A Sanctuary to Dwell in: Life for Frum Women- and their children- in domestic violence shelters
By: Michael Eisikowitz
Published in Family First magazine, June 19, 2013
On her first night in a greater-Jerusalem women's shelter, Kayla lay quaking in her bed. "I was awake all night," she recalls. "I knew there was an alarm, a camera system, and a security guard, but I couldn't help it. I kept getting up to make sure the windows and doors were locked. If it wasn't my husband chasing me, I just knew it would be someone else's crazy husband." After nine years of relentless physical and emotional abuse, Kayla - an American-born woman living in Israel - took the gargantuan step of seeking shelter, and the transition was deathly frightening. Eight months later, she emerged completely changed - a healthy, functioning mother who'd regained her eroded self-esteem. "I came in thinking I was worth nothing, on the brink of going crazy," she says. "I was emotionally unstable, petrified of becoming suicidal. "By the time I left, I had an incredible amount of self-esteem. I'd also discovered how my childhood had made me more vulnerable to abuse. But the biggest thing? I left with the rock-solid knowledge that I wasn't guilty for what happened to me as a child, not for my husband's abuse, and not for his abusing my children. I had nothing to do with his craziness - and now I was going to start fresh." How did this seemingly magical transformation occur? Domestic violence shelters transmit an intense package of physical and emotional healing that is systematic in professional approach yet highly empathic. The battered woman is enveloped in love and kindness, empowering her to reestablish a sense of identity and return to healthy living.
No Other Choice
Women like Kayla are a minority. Baruch Hashem, abuse is the exception rather than the norm. But the number of women who seek shelter is still far less than the number of women in abusive situations. "Especially for ftum women, a shelter is a last resort," says Noach Korman, founder of Bat Melech shelters in Israel, and a lawyer and to'ein rabbani by profession. Besides the shame of "going public," entering a shelter sometimes means relinquishing everything familiar - your neighborhood, your kids' schools, your job, and even your name. "In particularly dangerous situations, the woman and her children may need to receive aliases," explains Debbie Fox, former director of the Orthodox division of Los Angeles's Jewish Family Services. "It means giving up everything you know." What's more, besides OHEL and Bat Melech-who service primarily religious women - shelters cater to the population at large. Many women are repulsed by the thought ofliving with unsavory elements in an alien environment. For these reasons, women who land in shelters are either those who have few family or communal resources or those who have suffered violence so extreme that they'd be endangering host families by seeking refuge there. "My siblings were the ones who encouraged me to go," relates Kayla. "I had been staying with them, but when they realized the extent of the abuse, they knew they were in over their heads."
Beyond The Physical
Most people associate women in shelters with a history of physical assault. While this assumption is true - bodily violence is almost always present- abuse never manifests in beatings alone: It's a conglomeration of horror, with emotional, intimate, or financial abuse heavily interwoven. Emotional abuse involves incessant belittling of the wife, reducing her self-esteem to the point where she feels deserving cif maltreatment. "My husband constantly told me I was crazy," remembers Kayla, "and after enough time, I believed him. He refused to sing Eishes Chayil - and I had no complaints: I wasn't an eishes chayil." In fact, when Kayla arrived at the shelter, she didn't even view herself as abused (although social workers described her case as "one of the worst they'd ever seen''). Another element is financial abuse, where the abusive spouse manipulates purse strings to assert power. ''I've worked with women whose husbands regularly cancel credit cards or car insurance on a moment's notice, just to demoralize them," reports Elke Stein, LCSW, director of the Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault unit at New Jersey's Project S.A.R.A.H. (Stop Abusive Relationships At Home). Financially abusive spouses are also very restrictive with cash. "My husband was making a six-figure salary, but I had no money to go grocery shopping," testifies one formerly abused woman. ''I'd ask him for $40, and he'd give me $20." In the ftum world, spiritual abuse is yet another form of exploitation. In this abominable distortion of Torah values, the husband employs his superior familiarity with Torah texts and greater accessibility to rabbis to wield control. "The rav said you cannot call your mother if it upsets me," an abusive husband might inform his wife (whom he is attempting to isolate ftom a support system). Too embarrassed, scared, or naive to double-check, the wife might never know it was a total fabrication. In Kayla's case, her husband often quoted a fake rabbinic adage about exorcising insanity with sticks (i.e. violence). "My education couldn't match his, so how could I argue?" she says. Whatever the nature of the abuse, asserts Lisa Twerski, LCSW, a noted Brooklyn-based psychotherapist who deals extensively with domestic abuse, the underlying process is the same. "At his core, the abuser believes in his entitlement to absolute power. The tactic he uses simply depends on what he finds most effective in exerting control."
