Giving Voice to the Unspeakable

Giving Voice to the Unspeakable:
Chicago Organization Documents Domestic Violence in Jewish Community

by Abigail Pickus

It’s been 25 years since Shalva opened its doors in Chicago to support and provide relief for Jewish women suffering from domestic violence.

In honor of its ‘silver anniversary,’ the oldest independent Jewish domestic violence services agency in the United States has released a comprehensive study analyzing its data and client cases to show a concrete picture of domestic violence in Chicago’s Jewish community as a springboard for dialogue and change throughout the country.

“The reason for doing this study was to shed light on how domestic abuse operates specifically within the Jewish community and to understand how prevalent it is,” said Barbara Siegel, Shalva’s Clinical Director.

The study also serves to dismantle widespread myths in the Jewish community and to serve as an advocate for change, according to Siegel.

Domestic violence is when a person uses power and control to manipulate an intimate partner. It can take various forms, everything from emotional and psychological to physical and sexual, according to Siegel. “There is a whole continuum of abuse,” said Ava Newbart, Shalva’s Director of Development.

“There is abuse you can see and there is the abuse you don’t see, such as the emotional or financial abuse. We have clients who experience it all.”

One of biggest myths Shalva works to disprove is that Jewish women do not experience domestic violence. In fact, the rate of domestic violence within the Jewish community is consistent with abuse within the greater community. Current statistics hold that one out of every four woman is touched by some kind of abuse. It is estimated that for each person who seeks help, at least four or five remain silent.

According to the study, 60% of SHALVA’s clients are college educated, which dispels another myth that domestic abuse does not happen to “smart women.”

“One thing we found was that many people think that if you are a Jewish woman and you are college educated, you should be able to leave [an abusive relationship]. It makes no sense to them. They think if you have a college degree you can get a job,” said Siegel. But there is no correlation between education and being able to leave an abusive relationship. In fact, lack of finances and concern for the children are the biggest factors preventing women from leaving an abusive relationship, which is often compounded by feelings of shame and isolation. (63% of Shalva’s clients have children.)

The lack of finances facing many of Shalva’s clients are significant with 77% citing financial obstacles for preventing them from leaving an abusive relationship. This statistic contradicts another common perception that Jewish women are financially secure or wealthy. In fact, SHALVA’s research shows that it is often the husbands who wield disproportionate control over the marital finances, regardless of the wife’s income. Examples include one man who gave his wife $50 for expenses for the whole family to last the entire week and another who told his wife that he would give her money each month if she was a “good girl.”

“What we discovered is that many of our clients are living in what we termed, ‘functional poverty.’ What this means is they are not eligible for any kind of free programming (except for Shalva’s services) because on paper it looks like they have assets, which they do because they often have a house or a car, but they have no access to it. It’s all his,” said Siegel.

SHALVA was launched in 1986 by 12 Orthodox women. In their first year they served 24 clients from the Orthodox community. Today, nearly 25 years later, they have helped over 4,000 clients from across all socio-economic and Jewish denominational spectrums. Shalva’s services include counseling, financial assistance, legal support, a 24-hour help line, rabbinical and community advocacy and prevention and educational programs – all free of charge.

What separates SHALVA from other domestic violence services agencies is its connection to Jewish living, values and observance. Jewish victims of domestic abuse are often fearful that they will not be believed or they worry that they will embarrass their family or the community, which leads to feelings of isolation and powerlessness. (“Sometimes the abuser is a pillar in the community,” said Newbart.)

Other issues singularly affecting the Jewish community include husbands who refuse to grant their wives a Get. “This is really a form of extortion,” said Siegel. “They might say, ‘I’ll give you the Get if you give me the kids or I’ll give you the Get but then I won’t pay you any money.’” There is also Israel’s Law of Return, which abusive husbands can manipulate by taking the children and fleeing to Israel.

For the past ten years, Bobbie Gordon, SHALVA’s Director of Community Education, has been speaking to groups around the Chicagoland area about domestic violence.

“Sometimes when there is a really horrible case that comes into the office we’re still shocked. We can’t help but think, ‘Does this really happen in our community?’ But it does,” she said. “When I speak at a Sisterhood, for example, the first thing I say is, ‘Look around you. Statistically, one out of four of you have been, will be or are in an abusive relationship. What do you think our clients look like or where do they live?’ Always they think they live somewhere else. But they don’t. They live right here. They are sitting right next to you.”

With such a comprehensive study, Shalva hopes to encourage other communities across the country to build upon their knowledge and to figure out ways to help those suffering from abuse, according to Siegel.

Shalva commissioned its study in partnership with the Chapin Hall Center for Children at the University of Chicago and the Criminology Department at the University of Massachusetts-Lowell. An executive summary titled, “Giving Voice to the Unspeakable: Documenting Domestic Violence in the Chicago Jewish Community” is available online.