By Avital Levin, LMSW
Director of Education, Shalom Task Force
In many ways, Dina* is an ordinary Orthodox-Jewish woman preparing for the upcoming yom tov holidays. She is thinking about her grocery shopping lists and meal menus, contemplating the spiritual meaning and symbolism of the days, and coordinating plans with friends and relatives with whom she and her family will be spending parts of the holiday. But in addition to what so many of us experience as anticipation and holiday-related stress, Dina also associates yom tov with an increase in violence.
Dina is a survivor of a nine-year marriage to an abusive partner. The mother of four children, she reflects on her experience and shares messages that she feels will benefit other victims of abuse during this season. Her overarching message? You are not alone.
The yomim tovim were some of the most difficult and painful times in my marriage. The days leading up to yom tov were always fraught with an escalation in my husband’s anger and increased control over my activities.
I would look at my friends nonchalantly purchasing adorable children’s outfits and think about the grueling interrogation I would receive from my husband for going over a bare bone’s “allowance” at the grocery store. An allowance that was devised for the sole purpose of exerting control and harsh demands in yet another area of my life and activities.
Our financial situation was stable, and my husband’s loose spending on his own purchases bordered on indulgent, but when it came to my spending, I was the recipient of intense scrutiny and anger.
I remember this one time when my daughter begged me for a new pair of shoes for the new year. I handed her a pair that was passed down from a neighbor. “Mommy, I don’t like these; I’m embarrassed to wear them,” she whispered. I insisted that she wear them because of what happened the last time my husband found out about a purchase.
How he’d thrown my pocketbook across the room, punched the walls in anger, shouted, and cursed at me. I remembered the fearful look I’d caught in my son’s eyes, witnessing this violence.
I was afraid to rock the boat, so I told her no.
Then at shul, seeing the shiny new shoes of the other children brought fresh tears to my eyes and bruised my soul.
It pains me to reflect on the areas of emotional manipulation, restriction, and punishment that were imposed on me, and, by extension, on my children. It’s clear to me now that financial abuse was a central theme in the relationship, one of many forms of abuse that made up the pattern of my marriage.
Domestic abuse (also referred to as domestic violence or intimate partner violence) refers to a pattern of coercive behavior used to establish power and control over a partner in an intimate relationship. Forms of abuse may include physical, sexual, emotional, psychological, financial, spiritual, and digital. The abuse may be frequent or infrequent, severe or subtle. It can result in physical injury, psychological trauma, and sometimes death. The effect of domestic abuse is that people may feel afraid, threatened, depressed, and anxious; people may also be physically or sexually harmed.
According to the Center for Disease Control, the research reflects that nearly 1 in 4 women (22.3%) and 1 in 7 men (14.0%) ages 18 and older in the United States have been the victim of severe physical violence by an intimate partner in their lifetime.
Studies indicate that domestic abuse occurs in Jewish communities (within all streams of Judaism) at a rate similar to the general population.
In my marriage, the abuse took over everything; it was front and center in my home and in the lives of my family members.
During one incident, just hours before hadlakas neiros (candle lighting) for Rosh Hashanah, when I still had several important tasks to finish, my husband demanded that I sit with him at the table to discuss an important matter.
“Who were you on the phone with this morning?” he asked, glaring at me across the table.
“My friend Shira,” I replied.
“Why did you tell her that you’re feeling stressed?” he continued.
“I was just venting to her about being behind with some of the prep and cooking that I need to get done today. It’s no big deal, she feels the same way.”
“You really can’t ever just be happy, can you? You just can’t appreciate everything that I do for you? We’re going to sit here and you’re going to explain to me in depth, you’re going to ‘vent’ to me about all of the things that are so terrible in your life! I’m sick and tired of this! We’re not getting up until we’re done.”
I remember watching the clock, seeing the hours fly by, with yom tov fast approaching. My husband kept me at the table, didn’t allow me to go back to my preparations. He shouted at me for hours and barraged me with questions and insults, ranting about my lack of appreciation and that I was embarrassing him by venting to my friends.
I felt stuck in that situation, knowing that it would be easier, and this attack would end faster if I would just keep quiet and let him get through his bout of anger. He held the control in that situation, knowing that I needed to get back to preparations, and would do whatever it took to get through the episode.
That kind of situation happened on a regular basis in our marriage and used up large quantities of time and emotional energy. There was also the aftermath of the attack, a period of recovery which included holding my children’s and my own sadness and fears.
But the extra reality of yom tov stresses made things feel even more impossible.
As they do for anyone, preparations for yom tov include more purchases, more planning, more work, and more deadlines. A set number of tasks need to be completed in a specific amount of time. When anger, violence, and explosive incidents of fighting are a regular part of a marriage, deadlines become meaningless. Schedules are upended at any given time. The victim’s sense of loss of control and increased stress intensifies with the added pressures of yom tov planning and responsibilities. For an individual who is already extending a tremendous amount of energy in her role surviving and enduring constant attacks of abuse, the additional energy strain is overwhelming.
Another aspect of yom tov that created intense stress for me was the amount of time spent together as a family, as well as the pressure to keep up appearances in front of other people.