Making The Move
A woman who arrives at a shelter requires more than just physical protection: She is a broken vessel in need of expert, painstaking repair. But what impels her to finally make the move? "There's often a trigger," says OHEL director Esther Katz. "Either a particularly violent incident occurred or the woman intuitively senses things are volatile - maybe he lost his job, or she just had a baby." The transfer is hardly simple: The most dangerous time for an abused woman is when she is contemplating leaving, so every step must be planned with utmost discretion. In one case, Esther relates, it took over three months to carefully hatch a safe exit plan. Social workers sometimes enlist help from the children's schools, whisking the kids away at dismissal. "When a woman leaves her husband," says Debbie Fox, "she's at greatest risk. There's rage and vulnerability; he never thought she would actually leave." The sudden loss of control induces outrageous reactions. Kayla saw this firsthand. After an especially upsetting outburst, she begged for a divorce. Her husband responded by launching his most violent tirade ever, then locking her in the house. Once a woman is safely ensconced in the shelter, however, the abuser sometimes begins singing a different tune. "When a few days have passed," says Lisa Twerski, "he realizes it's over." The fac; ade of power has dissipated; the balloon of control has popped. These brave escapees vary enormously in age: Bat Melech, for example, has housed women from ages 18 to 67. However, the typical shelter-seeker today is between 20 and 35, with two or three children in tow - in contrast to ten or fifteen years ago, when the classic age bracket was 40 to 50. Esther Katz believes the difference is due to recent educational strides. "Women have learned to identifY abuse sooner, and they're not willing to suffer - or let their children suffer." Those who hold out usually have thought-out reasons. "Many worry familyiir,i about the impact on shidduchim," says Project S.A.R.A.H. director Elke Stein. "These women often have exit plans 'after the bar mitzvah,' 'after Pesach,' or 'after the children grow up.' " Regardless of age, social workers stress that it's incredibly hard to recognize abuse while living with it on a daily basis. "One woman came to us through Tipat Chalav [Israel's well-baby clinics]," recounts Noach Korman. "Her answers to the nurse's standard questions were completely transparent - she didn't attempt to hide the reality, because she didn't think anything was wrong. She had accepted the most absurd routines (like getting her husband's permission to use the bathroom) as normal." Thanks to this conditioning, the first night in the shelter is actually the most traumatic. Steeped in self-doubt over this apocalyptic life decision, the transition is overwhelming. "Our therapists often sit with these women well into the night," shares Esther Katz. "They are still questioning themselves: 'Did I make the right choice?' " Interestingly, the following morning usually brings an inner transformation. "It was like Yetziyas Mitzrayim," one shelter resident later told Esther. "I felt free for the first time in my life." Although the women are still apprehensive about their future, a measure of peace invariably descends upon them.
The Healing Process
Once the family settles into the shelter, the real work begins, with two paramount goals: safety and healing. "Our first priority is ensuring that the women and children are physically safe," stresses Esther. Shelter locations are kept under strict wraps and secured with cameras and guards. If children continue attending their previous school, the bus takes them on a circuitous route, never picking up or dropping them off too dose to the shelter. Medical issues require attention, too, since some arrivals have neglected their health for years. With physical wellbeing stabilized, shelter staff can start rebuilding the woman's shattered sense of self and help her move past the deep trauma. "The first thing we do is validate her," says Esther. "Countless women have said, in wonderment: 'You believe me? You're not going to tell my husband?' " After repeated emotional, verbal, and physical pummeling, they can't conceive they are worth believing. Most .shelters mandate both individual and group weekly. therapy sessions, for residents and their children - who usually experienced severe trauma and abuse as well. Often, battered women meet in weekly support groups to share stories and empower each other. "It's very intense; we pack it in," says Noach Korman. "These women won't be here forever." Therapists specially trained in domestic abuse help clients get reacquainted with themselves, teaching them to respect the person in the mirror. The question posed most often is, "Who were you before the abuse?" "Most of these women have post-traumatic stress disorder, so we also do a lot of basic trauma work," adds Esther. Residents also receive essential parenting guidance. Because they were demeaned so absolutely in front of their children, they need to regain authority, quickly. "When a husband gives out Kiddush and deliberately skips his wife, the kids imbibe that," Mr. Korman says sadly. "When he continually calls her 'retarded' or 'stupid,' they internalize it." Another critical service shelters provide is legal counsel. Whether issuing an order of protection or initiating divorce proceedings, pro bono staff lawyers assist the overwhelmed women in navigating an intimidating legal labyrinth - minus the exorbitant fees. Vocational guidance is offered as well. Since many women have to become financially independent, shelters often subsidize academic programs or vocational courses, or assist with job placement. "The shelter gave me tools to provide for my family," acknowledges a grateful Reena, who stayed in the OHEL shelter with three children after ten years in an abusive marriage. "Without that, I might have lost custody." Notably, shelters also serve frequently as mediators between women and their "alienated" family. "A hallmark of abuse is isolation," explains Lisa Twerski. "The husband attempts to sever his