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 Steins 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 20162017 sea­son through the JBC Net­work.

Relat­ed Content:

Leigh Stein is the author of the nov­el The Fall­back Plan and a col­lec­tion of poet­ry, Dis­patch from the Future. Her work has appeared in Allure, Buz­zFeed, Gawk­er, The Hair­pin, Poets & Writ­ers, Slate, The Toast, and xoJane. For­mer­ly an edi­to­r­i­al staff mem­ber at The New York­er, she cur­rent­ly lives out­side New York City and co-directs the non-prof­it orga­ni­za­tion Out of the Binders.