My usual experience of walking on eggshells around my husband and trying to manage all areas that might provoke his attacks went into hyper-vigilance mode around yom tov. At any given moment, the increased amount of times we were spending together provided ample opportunities for him to find things to lash out about. It also gave him more ability to use our children to implement his hurtful tactics.
One traumatic chol ha’moed incident comes to mind: We planned a full-day outing to the amusement park days in advance. My husband shared the details of the plan with our children who were jumping up and down in excitement.
The morning of the trip, a few minutes before we were set to leave, my husband tripped over a bag of paper goods that was left in a corner of the kitchen floor. My youngest, who was three at the time, let out a giggle at the sight of plastic spoons flying everywhere.
My husband flew into a rage, shouting at my son and demanding to know why the house was such a pigsty. My son burst into tears and ran to my side where I took his hand in mine. My husband grabbed my arms and shouted: “You have no respect for me! You teach your children not to respect me! We are not going anywhere today!” He stormed out the front door and drove off, returning late that evening.
My children were devastated and kept crying: “We were supposed to go on the chol ha’moed trip!” My helplessness in not being able to protect my children and cushion their pain in that experience still brings up a fresh wave of pain when approaching chol ha’moed today.
For someone who has never experienced domestic violence, the question of why a survivor stays with an abusive partner can be very difficult to understand. There are many reasons why it might be hard to leave an abusive relationship. The reasons for staying vary from one survivor to the next, and they usually involve several factors. Some of these factors, significant when there are children involved, include fear of emotional damage to the children over the loss of a parent, even if that parent is abusive, as well as shidduch-related pressure. Other reasons include feeling responsible to uphold the shalom bayis, guilt or shame over the failure of the relationship, love for the abuser, and feeling responsible for the abuse.
In addition to our immediate family, the presence of extended family and guests on yom tov presented the need to “be on” and to “keep up appearances.” I was full of fear and anxiety wondering if people would pick up on what was going on in my marriage.
I tried to overcompensate by being extra-friendly to the cousins visiting my in-laws, sharing small talk with neighbors, and planting a smile on my face at all times. When my husband insulted me in front of the guests, I laughed, trying to mask the attack as playful teasing.
When my children asked me to play cards with them, I thought about the shouting and violence they had witnessed at our meal the night before. Wracked with guilt over our home situation, I played game after game with them all afternoon.
I knew deep inside that something was really off with my marriage.
By the end of yom tov, I felt wrung-out and exhausted, like I had run a marathon. And all I had to show for it was the very heavy sensation of a question that carried the weight of my entire life on its shoulders. What would I do next?
- Believe the person telling you they are being abused. Let them know that you are available to help whenever they may need it. What they need most is someone who will believe and listen.
- Acknowledge and validate that they are in a very difficult and scary situation. Their abuser may have them convinced that they are at fault or don’t deserve better treatment. Let them know that the abuse is not their fault. If she is blaming herself, try to reframe: “I don’t care if you did prepare a meal late or forgot to fill the car with gas; that is no reason for him to be violent with you. This is his problem.”
- Be non-judgmental; respect their decisions. There are many reasons why victims stay in abusive relationships. They may leave and return to the relationship many times. Do not criticize their decisions or try to guilt them.
- Reassure them that they are not alone and that there is help and support out there.
- Be a trusted confidant. Keep all information entrusted to you confidential (exception: contacting an organization or law enforcement).
- Gently guide the victim to find help. Urge the victim to seek consultation about a safety plan.
- Remember that it takes an average of seven attempts for a survivor to leave a domestic violence relationship. Supporting a survivor to achieve safety and healing can be a long-term effort.
- Don’t try to fix the problem or become a counselor. Your local domestic violence agency is staffed with trained personnel to counsel victims and help to ensure their safety. Don’t put yourself in harm’s way or increase the danger for the victim by getting in the middle.
- Remember that you cannot “rescue” them. Although it is difficult to see someone you care about get hurt, ultimately they are the ones who have to make the decisions about what they want to do. It’s important for you to support them no matter what they decide, and help them find a way to safety and peace.
- Don’t give up hope. Be patient and go at the survivor’s pace, not yours.
Our hotline sees a spike in calls following yom tov holidays. Shalom Task Force’s confidential, anonymous hotline provides a listening ear to all. Our referrals help our callers gain access to helpful referrals including legal assistance, counseling, and safe shelters. If you or anyone you know needs a listening ear, Shalom Task Force is available at 718-337-3700 or 888-883-2323.
Shalom Task Force’s Annual Brunch will take place on Sunday, November 17, 9:30 a.m. at Sephardic Temple, 775 Branch Blvd in Cedarhurst. The brunch provides critical funding to help victims of domestic violence, including a confidential hotline and free legal services. This year, our honorees are Miriam Ellenberg, Guest of Honor; Rabbi Yehuda and Lisa Septimus, Community Leadership Award; and Shaindy Urman, Pillar of Strength Award. We will also be recognizing the incredible public service of NYC Council Member Rory Lancman, NYS Assemblyman Andrew Hevesi, and NYS Senator Todd Kaminsky. For reservations and/or donations, visit ShalomTaskForce.org.
*All names, identifying features, and some aspects of the interview were altered to protect the individual’s confidentiality and privacy. It is important to note that while the survivor interviewed here is female and the abusive partner depicted is male, abuse affects everyone, and the experiences of victims transcend gender and every other area of categorization.