Speaking Out

We have just witnessed the most divisive presidential election race in history. A race in which the now president-elect of the most powerful nation on the planet preached a campaign of racism and misogyny, fear and hate. Let’s pray to God that he fails to act on the bigoted and inflammatory words he spewed forth for so many months on the campaign trail. Time will tell.

A worst nightmare scenario of what America could become if President Donald Trump indeed translates into action his words of racism and misogyny, fear and hate is presented to us in this week’s sedra.

Picture the scene. The Torah’s camera lens zooms in on the city of Sodom. Two of the three angels who just visited Abraham to bring the message that, in their old age,  he and Sarah will have a son, now travel on to visit Abraham’s nephew, Lot. The angels have come to warn Lot of Sodom’s impending destruction, and to urge him to leave the city with his family. But the city of Sodom is a place of unparalleled violence and moral depravity. No sooner have the guests eaten dinner at Lot’s home, then a baying crowd comes banging on the door. In the words of the Torah:

‘They called out to Lot and said to him:
Where are the men who came to you tonight?
Bring them out to us, we want to know them.’

The meaning is unmistakably sexual. Lot shouts back at the mob:

‘Pray, brothers, do not be so wicked!
Now, pray, I have two daughters who have never known a man,
Pray let me bring them out to you, and you may deal with them however seem good in your eyes; Only to these men do nothing.’

Lot is making an offer of rape to the townspeople of Sodom. He is offering them his own daughters. In Lot’s warped scale of values, protecting his guests is more important than protecting his daughters. In Lot’s warped scale of values, women, the women of his own family, are worthy victims of violence to safeguard his own standing, his own pride, his own sense of control.

This coming Friday is International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women.

Jewish Women’s Aid, the charity that provides services for women suffering domestic abuse, have asked rabbis to speak out this week about domestic abuse, to raise awareness in our communities about a reality that affects the Jewish community to exactly the same extent as it affects the wider community; a reality that affects the Reform and Liberal community to exactly the same extent as it affects the Orthodox and Charedi community.

So this morning, to raise awareness of domestic abuse in our community, I want to share with you my own story.

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. Every time we sat down to dinner I felt gripped by dread – 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, 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.

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 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. 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.

What about our 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, 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.

Amongst the services JWA provides are:

  • A free confidential helpline
  • Free counselling & Children’s worker
  • refuge ( the only Kosher and Shabbat – observant refuge in Europe)
  • Education  - JWA staff and volunteers go into secondary schools to work on prevention, which last year reached 3,500 Jewish teenagers in both Jewish and non-Jewish schools & a special student outreach programme called ‘Safer Dating’
  • Community awareness and training.

Being believed, accepted, supported and understood is vital. It brings strength and comfort and is the start of recovery. JWA provides this.

In the UK, 1 woman in 4 will experience domestic abuse in her lifetime. At any one time, 1 in 10 women will be experiencing domestic abuse. The figures are exactly the same in the Jewish community. The current police and government definition of domestic abuse is; ‘An incident or pattern of incidents of controlling, coercive or threatening behaviour, violence or abuse between people who are or have been intimate partners or family members.’ Domestic violence affects all women, regardless of age, education, class, life-style or religion. Every year, thousands of Jewish women will face violence against themselves and their children from within their home.

The lack of awareness of domestic violence in the Jewish community, and the reluctance to speak out, wreaks untold damage. Jewish women remain silent through shame, embarrassment, a feeling of guilt or fear that they will not be believed. They feel alone, that no one else has experienced such abuse and that it must be their fault.

One of the first meetings I set up when I arrived at SWESRS was with Tina, the JWA counsellor who offers weekly drop-in sessions right here in our building, in one of Norwood’s rooms. She told me that she has poor take-up for her sessions compared to North West London, and that reporting figures for domestic abuse in the Jewish community in Redbridge are down compared to those in North West London. Is this because there is less domestic abuse amongst the Jewish population in Redbridge? I doubt it. My guess is that the stigma of speaking out and seeking help are greater here, and so more women suffer in silence.

I’m happy to let you know that, after 28 years of abusive marriage, my mum has enjoyed post-divorce almost 28 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 she and her current partner have just celebrated their 10th anniversary together. Having the courage to step out over the edge of that cliff was certainly worth it for my mum.

Do you have concerns about a family member or friend that you suspect may be suffering domestic violence, but are hesitant about saying anything or stepping in? Don’t be afraid to broach the subject! In a sensitive and caring way, in a way that protects confidentiality and ensures the safety of the woman you are worried about, create an opportunity to speak to them and offer your support. Tell them about JWA and invite them to seek help. Are you a woman suffering domestic abuse in silence?  Don’t suffer in silence. There is support, there is help. Speaking to someone – a friend, your rabbi, the JWA helpline – is the first step in keeping safer and changing your situation.

To conclude: JWA’s next Domestic Violence Awareness Training for volunteers and professional staff starts in February 17. Please speak to me if you are interested in attending, or if you’re interested in helping to organise an awareness event here at SWESRS. JWA depends on charitable donations for 95% of its operating costs – think about making a donation. To each and every one of us here this morning, I say, ‘Let’s keep our eyes open, so that we can be sensitive to signs that someone we know may be suffering domestic violence. And then, offer your support. Let’s each play our part in creating a community that is safe for every human being, where every woman, man and child enjoys respect and dignity.

Ken yehi ratzon