Breaking free: Shalom Bayit helps victims of domestic abuse begin a new life

Rachel is nervous. She has trouble sleeping. Her fear is a shadow. It is always by her side.

Rachel was in an abusive relationship for 14 years. It ended in 2007, but she still worries her ex-husband will find out where she lives or figure out her new phone number or uncover her e-mail address and that he will torment her with threats (like the time he pulled a knife on her) or with vandalism (like the time he tore down the sukkah in their backyard).

Rachel is not her real name, but she likes it — likes that its origins belong to a strong biblical woman, a matriarch, and she has chosen it for the purposes of this article. Rachel is so protective of her safety — and with good reason — that she would not divulge her real name or where she lives in the Bay Area.

She says she still is terrified all the time, even though she has a restraining order against her ex-husband, her divorce is final and she has moved into a gated community.

People say things to her like, It’s over. Get on with your life.

If only she could.

“I have nightmares every night. I can’t sleep. I cry a lot,” she said. Surviving domestic violence “is akin to shell shock. Nothing feels solid. Everything feels topsy-turvy.”

Rachel is one of an unknown number of Jewish women in the Bay Area to endure an abusive relationship.

Shalom Bayit, a local nonprofit that works with battered Jewish women such as Rachel, serves about 80 to 100 women a year. But that number represents only the women who seek help.

The organization provides abused women, such as Rachel, with a range of free services and resources, including counseling, support groups, advocacy, referrals to legal resources and Jewish healing rituals. When necessary, it refers women to shelters run by other organizations.

Naomi Tucker, the director of Shalom Bayit, said many people think domestic abuse doesn’t happen in the Jewish community.

She remembers one client — a non-Jewish woman married to a Jewish man — who several years ago came to Shalom Bayit in tears. The woman had told the family court mediator during divorce proceedings that her husband abused her.

The mediator told her she was either lying or crazy “because Jewish men don’t do that,” Tucker recalled.

The truth, Tucker said, is that domestic violence affects all ethnicities, religions, socioeconomic groups and regions.

One in four women in the United States experience domestic violence in their lifetime, according to the National Violence Against Women Survey. Jewish families are no exception. “It’s very common in the Jewish community for women to be reluctant to call the police” after being threatened or abused, Tucker said. “It’s in contrast to the image of who we are as a Jewish people.”

Though the rate of intimate partner violence has declined in the U.S. since 1993, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, the costs of domestic violence remain severe.

The Centers for Disease Control found that women who have experienced domestic violence are 80 percent more likely to have a stroke, 70 percent more likely to have heart disease and 70 percent more likely to drink heavily than women who have not experienced intimate partner violence.

Domestic violence is one of the most chronically underreported crimes, according to the Department of Justice. Many victims are full of shame or fearful of retaliation.

That’s why Ruth (also not her real name) stuck around so long in her relationship.

“I met my ex — the lunatic, I like to call her — through mutual friends,” Ruth said. “The honeymoon was a perfect six months.”

Ruth lived with her partner in Southern California for four years.

“Overnight, she became a devil,” Ruth said. “She hit me once that I can remember. But it was more verbal and emotional abuse.”

Ruth’s partner forced her to do all the housework and controlled all the finances, including the money Ruth earned. About every 10 days, she’d give Ruth money for groceries and laundry.

For a while, Ruth had a job she enjoyed. But her partner called the office so often that Ruth was fired.

If Ruth did something her partner didn’t like, she locked Ruth out of the house.

But usually, Ruth was forced to stay indoors. She was expected to make all the meals, do the laundry, clean the house, move all the furniture when they changed apartments. At one point, Ruth’s partner blacked out the windows and nailed them down.

“I was like a slave,” Ruth said. “I wasn’t even allowed to check the mail.”

Her partner told her she was lazy, stupid, fat, ugly. “It got to the point where I just did things like a robot to keep peace in the house,” Ruth said.

