," she said. "It used to be disappointing to put on programs when one or two people would come, but if one was in an abusive situation and listened and took away something she didn't have before, no one can take that away from her. The way the world changes is through individual people changing."

Alix Wall
Alix Wall

Alix Wall is a contributing editor to J. She is also the founder of the Illuminoshi: The Not-So-Secret Society of Bay Area Jewish Food Professionals and is writer/producer of a documentary-in-progress called "The Lonely Child."