The Column | It can even happen to a rabbi’s daughter

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Last week we all heard the horrific story of three young women who had been held captive for more than a decade in a Cleveland home, where Cleveland home, where they were allegedly raped and brutalized.

Where were the neighbors, the media asked? Conflicting reports circulated — police were called, police were not called, a naked woman was seen crawling on her hands and knees in the backyard. Ariel Castro, the alleged ringleader, was a “nice guy” who played in a band with one of his victim’s fathers.

How could such a thing have gone on, for so long?

One thing bothered me a lot: the repeated reference in media reports to Castro’s home as being in a “low-income neighborhood.” The obvious implication: Poor women get abused by poor men.

That’s a load of crap.

Two days after the Cleveland story broke, I attended a fundraiser for Shalom Bayit, a Bay Area organization that helps Jewish families affected by domestic violence and provides Jewish youth with tools to build healthy relationships.

That’s right — Jewish families here in the Bay Area. Not in a broken-down house in Cleveland, but in Pacific Heights. Piedmont. Mill Valley.

The first speaker was Shira Chester Sweitzer, who spoke with heartbreaking candor about an abusive relationship she suffered for four years in high school. She was 14 when she met her boyfriend. “At first things were great,” she told the crowd of about 200. “Then it turned into a nightmare.”

The boy began controlling her. “He didn’t want me to talk to his friends. He told me I was too flirtatious,” she recalled. “We’d go to parties and I would have to sit in the car while he went inside. I began to feel stupid. I didn’t understand why whatever I did or said was wrong.”

Then the physical abuse began. The shoving. The hitting. In public, in school, in front of her friends. At a party her senior year, he hit her in the face with his motorcycle helmet so hard that she blacked out. That was after he called her a whore.

“I was so ashamed,” said Shira, now 38 and a teacher in Antioch. “I didn’t know what I’d done for four years to deserve this. I felt I’d disappoint my parents if I told them.

“I thought, this only happens on TV. I was the daughter of a rabbi! But it was happening to me, and I was alone.”

Shira’s father is Steven Chester, rabbi emeritus of Temple Sinai in Oakland and a longtime supporter of Shalom Bayit. He and his wife, Leona, stood by Shira’s side as she told her story to a stunned crowd.

“Imagine our shock and surprise when Shira came home with a black eye after an evening with her boyfriend,” Leona said. But, she added, Shira’s story is not unique: one in three teenage girls are in abusive relationships, she said. And they come from all backgrounds.

This evening was the first time her daughter had spoken about it in public, Leona told me afterward. “She was pretty nervous going up there, but she told me, if it can happen to me it can happen to anybody.”

At the time Shira was going through her own private hell, there was no Shalom Bayit, which has been operating locally since 1992. There were no posters up in her synagogue urging abused women to call the Shalom Bayit hotline. Shalom Bayit wasn’t yet making presentations to parents about teen-on-teen violence and how to prevent it. There was no “Love Shouldn’t Hurt,” a program where teens act as peer leaders, teaching their fellow students how to build healthy relationships, and how to speak up when they see a friend being abused.

That’s all part of what this magnificent organization does in our community.

And it’s not just girls. One eighth-grade boy from a local Jewish day school stood on the stage, his curly head bowed, his eyes fixed on the rose in his hands as he spoke about the help Shalom Bayit gave him and his mother, both of whom were being abused by his father.

“He was not able to teach me how to form healthy relationships,” the boy stated. “He blamed me. He told me I was a bad person. And that’s not OK.

“Then Love Shouldn’t Hurt came to my school and helped me and my mom find strength.”

This is what Shalom Bayit is teaching our children — how to stand up for themselves and demand the safety and love they deserve. Let’s help them do that.

Sue Fishkoff is the editor of j., and can be reached at [email protected]. Shalom Bayit’s toll-free hotline is (866) SHALOM-7. For more information, visit www.shalom-bayit.org.

Sue Fishkoff

Sue Fishkoff is the editor emerita of J. She can be reached at [email protected].