Eventually, her partner stopped allowing Ruth to check her e-mail and refused to let her answer the telephone.

On several occasions, Ruth tried to seek solace in Jewish rituals. But her partner, who wasn’t Jewish, would not allow her to light Shabbat candles. And when Ruth lit a yahrzeit candle for her father, her partner blew it out.

“At some point I was scared to talk and all she did was yell at me over anything and everything,” Ruth said. “I was walking on eggshells.”

Part of Ruth’s reluctance to leave stemmed from the fact that she is an immigrant. She came to the U.S. legally, but her partner refused to allow her to update her paperwork, and eventually Ruth was living in the country illegally.

Studies show that abusers often use their partners’ immigration status as a tool of control and to force their partner to remain in the relationship.

This was true for Ruth, who worried that if she went to the authorities, she would be arrested and deported. She now knows that immigrants without legal papers who are victims of intimate partner violence are protected from criminal prosecution.

Meanwhile, in the Bay Area, Rachel struggled to keep the facade of normalcy in her marriage — even when it was far from normal.

“I covered it all up because I wanted so much for our marriage to work,” Rachel said. “I married under the chuppah in a synagogue, and wanted the magic to work. I kept trying to patch it together.”

Rachel’s abuser seemed like Prince Charming when they first met. But the relationship slowly crumbled as her husband became more and more controlling.

He began by coaxing her to pool their assets. He said true love and trust depended upon combining their finances.

Rachel thought the request was odd but certainly not unreasonable, so she agreed. She saw it as an old-fashioned marriage. She could live with that.

Soon her husband controlled all of their money, including funding sources that came to Rachel. Then he wanted her only to spend on their credit card, so he could track all of her purchases.

Little by little he discouraged her from participating in any activities outside the home. She eventually stopped working and gave up volunteering, too.

“If he came back from work before I got home from running errands, he’d have a fit,” Rachel said. “He’d say, ‘Oh, you’re trying to abandon me?’ So I learned I had to always be with him.”

In private, he belittled her and called her names. In public, he insisted that Rachel hold his hand. Once, when she stopped to window shop, he yanked her so hard that she fell on her face. She ended up in the hospital with a concussion.

They tried marriage counseling and saw two different therapists, but neither helped.

The control turned to fury. Rachel’s husband would become angry with her for something small, and it would escalate into a “scary rage,” she said. On five occasions, he threatened her with kitchen knives.

He’d sometimes be so angry in the car that he’d drive erratically and pretend he would drive off the road.

Rachel remembered thinking: “This is not ‘better or worse’ — this is torture. I didn’t sign up for this.”

To endure domestic abuse is a painful, terrifying experience. Women who’ve survived will attest that recovering from the experience is equally difficult.

Ruth finally summoned the courage to leave her relationship. One day, when her partner was gone on a weeklong vacation with another woman, Ruth sold her grandmother’s pearls, packed up all of her belongings and her dog and left without a word. She had $25 to her name.

“I had been wanting to leave for two years. Only when people stepped in and told me I could do it did I,” she said.

Ruth first went to a friend’s house and contacted a battered women’s shelter. She was told the shelter only assisted women and children, not single women, but it was recommended that she check in the Bay Area.

Ruth told everyone she was moving to Pennsylvania. But in actuality, Shalom Bayit had helped her get a train ticket to San Francisco and found her a place to stay in a shelter. She stayed for three months and then moved to a transitional housing facility for 18 months.

“Shalom Bayit is my family, my Rock of Gibraltar, my Wailing Wall,” Ruth said. “I don’t know where my life would be without Shalom Bayit.”

Like Ruth, Rachel also reached a breaking point after years of fighting to maintain the appearance of the happy upper-middle-class wife.

“I asked him to leave the fifth time he pulled a knife on me,” Rachel said.

He obliged. But he would return many times thereafter, trying to break into the house or vandalize the frontyard.

