“Gam B’beytim Tovim: Ending the Silence of Domestic Abuse in Affluent Jewish Homes”
By Elka Fradel (pseudonym)
I will never forget the first time I walked into Hometown Safe Place, a local domestic abuse support center, only a block from my faculty office. Immediately, I feel like a fraud. I am a highly educated Jewish woman from an affluent family. I have a wonderful job at a liberal arts college where I not only teach on the faculty, but also work directly with the office of the college President. I am the former CEO of a national Jewish organization and a highly sought after Jewish educational consultant. My brain is all over the place. Why am I here?
As I sit to wait to meet with my counselor Sarah, my eyes quickly scan a bulletin board offering help with housing, a food pantry, employment placement help, education assistance, legal aid… I just don’t belong here. I can buy my own groceries, I have a roof over my head. I’m supposed to be the synagogue committee volunteer handing out the free toiletry bags to the unfortunate abused women.
Sarah calls me into her office and I must go in. It took me five months and a strong recommendation from the Vice-President of Student Affairs, and the head of Campus Safety to make this appointment. I settle into my chair and the floodgates open. Within a few minutes, I realize that I am exactly where I need to be if I ever want to truly get the help that I so desperately needed.
I have been the victim of domestic abuse for all fourteen years that I was married to my husband, a congregational rabbi, trained at a prestigious seminary, where we met. The abuse has been my held secret. My parents knew that something was wrong but couldn’t put their finger on it. My friends knew that they did not like my husband but were never really sure why. Every morning I took care to get dressed nicely for work and put a smile on my face. No one should know that inside I am falling apart. When I was in the middle of teaching, holding a meeting, speaking to a group, or soliciting a donor, it was so comforting, so easy to escape. So easy to forget.
To the rest of the world I was a confident and successful Jewish community professional. In truth, the minute I entered my home, away from the congregants, the students, the donors, and the board members, I was entering a living hell of power and control. Every day my husband would choose something new to be angry at me for, or more commonly, would not speak to me for days upon days because “you should know what you did wrong.” When we would attend synagogue functions at congregational members homes, he would humiliate me by pulling me outside in the middle of the event to “correct your poor behavior.” The stronger my career got, the worse the abuse. I was only allowed to spend time with friends that he approved of and only at times that he approved of. I was only allowed to invite friends or colleagues over to our home with his approval and would get strongly disciplined if I dared to break that rule. At one point, he forced me to go to the bank with him to make sure that I was telling the truth that all our finances were co-mingled. His suspicions never ended.
In another attempt to gain control, my husband called ambulances several times to report false suicide attempts. When the ER doctors confirmed that I indeed had no plans to kill myself, I was left alone to return home at 2am without a car, cell phone, purse or keys. I was constantly accused of having affairs and hiding money. Sadly, this is just a small portion of what I endured in secret silence for over fourteen years.
It took the sudden and unexpected death of my beloved father at the early age of 66 for me to finally understand that what was transpiring in my personal life was not OK. Due to his instance on holding the power and control of the relationship, and despite being told by the police that I needed to leave for my own safety, actually leaving him took a secret and succinct team effort of help from friends, students and work colleagues.
How was this possible? How did a “nice Jewish girl” from an educated and affluent family end up in this horrible cycle of abuse? It happened because the Jewish community does not do enough to educate our daughters about power and control in relationships. How can you seek help or escape from abuse if one does not even know that they are being abused?
When I finally came forward to several of my rabbinic friends and colleagues and revealed my secret, I was met with skepticism and disbelief. “Well, did he hit you?” “Come on, was it really that bad?’ “I hope you get the help that you are looking for. I can’t get involved.”
I choose to share this with you today because sadly I know that I am not alone. Even in my small southern Jewish community, I have many close friends that are suffering from horrible domestic abuse, worse than what I endured and continue to endure. Like me, these friends are highly educated Jewish women, married to Jewish men with “good jobs” and from “good homes.” I listen to their stories and hear their cries for help, but like the 4th child of the Passover Hagaddah, they do not even know enough to ask. The Jewish community has socialized them to believe that abuse simply “doesn’t happen” in Jewish homes. Domestic abuse centers are for poor people, not for us. Better to just keep it quiet.
It is time for the dynamic to change and for spaces to be created for Jewish victims of domestic abuse, no matter their socioeconomic or social standing. It is time for our clergy and community leadership to open their hearts and their doors to what is happening in their own communities. Please here our cries, and please let us in. Our lives are depending on it.