Leigh Stein is the author of the novel The Fallback Plan, the poetry collection Dispatch from the Future, and a new memoir, Land of Enchantment, out this week from Plume. With the release of her book, Leigh is guest blogging for Jewish Book Council all week as part of the Visiting Scribe series here on The ProsenPeople.
My memoir Land of Enchantment is about an abusive relationship I experienced in my early twenties, and the death of my ex-boyfriend in a motorcycle accident just a few weeks after I saw him for the last time and finally felt strong enough to stop answering his phone calls. While it’s easy to think that intimate partner violence is something that happens to other people in other communities, the reality is that one in four Jewish women will experience physical, psychological, or sexual abuse in her lifetime. I recently spoke with Sarah Rothe at Shalom Bayit, an organization in California that is working to end domestic violence in Jewish homes.
Sarah is a licensed clinical social worker who works one-on-one and in groups with clients in the Bay Area Jewish community who have experienced relationship abuse.
Leigh Stein: Can you tell me a little bit about the background of Shalom Bayit's founding?
Sarah Rothe: Shalom Bayit was founded almost 25 years ago, as a women's collective. Naomi Tucker was one of the founding members. She had been working in the domestic violence field and really wanted to reach out to the Jewish community, especially to combat the myth that there isn't domestic violence in the Jewish community. The organization has evolved over the years: today we provide direct individual counseling, and we have a helpline that's free and confidential. We offer support groups throughout the Bay Area, serving nine counties, that incorporate Jewish spiritual healing, focusing on holidays and rituals from a lens of feminism or anti-violence.
LS: I think there’s this myth across all communities that domestic violence doesn’t happen to us, it happens to others. Why do you think that is?
SR: There are a variety of reasons for that myth. I think some of it is socioeconomic stereotypes: people tend to believe that this is a problem of a family that's very disadvantaged or may have issues with addiction. All of those things could be true in the Jewish community, but it’s not usually a stereotype of a Jewish family. There's also a stereotype of Jewish men as more learned, less macho. That tends to be a trope, right? Even in the media, the Jewish guys tend to be nerdier, skinnier, and women are domineering Jewish wives who boss people around. That's not necessarily true in real families, but it's perpetuated in the media.
I think also there's this idea that someone who is a stand-up community member can't be doing this at home, in private. Unfortunately, that's not true at all. It's hard to reconcile that idea of a respected member of a community exerting power and control and dominating at home, possibly committing physical violence toward their partner.
LS: What's the hardest part of your job?
SR: The hardest part is helping women feel that they're not alone, and also combatting the shame in one's experience. Because it's a small community and everyone knows each other, it can be hard for them to come for help.
The size of the community is blessing and a curse. We have a Rabbinic Advisory Council with 80 signed on, agreeing to collaborate actively with us, and we have a sermon campaign. There are some synagogues that don't participate—there is sometimes a lack of larger support in a synagogue, or even in the community's interpretation of the Talmud or Jewish texts, if its leaders or constituents are pushing the idea of maintaining a marriage no matter what—but others take it to heart and are very vocal about women's rights and non-violence.
LS: What's the most rewarding part of your job?
SR: Seeing people move towards healing and the relief that they get when they connect with us and feel held. Especially around the holidays. We do a Chanukah adopt-a-family program, which is anonymous on both sides: a family or a congregation or a temple school class takes on a family, or an individual leaving an abusive relationship. That's a really tangible way to feel the community cares for these families.
LS: And what was the evolution or impetus to create a program for young adults?
SR: Unfortunately, statistics show that young people are even more at risk for abusive relationships than adults. Our focus is not just responding after the crisis, but providing prevention; our mission is to foster the social change necessary to eradicate violence in the Jewish community. Treatment can help, but to work toward eradicating it, we need to educate the next generation before they get into these relationships.
LS: Although my memoir is about a heterosexual relationship, I don't want to reinforce the common misconception that domestic violence only affects women in heterosexual relationships. Is there anything you'd like to add from your extensive experience working with the LGBTQ community in particular?
SR: Domestic violence happens at the same rates in all communities, whether that's Jewish or Christian, heterosexual or LGBT. I think there are additional barriers to speaking up about abuse if you are not in a heterosexual relationship. So much research on domestic violence came out of the feminist movement in terms of battered women, and that can be alienating if that's not your experience. The whole movement is now trying to redirect and scale to support the LGBT community. Domestic violence can happen between two women and it can happen between two men. It can be harder to get into a shelter, as most support women with children—some don't take single women at all without children. There are very, very few shelters for gay male victims. And there are so many additional barriers to calling the police if you're a man who's been abused, because of stereotypes.
There are also additional layers of shame, if you have to come out about your sexuality, if you're not already out, at the same time as coming out about your abuse. One of my female clients was abused by a female partner (outside the Bay Area) and the police refused to document it as domestic violence. They named it as some kind of other assault or altercation, but didn't acknowledge that it was a relationship with her partner, which affected her ability to get services and recourse later.
LS: I think one of the hardest things to understand about this topic is that to an outsider it seems so clear. Why does she stay with that guy? Why doesn't she leave? But on the inside of a relationship, it's extremely complex and potentially dangerous. Do you have any advice for friends or family members who are concerned that someone they love might be in an abusive relationship?
SR: My advice is usually to support and listen to that friend, and validate their experience. Listen to what they're sharing and remind them that it's not their fault. A lot of times, abusive partners will tell the people they hurt, "I wouldn't have exploded, if you hadn't pushed me..." And those being abused often start to believe that is true.
Healing starts with hearing "You never deserve to be abused like this, no matter what you've done. There are resources out there to help you.” But don’t push. Your support should not be contingent upon their leaving the relationship. Leave it up to your friend, who has maybe not been able to make decisions because of the dynamic of control in their relationship. Let them decide for their own future.
Leigh Stein’s work has appeared in Allure, Buzzfeed, Gawker, The Hairpin, Poets & Writers, Slate, The Toast, and xoJane. Leigh is currently on tour with her new book, Land of Enchantment, for the 2016 – 2017 season through the JBC Network.