wife from all valuable resources - family, friends, neighbors. Family members are often miffed, thinking their daughter or sister intentionally distanced herself It never occurred to them that she was being forced to dissociate." Repairing family relationships uncovers a cache of love and support for the rough times ahead. Esther' Katz stresses that shelters like OHEL are not there to take sides - it's not about who's right. "We provide safety and healing to any woman who approaches us. Sometimes husbands will say: 'She's exaggerating!' or 'She's making it up!' That makes no difference, because if in her mind she doesn't feel safe, we need to help." On average, women stay at shelters for six months, mostly due to funding regulations. "New York provides funding for about six months, except in extraordinary cases," says Esther Katz. "Is every woman ready to leave by then? They're each much stronger than when they came, but the work of healing must continue even after their time in the shelter." "We do a lot of hand-holding for those who wish: ongoing counseling, funds for legal services, and support," Esther continues. "We extend an arm that is always there if they want it." SPIRITUAL GASHES A large percentage of shelter residents struggle with issues of faith. They must learn to distinguish between the detestable behavior of their husbands - card-carrying members of frum society - and true Torah values. "We see women whose faith is about to break down," says Noach Korman. "They've suffered terribly, often in the name of 'frumkeit,' and understandably, they unleash their anger on fum society." What's more, many women feel betrayed by their communities - no one cared enough to intervene. Baalei teshuvah and converts become particularly disillusioned, notes Lynn Goldblatt, coordinator of services for the Jewish-Orthodox community in Rockland County. "I abandoned everything familiar to embrace Jrumkeit ... and then no one is there for me?" they wonder. "Is this why I overturned my entire life - to be shunned?" 34 familyil'rst , "Clients say, 'I'm not welcomed into people's homes like when I was married,'" reports Lynn. "Or 'My eightyear- old son sits at home on Shabbos because no one offers to take him to shul.'" For the most part, shelters do not address spiritual vicissitudes directly. "It's not our role to deal with religious crises," stresses Mr. Korman. "We can only provide a loving, supportive environment and show her that Yiddishkeit can be good and wholesome and rich."
Home Sweet... Shelter
Besides the battered women, shelters must attend to the needs of another population: the accompanying children. As witnesses to horrific scenes, these innocent victims often arrive thoroughly traumatized. "When my three-year-old saw my husband hurting me, he would scream hysterically for hours," remembers Kayla. "My seven-year-old coped by playing imagination games quietly, trying to escape reality in his mind." While the initial adjustment is difficult - particularly if the children have to change schools or assume new identities- with time, the kids feel very much at home. "When we visited friends for Shabbos, by the end of the day, my kids would say: 'Let's go home now,' " shares Kayla. "They really viewed the shelter as their home." Besides weekly therapy, most shelters work hard to provide kids with an array of recreational activities. Bat Melech offers regular daily activities and special holiday programs, including trips and entertainment. A most challenging aspect for shelter kids, however, is the unsettling flux of residents. "People were always coming and going," explains Kayla. "My kids would get attached to another woman's children, and then poof -one day, they're gone." Similarly, if a family with a particularly horrific story moves in, the rehabilitating children may relive the trauma all over again. Some shelters, like Bat Melech, arrange supervised visits with the father (of course, case-dependent). While many professionals contend that it is healthy for these children to have limited contact with their fathers - sometimes just to know they have one -visits emotionally drain both the children and staff. "The kids often come back completely hyperactive," says Noach Korman. "They become very wild, very aggressive." Recently, he recalls, a 12-year-old boy saw his father for the first time since leaving home, and he was terribly frightened. "What if he hits me? What if he chases me? Who's going to watch me?" the boy cried in advance of the meeting. "A social worker will be with you the entire time," reassured his mother. "But what if the social worker has to use the bathroom?" the child demanded to know. This exchange is but a small indicator of the extent of the trauma these children sustain.
Back Home or a Fresh Start?
For most women, time in the shelter passes all too quickly. At the end of their allotted stay, they must decide: Will they reconcile with their husbands or seek divorce? "It's not within our purview to push women one way or another," emphasizes Esther Katz. "We don't encourage dissolution of marriages; we take the woman's lead." "The whole approach of shelter treatment is to give the woman independence, to ingrain that her opinion counts. If you start making decisions for her, you've defeated your goal," adds Debbie Fox. Noach Korman notes that even when a woman chooses against the staffs better judgment, they assist her wholeheartedly regardless. As a firsthand observer, Kayla says this is one of the hardest things to watch. "You'd see a woman packing to move back home, and you have this pit in your stomach because the chances of things improving were virtually nil. It was wrenching." About 25 percent of women from Bat Melech return to their husbands - unsuccessfully in most cases, Mr. Korman notes regretfully. Bat Melech has hosted "repeat customers" over the years. The return rate among .frum women is far lower, however, than the 50 percent of women in the general population who go back to their husbands. "Frum women only come when it's really, really bad," explains Mr. Korman. "They're less inclined to give 'another chance'; they gave a million already."
