Last Friday marked White Ribbon Day, aiming to bring about an end to men’s violence against women in Australia. The national statistics are shocking, as is the silence and stigma which continue to largely shroud the issue – even in the Jewish community, tells Rebecca Davis.
FROM the outside looking in, *Rachel’s husband was seen to be the perfect man. He cooked. He cleaned. He laid tefillin and was learned in Torah. Tall, dark and “exceptionally good looking”, he was admired by many.
“He would sit there at Shabbat dinner, in front of all of his friends saying, isn’t my beautiful wife incredible? Isn’t she such an amazing cook?” Rachel recalls his compliments.
But behind closed doors, life was very different.
Domestic violence is often misunderstood as just physical violence. But indeed it is much broader. It also refers to the abuse and intimidation between those who are, or have been, in an intimate relationship. In addition to the verbal and the physical aspects, it includes sexual assault, financial and psychological abuse, the acts of isolating a woman from her friends and family, and prohibiting her from religious practice.
In Australia, 1 in 4 women have experienced emotional abuse by a current or former partner, and 1 in 5 women have experienced sexual violence since the age of 15. On average, one woman a week is murdered by her current or former partner.
They are staggering statistics – and the Jewish community is not immune.
Around 30 per cent of the 311 service coordination referrals received by Jewish Care Victoria in the last financial year identified family violence as the primary reason for contact.
Manager of individual and family services Marilyn Kraner estimates this number to be “just the tip of the iceberg, given the significant and highly impacting feelings of shame and blame that prevent people from help seeking”.
Of the cases reported, 95 per cent were women – “young women, older women; observant, secular; with children, without. Some have been experiencing violence for many years; for others the relationship may be newer,” adds Kraner.
“What is common to all of the cases we see are the challenges that are associated with speaking out in the community, and the barrier that fear and shame can pose.”
In the same financial year period, Jewish Care Victoria also provided support to 30-50 children at any given time within their social housing program. Ninety per cent of families with children seeking housing support were forced to do so as the result of family violence.
Domestic violence does not occur overnight; and it does not occur in a vacuum. There are often gradual patterns of controlling and emotionally manipulative behaviours employed against the victim.
Rachel was a driven, young Modern Orthodox woman. She came from a comfortable background, was confident, articulate and on the way to becoming a leader in her career in the business world. When she met her now ex-husband, she was “completely love-bombed”.
“He paid so much attention to all my likes and interests. I’d never been given that much emotional or mental attention before,” she remembers.
While he didn’t leave her alone and always wanted to know what she was doing, Rachel just thought that was his way of “really loving” her.
“It was that little girl’s fantasy of true love – that you are going to meet the man who sweeps you off your feet. Someone who treats you like a princess and never lets you out of his sight.
“He told me he thought we were soulmates very quickly, and that we were bashert. I’d never experienced anything like that before.”
But just days before their wedding, the couple had an argument and he manhandled her. Rachel warned him to never touch her in that manner again. He promised in agreement and apologised profusely – until the wedding night, when she was exposed to a violent and sadistic side to him.
Choking back tears, Rachel shared how he refused to take into consideration that she expected her period on the date of the wedding. The wedding went ahead anyway.
“Then he got very drunk, and he raped me. It was sodomy,” she tells.
“And that was my wedding night.”
Once newly married, the abuse entered the “soul destroying” phase, says Rachel. The insults and isolation inflicted upon her left her a broken woman. In the ensuing nine years, Rachel systematically experienced sexual, verbal, emotional, physical and financial abuse.
“My phone didn’t work and he refused to allow me a new phone. He took care of the credit card. I had no access to a car, and no internet connection.
“I didn’t know what abuse was. This is the biggest problem that we all face as a society. We think domestic violence and abuse is a woman being beaten. Yes, there was occasionally physical violence, but I wasn’t beaten.”
Rachel soon fell pregnant. And again at her most sacred and vulnerable time, he chose his moment for another heinous attack.
He raped her in hospital after she had given birth by caesarean to their first child, and on a separate occasion a week later, where “all my staples came out”, Rachel stammers.
Once returning home, he would party all night, and sleep all day. He was using cocaine, drinking heavily and she pleaded with him to stop. He didn’t – and Rachel finally left.
But he pursued her, begging and begging that he would change his ways. And he wasn’t entirely bad all of the time, says Rachel.
Glimmers of the good side would still come out, adding further complexity to the situation. Rachel’s faith kept her hanging on.
She eventually gave him another chance, and they would have another three children together.
Rachel prayed daily that he would change, that her love would help him, and that he would grow up. And she was also scared; fearful of being left a single mother with four children and a serious health condition of her own.
When her eldest child was enrolled in a Jewish kindergarten, Rachel was called to the office of the headmistress. Bruises had been found on her daughter’s body, and when asked about them, she had said that her dad had hurt her. The headmistress told Rachel they had reported the case to child protection – but they hadn’t.
“That was probably the time where I needed the police to get involved to say what is going on, because I would have realised I was in a completely abusive marriage.
“I didn’t believe it because my ex blamed it on our youngest child. I can’t put blame, but the educators are obliged to report, and they didn’t.”
Friends of the family had also been exposed to flashes of his aggression towards Rachel. Yet, not once did anyone come forward to offer any form of assistance at a time when she was buried in a hole so deep that she was incapable of pulling herself out of it alone.
Unbeknown to Rachel, her husband was abusing the children, threatening that he would kill them or their mother if they told anyone.
The final straw came when her eldest child came running to Rachel screaming that her father was hitting the head of her younger sibling against the floor. Rachel grabbed the children, packed an overnight bag and left immediately.
Years after they divorced, she would learn of exactly what the children had endured. The horror of the excruciating details was too much, and resulted in Rachel suffering a heart attack.
The love and strength of family were fundamental in Rachel finally breaking free once and for all; while Jewish Care Victoria acted as a lifeline. They delivered upon crucial support throughout the entire ordeal, and continue to do so.
And there is the stigma of domestic violence which adds to the anguish. Even now, Rachel describes herself and her children as being treated with aversion, “like a disease that could be caught, rather than innocent victims of crimes”.
It has been six years since the couple divorced, and Rachel is still haunted by her ex-husband.
Intervention orders were put in place, but that didn’t stop him from recurrently breaching them, stalking her and sending abusive messages.
And the consequences: a criminal record, fines and community service sentences.
“He tried to kill me, and my children. How can I be sure he is not going to do something?
“To this day, the children have severe nightmares that he is kidnapping or killing us.”
But while Rachel says she is broken, “we have to try and be strong”, she affirms.
“You just have to accept what has happened. There is no sunshine and rainbows – but you have to create them.
“You also have to accept that what you thought your life would be is not the way it turned out, and coming to terms with that is a great part of the healing process.”
Even though she is still suffering, Rachel plans with a positive attitude to flourish again – “with hope and faith”.
“We will survive. And we will thrive.”
*Not her real name.
If you are in immediate danger from domestic violence, call 000.
For additional support, call:
– Jewish Care Victoria: (03) 8517 5999
– JewishCare NSW: 1300 133 660
– 1800 RESPECT: 1800 737 732
– Safe Steps: 1800 015 188.