JWA Shabbat 5781
To raise awareness of domestic abuse in our community on this JWA Shabbat, I want to share my own story with you.
My father was a loving father. He loved his family, his wife and three daughters, dearly. Yet my earliest childhood memory is sitting at the top of stairs, crying; listening to my father shouting at my mother in the lounge beneath my bedroom.
In our house, everything always happened behind closed doors. Throughout my childhood and young adulthood I felt powerless to do anything to help my mother. A constant feature of my growing up years was my father’s anger. You never knew when they were coming - his anger and his unpredictable moods. We lived in constant fear and the threat of violence. Every time we sat down to dinner I felt gripped by dread and fear – today, would he eat his dinner, or fly into a rage of fury that the dinner wasn’t good enough, that my mother didn’t love him enough him to care about her cooking. One dinner time he burst into such a rage of fury that he grasped a glass in his hand, stood up and, for that split moment, I didn’t know whether he was going to smash it against my mother’s head, or onto the floor… He smashed it onto the floor, with shards of glass splintering everywhere across the lino.
Over the years, the controlling behaviour got worse; the violence against my mother got worse. One summer, on our way back from Sweden by boat after visiting my mum’s family, mum did something to upset my father. He told all of us kids to leave the cabin and go for a walk. When we got back, we knew he had beaten her up. But very cleverly, so the bruises didn’t show. On the car journey back to Manchester she could barely sit, and it took her well over a week before she could walk without pain.
Why didn’t my mum leave? For sure, in the early years, it was for the sake of the children. But that reason no longer held true once we were grown and out of the house.
My mum felt it was her fault. She felt ashamed. She felt she wasn’t trying hard enough. That is was her fault if the marriage failed. She felt frightened of what would happen if she tried to leave. She was brainwashed by my father – he said she would be penniless and living in some dank and dingy council flat in Stockport with no friends, totally alone. He threatened to leave her. Again and again, a regular refrain over many years.
And there were also good times. To the outside world, my father was a wonderful man; quite a character, very sociable, well known around Manchester. He always had a Jewish joke and a story to tell. We had lovely holidays – though he always controlled the purse strings. My dad felt threatened when my mum went back to nursing and started to develop a life for herself with some financial independence.
Today we have language to describe these behaviours – financial abuse, psychological abuse, violent abuse. In those days, we didn’t understand that it wasn’t just us. We thought ‘that was my dad’; ‘this was marriage’.
What about my mum’s family and friends? Didn’t they know that something was going on? They didn’t ask. They knew something was wrong, but couldn’t guess how bad, and didn’t want to interfere. They reasoned that if my mum wanted to talk, she would.
At one point my mum went to see our rabbi. He listened supportively, and said to her that, at some point, she would know that she had arrived at the edge of the cliff. When she arrived at that point, she would know when it was time to step out over the edge.
It took 28 years for my mother to reach that point, standing at the edge of the cliff - she knew then that she had to leave, otherwise she would end up either 6 foot under, or in the local mental hospital. It got very close to both.
I was a support for my mum through all those long years. Every night I prayed that she would leave my father. Every night I prayed to God to keep her safe. Especially in the years I was away from home, I carried a heavy weight – a physical pain that felt something like a heavy stone in the bottom of my heart – worried for her physical safety. She waited until I was back from a two year stay in Israel to have the courage to leave. A nightmare summer followed, with my dad breaking into the house and appearing in my mum’s bedroom with a knife in his hand, slashing her tires when she was out shopping, trying to strangle her, breaking her nose through the window, cutting the telephone wires to the house….
I wish at that time, we had had JWA - Jewish Women’s Aid – to help us.
Being believed, accepted, supported and understood is essential. This brings strength and comfort and is the start of recovery. JWA provides this. In Redbridge reporting of domestic abuse is down compared to North West London. Is this because there is less domestic abuse amongst the Jewish population in Redbridge? My guess is that the stigma of speaking out and seeking help are even greater here, leaving more women to suffer in silence.
The impact of domestic abuse on women can be devastating. Fifty-seven per cent of women in prison report having been victims of domestic violence. More than half report having experienced emotional, physical or sexual abuse as a child compared to 27% of men, according to the Prison Reform Trust. Because many women fear disclosing abuse, both figures are likely to be an underestimate. The charity Women in Prison report that 79% of the women who use their services have experienced domestic violence and/or sexual abuse.
For my mum, leaving 28 years of abusive marriage had a positive impact. I am happy to let you know that since her divorce she has enjoyed 30 years of happy, healed and rewarding life. She never did end up living in a dank and dingy council flat, has always had lots of friends, and celebrated 15 years of happy companionship with her late partner Sidney. Having the courage to step out over the edge of that cliff was certainly worth it for my mum.
For me, the impact of growing up in a family where there was domestic abuse is without doubt one of the driving forces that led me to becoming a rabbi. I have carried with me throughout my life the shame imprinted by such a childhood, as well as the determination to make a difference in the world, and somehow to do Tikun, to make amends, to put right the wrongs of my father. We have a choice in how we respond to our experiences of life and childhood. I am grateful that I had the opportunity, the education, the resilience and the resources to make my choice a positive one.
To everyone here this morning… If you are a victim of abuse, reach out and ask for help. Confide in someone – a friend, a family member, your rabbi, the JWA Helpline. To each one of us… keep your eyes open, be aware of signs that someone you know may be suffering domestic violence. Open a conversation, gently and sensitively. ‘How are you? Is there anything going on at home? I’m here for you if you want to talk.’ Offer your support. We can each play our part in creating a community that is safe for everyone, where every woman, man and child enjoys safety, respect and dignity.