Jews and abuse

Naomi Ackerman

By Ellen Futterman, Editor

Although the sexual abuse happened many years ago, Nancy is overcome by emotion as she talks about it today. When she was 4 years old, he began sneaking into her bedroom at night to fondle her. Later, when she was a little older, he would rape her. This sexual abuse by an adult male family member would go on for more than 10 years. He told her that if she breathed a word to anyone, he would kill her and her mother.

That Nancy was from an upstanding St. Louis Jewish family made no difference. “There was no question in my mind that he would make good on his threats,” says Nancy, who asked that her real name not be used. “In my eyes he was a monster.”

Susan also knows how domestic violence can occur in any home, even a Jewish one. While visiting her sister and her family some years ago, she watched as her brother-in-law smacked her sister and pushed her into a window. The police had to be called.

“I froze as I watched,” says Susan, a St. Louisan who also didn’t want her real name to be used. “I ended up taking my sister to the hospital where she had some broken ribs.”

Susan says that “in her world,” she knew of no Jews who were victims of domestic violence or sexual abuse. She admits it might have been naïve to think such a thing, “but I don’t know that I would have believed it could happen inside a Jewish home had I not witness it,” she adds.

Judy Zisk Lincoff has spent the last two decades trying to dispel the myth that domestic violence and sexual abuse don’t occur in Jewish homes. She and the late Rebbetzin Paula Rivkin co-founded the Jewish Council Against Family Violence, which, after 15 years of serving the local Jewish community, ceased operations in 2012. 

“The council didn’t so much disband as it did morph,” explains Zisk Lincoff, a family therapist. “ We decided there were groups in place that do an excellent job educating our community. Nishmah is one of those groups. It became the keeper of continuing to educate the community about domestic violence.”

Nishmah, which means “we will listen,” tries to foster “authority, leadership, spirituality, creativity, boldness and consciousness” among girls and women while actively developing partnerships with other organizations and synagogues. Recently, it added a program for eighth-and-ninth-grade boys so they can “hang out and talk about what it means to be Jewish.”

I’ve been a fan of Nishmah and the quality work it does since its inception in 2005, when the nonprofit was co-founded by Ronit Sherwin and Karen Sher. In 2011, Nishmah formed a partnership with the Jewish Community Center and moved from Clayton into the Staenberg Family Complex in Creve Coeur. Its current director, Sara Winkelman, says Nishmah “was honored to take on the responsibility of educating the Jewish community about family violence in memory of Rebbetzin Paula Rivkin, who was a passionate advocate for this cause.  There is obvious synergy with Nishmah as our mission is to inspire, educate, and engage Jewish women and girls,” Winkelman adds.

As a result, Nishmah is holding two events later this month to shine awareness not only on family violence, but the fact that it occurs in Jewish families at about the same rate as in the general community – roughly 15 percent. The abuse also takes place among all branches of Judaism and at all socio-economic levels.

The first of these events is the Ilene Joseph Salon Series Kickoff in conjunction with the Rebbetzin Rivkin Memorial Lecture at 7 p.m. Aug. 20 in the Wool Studio Theatre at the Jewish Community Center.  It will feature a one-woman show by LA-based actress Naomi Ackerman called “Flower’s Aren’t Enough,” about a middle-class Jewish woman who finds herself in an abusive relationship. A Q&A session will follow the hour-long perfor mance, which is designed for adults and high-school students. 

The second event, “Listen to Me When I Speak,” is a workshop for mothers and daughters in grades 6 to 8 Aug. 21 at the Staenberg Family Complex. Ackerman will use theater as an interactive tool to help mothers and daughters better communicate with each other and deal with conflicts in their relationship. 

Contacted by phone, Ackerman explains that her show, which began as a 15-minute monologue, eventually turned into an hour-long play after interviewing many women and hearing their stories. “The play isn’t based on me being a battered woman because I am not,” says Ackerman, who is married and has three daughters. “But I think all of us have made a bad choice when it comes to romance. We either dated the wrong guy for too long or felt societal pressure to be a ‘good girl’ and not complain (in a relationship) or even marry a certain guy because he seemed to have the right credentials. As women, we can see parts of ourselves in the play.”

Given the play’s subject matter, audiences tend to be heavily female, though Ackerman hopes men will come, too. “There’s always a guy in the audience who says he was dragged by his wife, but winds up finding a lot of merit in the show,” she says. “I know it’s hard to think a play about domestic violence could be entertaining, but it’s important to educate ourselves and bring this issue to light.”

Ackerman hopes those who see the show will come to realize that domestic violence and sexual abuse can happen to anybody. “The key is not to be judgmental,” she says. “If God forbid you find yourself in that situation, there is help out there and that help can come in all different shapes and sizes.”

Zisk Lincoff says many resources are in place both in the St. Louis Jewish community as well as the larger community to help Jewish women in abusive home situations. Part of the problem, is that Jewish women tend to stay in abusive relationships two to three times longer than those in the general population, according to the Jewish Coalition Against Domestic Abuse. Non-Jewish women stay from three to five years, Jewish women from seven to 13 years.

“We know that Jewish women stay longer because they feel they are responsible for peace in the home,” says Zisk Lincoff, who explains that Shalom Bayit is one of the few mitzvot given primarily to women. Their home may be a source of family identity, education and affection. If a woman admits to others that she has been abused, she may loses the pride she has in her home and family and feel guilt and shame for shattering the myth of Shalom Bayit that she has worked hard to maintain. In some cases, this admission may cause a backlash and women may be blamed and ostracized for coming forward.

Susan says it took her sister many years to finally file for divorce from her abusive husband, and when she did, she found herself in dire financial. “He took stocks that she had when she went into the marriage,” says Susan. “She signed whatever papers he put in front of her. She had let him do all the finances and didn’t know squat about what he was doing.”

Today, Nancy is doing her best to be productive. She has worked most of her adult life, although recently depression, anxiety, and a shattered sense of safety from years of childhood sexual abuse have caused her to be unable to hold a job. Still, she is working on her issues in therapy and is committed to figuring out how to have a purposeful life.