Shalom Bayit outreach staffers Marianna Kritsberg and Sarah Rothe (Photo/Sue Fishkoff)
Shalom Bayit outreach staffers Marianna Kritsberg and Sarah Rothe (Photo/Sue Fishkoff)

Domestic abuse agency can now help Russian-speaking women

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The call came in to Shalom Bayit late one evening. It was a woman speaking broken English, with a heavy Russian accent, saying that she needed help — fast.

The staffer who answered the phone at the Oakland-based domestic violence agency didn’t hesitate. She immediately forwarded the call to outreach specialist Marianna Kritsberg, a Moscow native, who was able to find out that the woman had just left an abusive relationship and was staying with a friend while she tried to figure out her next step. Because Kritzberg spoke Russian, the woman felt comfortable opening up.

That wouldn’t have happened half a year earlier. Before Kritzberg was hired last fall, Shalom Bayit had no Russian speakers on staff. In fact, no domestic abuse services were offered in Russian anywhere in the Bay Area.

For women going through this kind of trauma, that meant not giving them the kind of help they needed when they were at their most vulnerable.

“When you’re talking about traumatic events in your life, even if you have an excellent grasp of English, clients tell me it’s easier to express those darker moments in their native language,” said Sarah Rothe, Shalom Bayit’s direct services manager. “That’s even more true when it’s another Russian Jewish woman you’re talking to, someone who gets the subtle cultural references without you having to explain.”

Created in 1992 as a task force of the Northern California Coalition for Battered Women and their Children, Shalom Bayit — Hebrew for “peace in the home” — is Northern California’s first and only Jewish agency dedicated solely to ending domestic violence in the Jewish community. More than 2,000 individuals in the Bay Area were helped with programs and services in the past year alone, according to the agency.

Co-founder and executive director Naomi Tucker recalls the early years, however, when she would approach potential funders, rabbis and lay leaders only to be met with disbelief. Domestic abuse in a Jewish family? That just doesn’t happen, she’d hear.

No one says that today, Tucker notes. Jewish schools, synagogues and other communal institutions talk openly about the problem, and prevention programs are welcomed into Jewish spaces.

But when Tucker began trying to raise money for Russian-language programming, she got that same disbelieving response.

“I’d reach out to the providers of Russian Jewish services and I’d hear, ‘We don’t have that problem. If we did, I’d have heard about it.’

“The thing with domestic violence is, you don’t hear about it unless you’re doing active outreach. And at the same time these people were saying there’s no need, Russian-speaking women were picking up the phone and calling us.”

Ten months ago, Shalom Bayit received its first grant for a Russian-language program: $5,000 from the Russian Speaking Jews’ Impact Grant Initiative of the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation. That allowed Tucker to hire Kritsberg on a part-time basis, to speak to all kinds of gatherings of Russian-speaking Jews, spreading the word that she was available to help battered women and children in their own language.

This month, thanks to a generous donation from the Menlo Park-based Koum Family Foundation, Shalom Bayit has hired its first full-time, native Russian-speaking outreach worker in addition to Kritsberg. That, Tucker says, will enable them to expand their work exponentially.

There’s a big difference between working with a client directly in her own language and speaking through an interpreter.

Take the case of “Irina,” an older Jewish woman from the former Soviet Union who left her abusive husband in the Bay Area 10 years ago after one too many beatings. Her husband, who was also Russian-speaking, would slam her head into the floor or the wall, kick her in the side, and attack her in other ways in fits of jealousy, or simply when rage overtook him. That final time, when he shut the windows so neighbors wouldn’t hear her scream, the police came and arrested him. Irina took refuge in a nearby women’s shelter, where she found out about Shalom Bayit. The agency sent emergency monetary support, and paid for an outside Russian translator who drove her once a week to a support group in the Oakland office.

It’s easier to express those darker moments in their native language.

Irina speaks good English now, but she didn’t at the time. Not only did the translator not do her job, but the woman was a virulent anti-Semite who would regale Irina during the long drives back and forth with her opinions of “the lazy Jews” from the former Soviet Union who “all come here and live off government money.”

No one on the Shalom Bayit staff realized what was going on until Irina finally admitted why she had stopped coming to the support group. “I was crying all the time,” she recalls. “It wasn’t a ‘support’ for me.”

Today Irina is one of Shalom Bayit’s six Russian-speaking clients. Three of them came forward after Kritsberg was hired, underscoring the need in that population.

One was a woman living in a shelter after her husband, who had brought her over from Russia essentially to take care of his six children, kicked her out when they were grown. He hadn’t even bothered to start the paperwork for her green card, something she didn’t realize as she spoke almost no English.

On top of that, she was on the verge of being kicked out of the shelter for not following rules she couldn’t understand. The shelter had assigned a Polish-speaking client to translate for her, which didn’t help at all.

Kritsberg entered, intervened with the shelter staff, sorted out the problems, found housing for the woman and got a judge to demand alimony from her ex-husband.

“Because we had this program, we were able to help her,” Kritsberg says.

“What’s been revealed is both the need and the fear,” Tucker says. “We’ve been met with jokes and denial, and people saying it’s not needed here. But there are people who need our support, and we want to provide it in a linguistically and culturally competent way.

“In any community, until you start unraveling the domestic violence, there’s a certain level of acceptability. If women don’t get the information, they may not know they have the right to ask for anything different. And in the Russian Jewish community, there are specific cultural barriers that prevent people from talking about it.”

Just 15 months ago, with the so-called “slapping law,” Russian President Vladimir Putin dismantled legislation in Russia protecting women from domestic violence, drastically reducing the penalties on perpetrators.

“What’s the cultural acceptability of how men treat women in Russia?” Tucker wonders openly. “I don’t believe abuse is more prevalent in the Russian Jewish community, but it’s not being talked about. That limits women’s ability to get help.”

Meanwhile, in 2010 Irina moved into subsidized housing in San Francisco, which Shalom Bayit helped her obtain. They also gave her food aid, a year’s worth of vouchers for transport to and from counseling and doctors’ appointments, a grant for medical fees for her injuries, vocational training and English classes — as well as Jewish holiday programming and gifts.

“Shalom Bayit helped me all along,” Irina says. “I have friends now [and] my apartment. It’s tiny, but that doesn’t matter — it’s my place, and no one can kick me out. I’m in a good place. I’m even teaching myself to play the guitar.”

She says she agreed to talk about her story with a reporter to encourage other women to come forward.

“Shalom Bayit helps me materially, emotionally and socially,” she says. “Maybe my story will help someone else.”

Shalom Bayit offers assistance toll-free at (866) SHALOM-7 or online at Native Russian speakers can email [email protected].

Sue Fishkoff

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