Rachel began to see a therapist after he left. The therapist told her to go to the police immediately — studies show women are particularly vulnerable immediately following the end of an abusive relationship when the abuser often retaliates, sometimes violently.

It was the first time she realized something was truly, irrevocably, dangerously wrong with her relationship.

A legal aid agency helped Rachel file for a restraining order. Shalom Bayit helped her begin to heal.

Upon visiting the Jewish nonprofit, Rachel felt nurtured for the first time in years. The free therapy has helped her to make sense of the chaos and terror in her past, and has given her language to understand domestic violence.

Women in her support group have become close friends. She has been inspired to write poetry, something she never did before.

“I no longer feel so alone,” Rachel said.

Women who lean on Shalom Bayit range from those who left an abusive relationship years ago and are still being stalked by their abuser, to women who recently ended an abusive relationship and need guidance and support, to women who feel trapped in a relationship but don’t know how or if they’re ready to set themselves free.

Rachel and Ruth are grateful for Shalom Bayit. It helps them maintain their sanity. But to maintain their safety, they have had to make sacrifices.

Both moved without telling anyone where. They changed their e-mail addresses. Rachel doesn’t have voicemail, so her ex-husband can’t confirm that the number is hers; Ruth doesn’t even have a telephone.

Neither goes to synagogue on Friday nights because they don’t like being out alone in the evening.

Jewish women who endure domestic abuse face unique challenges if they want to remain involved in their religious community.

This can be difficult, since an abused woman’s partner often is a part of the same Jewish community — a synagogue or JCC, for instance. This creates problems for the abused woman and congregants friendly with both people.

“We will go with her to talk to her rabbi about developing a safety plan to help her feel safe in the Jewish community,” Tucker said. “We want her to hold onto her Jewish community and identity.”

This has been nearly impossible for Rachel. She has been ostracized from her community because her partner “told people I was a predator, that I was violent. I used to visit friends’ shivas and bring a casserole. Now it’s like nobody wants to know my name,” Rachel said. “Everyone in my world shunned me. Shalom Bayit is the only place where I was believed.”

At first, this reality made her feel abandoned by Judaism and by God.

But Shalom Bayit’s healing rituals and teachings have helped her not to feel blamed, and to know that the abuse is not her fault. And that has helped her to return to a Jewish life.

“I feel like I have permission to make Judaism my own practice,” she said. “Before, I felt that I couldn’t light candles because I was lighting them on my own, but through the group, through Shalom Bayit’s healing work, I decided I could light candles again. God does not shun me. My faith has not shunned me.

“I have found my own way back to who I am as a Jewish woman.”

Warning signs of domestic violence

Studies indicate 20 to 30 percent of Jewish families in the United States and Israel experience domestic violence. But many people — even women who are being abused — don’t know what constitutes domestic violence.

October is National Domestic Violence Awareness Month. In the past 30 days, agencies across the United States have worked overtime to educate communities about domestic abuse to ensure adults and teenagers have healthy and safe relationships.

If your partner, a friend’s partner or a relative’s partner has done any of the following, contact Shalom Bayit for confidential assistance by calling (866) SHALOM-7.

• frequently criticized, shouted or called you names

• withheld approval, sex or affection as punishment

• thrown objects at or near you

• humiliated you in private or in public

• been irrationally jealous

• isolated you from friends or family

• controlled where you go

• controlled your money

• locked you out or in the house

• abandoned you in strange places

• ridiculed or insulted your most valued beliefs, your religion, race, class or sexual orientation

• threatened to commit suicide if you leave

• threatened to hurt you, your children, relatives or friends, or your pets

• forced or pressured you to have sex

• held you against your will or pushed you

• punched, shoved, slapped, bit, kicked, burned, choked or hit you

• destroyed your personal belongings

Source: Shalom Bayit

Stacey Palevsky

Stacey Palevsky is a former J. staff writer.