To the outside world, Sarah and her family were a typical middle-class Jewish family. But after his business started to fail, Sarah’s husband began to control and humiliate her. He stopped her contacting friends and colleagues, tried to dictate what she wore and forced her into a purely domestic role. He became aggressive with their two children. Eventually she sought help through the charity Jewish Women’s Aid and won a restraining order against him.
Hers is not an uncommon story (a full account can be read below). Figures from a 2002 report by the Council of Europe showed that one in four women experience domestic violence at some point in their lifetimes, and between six and 10 per cent of women suffer domestic violence in a given year.
And according to the head of Jewish Women’s Aid (JWA), Emma Bell, there is no reason to believe that these statistics would be different in the Jewish community. “There are no patterns to domestic violence,” she says. “It’s one of those things that seem to exist in every socioeconomic group, at every age, among women who are terribly affluent and women who are educated.
“There’s sometimes a sense in the Jewish community of ‘it doesn’t happen to us’, but JWA doesn’t have any evidence to show that. All we have evidence to show is that there are a lot of women in the community who are affected by domestic violence and that there is a stigma and shame attached to it.”
Established in Leeds in the 1980s, and then expanded to become a national charity based in London, JWA was set up to help Jewish women in abusive relationships by offering them practical support in areas like housing, benefits, advocacy and legal issues. It offers one-to-one counselling for victims, and it has a refuge which houses eight women and their children. In 2008 this facility was used by 20 women before they were rehoused.
The victims the organisation deals with suffer a variety of abuse — emotional, physical, financial and sexual. Of these, it is the emotional pain which is the most prevalent and often the worst.
“There’s perhaps not enough attention paid to the role that emotional abuse plays in domestic violence towards women,” says Bell. “It’s something that does affect a lot of our clients. There are very few cases where physical abuse happens without emotional abuse.
“According to a survey by Refuge, a national domestic violence organisation, for 89 per cent of respondants, the abuser was also exerting financial control. And in the vast majority of cases, more than one type of abuse will be present.
“Although it sounds counterintuitive, there have been women who have said to me that they find emotional abuse in some ways worse, as they feel that the enduring, repetitious, humiliating nature of it completely undermines their sense of themselves. And it never goes away. They say: ‘The way he gets inside my head is something I can’t bare.’”
The problem of abuse has been longstanding — what has changed in recent times is that more women are coming forward. JWA says it has been dealing with more abused women than ever. Part of the reason is that it now has a presence in the Stamford Hill strictly Orthodox community, with outreach worker Sharon Port, herself an Orthodox Jew, available once a week to give advice and support. “As a result of that initiative, in the first six months of this year we have had the same number of referrals from that community as we had in the whole of last year,” says Bell.
Sheila Miller is a councillor who gives emotional support to women who seek JWA’s help. She has been a volunteer with the charity since 1996 after working full time for Norwood child care.
“Women may come to us when they realise that they have got to do something, or they may have already left the abuser but they still live with this terrible feeling that they were in the wrong,” she says.
“The abuser is normally a husband or partner but could even be a father or other family member. They can be caring men to everyone in the outside world but behind closed doors they are controllers. They have to control their wife or family. They come from all backgrounds. Often the man is very high up in his profession. In some cases they have themselves come from dominating parents or parents that are controlling.
Miller adds that although awareness of abuse is higher now, many victims still feel that somehow they are at fault. “By the time a victim sees us, she’s very confused, very afraid, in fact quite often, she blames herself,” she says. “There are cases where she will stick with her partner until the abuse starts on her children. Then she’ll do something.”
Nicole is an outreach worker for JWA who helps women navigate the practicalities of leaving the family home. She requested that she be identified only by her first name — revealing her identity would, she says, affect her ability to do her job.
“Firstly I speak with a woman over the phone to get a general idea of what’s happening,” she says. “It might be that it’s a crisis situation and we need to start immediate work, and it might be something that can wait. In a lot of cases there is emotional abuse where women didn’t realise it was abuse — it’s the only kind of relationship they know. But the defining factor would be the controlling.
“For a lot of women, there are more reasons to stay in an abusive relationship than to leave, especially if you consider how it affects the children. We would be there to support her, to listen to her and advise her how she can remain safe in the situation — for example, we advise that she always has a phone on her and ask whether she has a neighbour she can confide in.
“It’s one of the most dangerous times when a woman decides to leave a relationship so we would never encourage someone to leave.”
Working in the strictly Orthodox community of north-east London, the challenge for Sharon Port has been to gain women’s trust.
“I’m not necessarily a part of the Charedi community [she is a member a Federation synagogue in Edgware], but I understand enough about it for clients here to feel comfortable talking to me,” she says.
She adds that she is encountering the same kind of abuse as seen in the secular world, although incidences of physical violence are rarer. That does not stop the women experiencing the same levels of desperation as victims elsewhere in the Jewish community.
Says Port: “I don’t think I go through one day where I don’t have someone saying to me, ‘You have changed my life, I would never managed without you.’”
Broken by a control-freak of a husband
Sarah, a 36-year-old mother of two from London, is a victim of domestic violence currently being helped by JWA. She is a United Synagogue congregant.
“My husband and I married each other because we shared an outlook on life and family. We had similar ambitions, and had six happy years together. My husband changed after his father died. He became very self-obsessed, and controlling of me and our children. The business that he’d built up himself over years began to fail.
“He wouldn’t let me have contact with other men either socially or professionally. He tried to control what I wore, how I did my hair. I wasn’t allowed to wear any make-up, or any clothing which he considered immodest. I was a professional, confident woman with friends of all backgrounds and he wouldn’t let me have contact with them.
“He forced me to be a housewife, cook, cleaner, mother and nothing more. The change in him was very quick and he became incredibly controlling. It affected the children a lot – he was very aggressive and rough with them. We were all so scared of him. When I heard his key in the front door, I would be terrified — we never knew what mood he would be in.
“I stayed with him for the sake of my children, but they were badly affected. They could see what was going on. There was no love, no affection in our family.
“I knew he wouldn’t grant me a divorce, so I kept a secret diary of all the incidents of his aggression. I had to get a non-molestation order and an injunction which meant he wasn’t allowed within 100 metres of our home. We were terrified when he eventually moved out. He kicked the door down and broke in three times. I was always scared he would try to break in and so I kept the curtains closed and all the doors securely locked. I was terrified to leave the house. There was a time when I thought I’d never open my curtains or back door again. It was dreadful for the kids.
“A friend’s husband put me in touch with Jewish Women’s Aid. The first time I met the outreach worker, Nicole, I felt so safe. She offered practical help, and counselling support. I think that what got me through was the belief that I would survive, and Nicole helped me to believe that.
“I was a strong, confident woman, but my husband broke me and it’s taken two and a half years to put myself back together.”
Sarah’s name has been changed. She was interviewed by a member of JWA staff