Looking Out for your Neighbor
Considering the gravity of domestic violence, what can community members do to help? For starters, says Noach Korman, do not turn a blind eye. "If you see something, say something," he implores. "It's not just a nice thing to do-it is a Torah obligation dearly defined in Shulchan Aruch. And don't convince yourself 'He's such a nice guy, it can't be' -we've seen countless Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hydes."
Look out for these common red flags of domestic abuse. Your friend ...
â€˘ Has become withdrawn and unsociable. She used to be involved in numerous com munity events, but now hardly leaves her house.
â€˘ Is publicly insulted by her husband, but responds submissively, acceptingly.
â€˘ Rarely picks up the phone when you call. When she does, you hear her husband in the background, asking "Who are you talking to?"
â€˘ Frequently and suddenly misses work or school, or cancels plans.
â€˘ Receives constant calls from her husband whenever she is out of the house.
â€˘ Rarely goes to family members for Shabbos or Yom Tov.
Concerned observers should phone an experienced rav or professional organizations like Shalom Task Force for guidance. Rav Yitzchak Berkovits, a prominent Yerushalayim posek, recommends that in case of doubt - or when there is no connection between the observer and victim - one should call a domestic violence organization that will discreetly insert some important reading material, cleverly disguised as a mass mailing, into the woman's mailbox. In this way, she is safely informed of the resources at her disposal. The community can also pitch in by extending hands-on support to domestically abused women - whether in the form of Shabbos invitations, meals, babysitting offers, or simply a kind smile. But more globally, Lisa T werski believes proper education is paramount to reducing abuse. "It's important that our girls don't receive a 'blank-check' education," she says. "They are taught repeatedly about accommodating their husbands' needs, but there's no qualifier at the end of the lesson. What can be beautiful and important hashkafos for a healthy marriage can have devastating results in an abusive marriage." When it comes to identifYing abuse, she insists, the stakes are too high for ambiguity about what constitutes middos- and what constitutes tolerance of abuse. In one chilling case, Mrs. T werski remembers a client who finally poured out her heart to her husband's mashgiach, after 15 years of abuse. "Why did you wait so long to come to me, to reach out for help?" the mashgiach asked, horrified. "I learned about being an ishah kesheirah," the woman replied. "No one ever told me that ishah kesheirah - doing your husband's ratzon- doesn't apply if you're being abused." Mrs. Twerski cautions community members not to offer unsolicited, inappropriate advice to an abused relative or friend, but rather instead to refer them to professional help. "People have good intentions, but they don't really know what's helpful. At times they push a woman and her children to endure devastating abuse; other times, they push her to seek relief and rush out of the marriage in a way that is unsafe, or in a way that destroys all chances of preserving the marriage [in cases where it could have been preserved]." Frum professionals worldwide acknowledge that our community has come a long way in recognizing abuse and developing resources to combat it. As Rav Shmuel Kamenetsky noted drily in a conversation with Noach Korman about the heightened awareness of domestic violence, "there's simply no more room under the rug." Contemporary rabbis undergo significantly more training to identify abuse - a critical piece, since the rav is often the first responder in these explosive situations. They also learn what not to do from organizations like Shalom Task Force . For example, if a bartered woman pleads with a rav to speak with her husband about treating her better, professionals strongly advise against it. The husband will likely become enraged that she "spilled the beans," and the violence will intensify. Regardless of how community members choose to get involved, "Don't be judgmental," urges Elke Stein. "When people see a bartered woman remaining with her husband or continually returning to him, they tire of helping her. "It may take time for her to leave - and it may never happen - but she needs to know she can continuously reach out for help, no matter what. We cannot imagine what she's experiencing." STOPPING
The Cylce of Abuse
Even in this vortex of darkness, there is hope. For some spouses, the wife's departure induces a jolting realization: maybe it's not about control and power. Maybe I have a problem. "We received a note from a formerly abusive husband who underwent extensive therapy," recounts Esther Katz. "He wrote: 'Thank you for reuniting me with my family. If my wife hadn't left, I would never have learned to lead a normal life.' " Noach Korman relates a story where the marriage was irreparable, but the shelter stay led to a positive outcome. "A few weeks ago, I attended the wedding of a boy who'd kept in touch since he stayed in our shelter at age 11. As I watched him stand under the chuppah, beaming, our eyes met- and he broke into a broad smile. He looked exactly like his father, an exceptionally violent man; the physical resemblance was uncanny. But I knew with certainty that he would treat his wife differently. "With healing and support, this boy learned another way - and he's choosing the path of love and respect."