A Chicago Jewish mother struggled in her relationship with her child’s father, but it wasn’t until she turned for help to a local Jewish agency that the reason became clear: she was a victim of domestic abuse.
“For the first time, I felt heard and understood” said M., whose identity has been obscured for her safety. “My therapist understood that I was not just going through a rough divorce, but that my child and I experienced long-term abuse. Not once did she say, ‘Why did you stay?’ Instead, she helped me to remain safe, learn about the cycles of abuse and to have compassion for myself.”
One of four women has been, is currently, or will be abused by her intimate partner, said Carol K. Ruderman, executive director of Chicago non-profit SHALVA, which offers emotional and logistical support to women ensnared in dangerous situations at home.
SHALVA itself is a member of the Network Advocating to End Domestic Violence, which reported that Cook County’s domestic violence rates are the highest in Illinois, and some of the highest in the nation. The pandemic was an especially dangerous time for families sheltering in unsafe places, exacerbating already high rates of abuse.
The hesitancy to discuss domestic violence, including within the Jewish community, persists and further endangers victims. Building awareness can help, which is why the Chicago Jewish community held several events in October, Domestic Violence Awareness month.
“Domestic violence for too long was thought of as something that happened to others — not to Jewish women and surely, not at the hands of Jewish men,” according to the Jewish Women’s International’s (JWI) 2021 report, “Domestic Violence and the Jewish Community. “Yes, some philanthropists and advocates understood that domestic violence occurs in the Jewish community at the same rate as any other, but too few.”
One of the speakers at an Oct. 19 Network event was Tanya Selvaratnam. She shared her own account of intimate partner abuse in her relationship with former New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman in her recently published book “Assume Nothing.”
“Stigma comes from secrecy,” she wrote. “I was ignoring the signs. I felt that I was the one making mistakes.”
Many domestic violence victims grapple with this sense of responsibility and confusion, said Ruderman.
“In the Jewish community we see a lot of emotional/psychological abuse, which is really present in any abusive relationship. We see a lot of financial abuse, and there is physical abuse as well. It is the emotional abuse that is so present.” Ruderman said.
Gaslighting, projecting, and isolation are some tactics that abusers use. “It’s all about controlling the other person,” said Ruderman.
In her book, Selvaratnam describes how this feels from a survivor’s perspective. “He had already made me feel trapped at home,” she wrote of Schneiderman. “Now he was gradually isolating me from the world outside.”
Selvaratnam, a Harvard graduate and an award-winning professional, stresses that domestic violence persists across racial, ethnic and socio-economic lines—a point SHALVA emphasizes in its outreach work as well.
“Many of SHALVA’s clients are well-educated, their partners or spouses are professionals. It is difficult for them to understand how it happened to them.” Ruderman said. “They feel guilty and that it is their fault. It is never the victim’s fault.”
Seeing victims through the haze of abuse and helping them plan an escape is one of the organization’s missions. Securing safe housing and facilitating a normal, healthy life for their children are immediate challenges.
“Most often our clients don’t want their kids to go to a different school, so they can’t just move anywhere,” said Ruderman. “If they’re in a Jewish school, it is really important to the families to keep them there.”
Legal issues and the financial challenges associated with those can enable further abuse. Ruderman explained. Going back to court to enforce compliance can be costly and emotionally draining.
Another SHALVA client (whose identity has been obscured for her privacy) explained, “I was going through a very difficult divorce with my husband who was abusive to me physically, mentally, emotionally and financially. My therapist helped me understand that my husband was lying and manipulating me. I started to gain my strengths back and I am learning to love myself again—I realize that I am stronger than I think.”
That is the advice Ruderman offered to anyone who is concerned that they are in an abusive relationship: you are stronger than you think.
“Call us even if you’re not sure,” she said. “If you’re not sure whether you’re being abused or not, just call and we will help you determine if it is abuse or an unhealthy relationship.”
SHALVA assures confidentiality.
“We really understand what abuse looks like in the Jewish community,” Ruderman said. “Every story is unique and different, but there are other people that have been through similar things.”
“When somebody calls,” she said, “we will believe them. When you’re in an abusive relationship you often feel hopeless, you lose who you really are so we try to help our clients get back to who they truly are and find hope again.”
Chicago Domestic Violence Resources
SHALVA Crisis line 1-773-583-HOPE (4673) Offers support 24/7. For additional information about counseling, legal support, and other services, visit [SHALVA] (https://shalvacares.org/), call 1-773-583-HOPE (4673) or email email@example.com.
The Network: Advocating Against Domestic Violence Emergency Crisis Fund for survivors of Domestic Violence. Visit The Network for details or call Illinois Domestic Violence Hotline 877-863-6338 (877-TO END DV).
The Ark offers services and shelter to Jewish Chicagoans in need. Call 773-973-1000.
Eileen Hoenigman Meyer is a Chicago-based journalist.
‘You are stronger than you think’— a message for domestic violence victims