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Shalva serves the abused in area’s Jewish community

Despite her husband’s threats, her torn clothes and broken furniture around the house, no one in the family talked about the domestic violence taking place in their North Shore home.

“Everyone kept quiet,’’ says the woman, 45, who suffered years of abuse at the hands of her husband.

That silence is common in the Jewish community, where women often fear no one wants to hear their complaints, according to a study released recently by Shalva, a local social service agency where the woman turned for help.

Shalva — which specializes in working with abuse victims in the Jewish community — celebrated its 25th anniversary this month. Officials there say the study is the first to focus on domestic abuse in the Chicago area Jewish community.

Since opening in 1986, Shalva has helped some 4,000 victims — nearly half of whom suffered physical or sexual abuse, the study found. The agency has seen the number of services it provides to abuse victims nearly double from 3,451 in 2008 to 6,320 last year.

In a bad economy, “if you have a man who has a propensity to abuse lose his job, or he is at home all the time, or she has a job, it will escalate the abuse,” said Shalva Clinical Director Barbara Siegel.

The study discovered that while Jewish victims have the ability to draw on their community for help, abusers also used the community to shame their victims, said Alison Cares, an assistant professor at the University of Massachusetts–Lowell, who worked on the study.

For example, perpetrators in the study often used religion as an avenue for abuse by refusing to participate in religious ceremonies, breaking kosher or denying the wives a Jewish divorce called a Get. Women who are adherents of strict Jewish laws must be given permission for a divorce by their husbands, Siegel said. A woman who cannot remarry is stigmatized as an agunah (a Hebrew word meaning “chained woman’’).

But more often, abusers will financially cut off their spouses — even deny children money to go to college, said National Center on Domestic and Sexual Violence Vice Chair Toby Myers who serves on the Jewish Advisory board to FaithTrust Institute (previously known as the Center for the Prevention of Sexual and Domestic Violence).

“One of the original big studies said Jewish women stay longer, and Jewish men usually control more with money and power and not as much violence,” Myers said.

Siegel said “there are a lot of myths about Jewish women and domestic violence — that Jewish women do not experience domestic abuse, and because of that, they deny the reality.”

Despite the economy, the abuse often happens in homes where one or both parents have good jobs, which adds to the silence, Siegel said.

“It’s hard to accept the fact many are very educated women, and the men are very educated. Many of them are doctors and lawyers and rabbis at times,” Siegel said.

The woman who sought help from Shalva said in a written account that her three children were severely impacted by the abuse even though her husband never laid a hand on them.

Her oldest son dropped out of school and her daughter exhibited signs of bulimia.

“It was like walking on eggshells when [her son] was around, never knowing when he would explode,” the woman said. “ ... He began bullying his classmates.”

But with the help of Shalva, the woman is now preparing to file for divorce.

In addition to counseling and shelter, Shalva — whose location is kept secret — provides financial assistance since many victims have little or no access to money.

The study revealed the largest portion of victims helped by Shalva, at 27 percent, were Orthodox Jews. But Conservative, Reform and Reconstructionist Jews suffered abuse as well, which Siegel says disproves that abuse only happens in highly religious Orthodox homes.

Is abuse more or less common in the Jewish community? Study co-author Gretchen Cusick, a senior researcher at the University of Chicago, said that’s unknown because there hasn’t been a study that compares domestic violence rates among religious groups. She says such a study should be done.

“No one has been able to collect that sort of data,” she said.

But Siegel believes her agency has made strides in the local Jewish community. When Shalva first opened, “if a woman told her rabbi, friend or mother [they were being abused], they were told, ‘This isn’t happening. This is your fault. You need to go home and do better.’ Today they are going to say this is not OK,” Siegel said.

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