An abuser’s need for power and control can devastate a family.
“My sister Linda was murdered 19 years ago on Lag b’Omer. It was the worst day of our family’s life,” said Leonard Gutman.
After many years of silent grief, Gutman, a cantor at Congregation Shaarey Zedek in Southfield, has decided to speak out about the death of his sister Linda, who was killed by her abusive husband at age 35 shortly after she filed for divorce.
Gutman said he was unaware his sister was being mistreated. Linda, like many women, did not share her situation with her family or friends. When Gutman noticed her face was bruised, she told him she had fallen down the stairs. A few days before her murder, she revealed that her husband, Michael Binder, had been abusing her for more than a year.
“Linda was the light of my parents’ life,” said Gutman, his voice breaking.
“I remember asking her over and over again, ‘Are you safe? Are you safe? Are you safe?’ I have come to understand through the years that many times these situations are kept quiet, but if I would have known, with God as my witness, I would have done something.”
Binder had come to Linda’s West Bloomfield home that night, saying he wanted to see their 3-year-old son, Justin, who had surgery earlier that day. Linda’s parents were visiting; her father had gone out to pick up dinner when Binder arrived. Justin was upstairs sleeping.
“He pulled out a gun,” Gutman said. “My mother told him to put the gun down.
He hit my mother on the side of the head with the butt of the gun and was shooting wildly at Linda. My mother was shouting, ‘Linda run!’”
Binder began firing the gun at Linda. After shooting her, he left and drove to Hebrew Memorial Park, where he shot and killed himself in front of the cemetery gates.
What Is Domestic Abuse?
According to Ellen Yashinsky Chute, chief outreach coordinator for Jewish Family Service, domestic abuse is not caused by short tempers or poor anger management skills — it is a dynamic based on power and control. Over time, the coercion escalates and the behavior becomes increasingly aggressive and angry.
“‘Walking on eggshells’ is the most common expression I hear,” Chute said.
Although physical violence often occurs, abuse can take other forms: verbal insults, threats, financial control or limiting or forbidding contact with family and friends.
“He blames her, she blames herself — it’s a ‘perfect storm’ of a dynamic,” Chute said. “They both believe if she could only change, the relationship would be better.”
Chute said the relationship can be salvaged if the batterer acknowledges that he needs to change; however, many men are unwilling or unable to do. Some abusers grew up in an atmosphere of “male privilege,” where they are taught it is a woman’s job to take care of them. The single biggest risk factor is witnessing abuse as a child; then it becomes learned behavior.
“Why do men do it?” Chute asked. “The answer is because they can.”
According to Chute, physical abuse occurs in one out of five homes in the United States today. About 95 percent of the victims are women. One in three women in this country has been or will be in an abusive relationship during her lifetime.
Furthermore, those who believe that Jewish families are immune from domestic abuse may be surprised to learn that the incidence among Jews is the same as in the general population.
“Domestic abuse is an equal-opportunity offender,” Chute said. “It reaches across socioeconomic, racial and religious lines.”
When noted author, rabbi and psychiatrist Dr. Abraham Twerski wrote his 1996 book, The Shame Borne in Silence: Spouse Abuse in the Jewish Community, he was criticized by many Jewish colleagues.
The book, which dispelled many myths about Jews and domestic abuse, aroused so much outrage when it was first published that Twerski needed police protection at his lectures. Today, he believes there is still a need for education within the Jewish community.
“There is greater awareness now, but there is still too much denial,” he said. “Many rabbis give poor advice because they are not aware of spouse abuse.”
To that end, Leonard Gutman talked of his sister’s abuse and murder in an upcoming training video that Jewish Family Service is creating to increase awareness about domestic violence in the Jewish community. The video will be shown to groups at local synagogues, schools, parent groups and other civic organizations.
Rivkah (not her real name), a member of the local Orthodox community, did not discover the extent of Jacob’s temper until after they married.
“I know I could not live with someone with a temper,” said Rivkah, who had grown up with a father who had raged at the family on a regular basis. “Everyone I asked said he didn’t have a temper.”
Once she and Jacob were married, his genteel facade gave way. He became critical, verbally abusive and explosive.
“We had our first fight within months,” Rivkah said. “I remember him standing across from me and smashing a cup against the wall.” When Rivkah expressed her dismay, her husband said a man should be free to be himself at home. “If I’d known [about his temper], I wouldn’t have married him.”
As the years passed, the abuse escalated. Jacob unleashed his wrath on the couple’s five children, destroying their belongings in fits of rage. He forced himself sexually upon his wife, telling her it was her duty to comply with his wishes.
“We all have horrible memories,” Rivkah said. “Everyone in our house was tainted by what he did.”
When they tried marital therapy, Rivkah said her husband refused to take responsibility for his behavior; instead he wanted the therapist to “fix” his wife. She got little support from the surrounding community.
“I had friends who said he just needed a job, that he wasn’t such a bad guy,” she said.
After a restraining order and several false starts, Rivkah and her children went to Safe Place, the Jewish women’s shelter sponsored by National Council of Jewish Women, where they stayed while Jacob was served with divorce papers.
Rivkah said she would like to start a support group specifically for Orthodox women who have experienced abuse. She knows there are many more women in situations similar to hers who are not getting the support and encouragement they need.
“You don’t want everyone to know what’s going on in your house,” she said. “Eventually your children will grow up and want to get married, and there’s definitely a stigma.”
More than 10 years after their civil divorce, Jacob refuses to give Rivkah an official Jewish writ of divorce, known as a get. Without a get, a woman cannot remarry under Jewish law. Rivkah is among a growing number of women known as agunot, the plural of agunah, the term for a Jewish woman who is “chained” to her marriage by a spouse who refuses to grant her a get.
A recent study spearheaded by Barbara Zackheim of the Greater Washington Jewish Coalition Against Domestic Abuse found that women in this situation are receiving little or no help from organizations within their communities, and that the rabbinic courts have not considered nor resolved more than half the cases. Many of these women have been pressured into giving up custody or financial support in exchange for a get. Zackheim said she hopes this study, which identified more than 450 agunot, will awaken the communities where these women live as well as the rabbis who serve them.
Sara saw the red flags waving when she met David (not their real names), but she chose to ignore them. He had a violent temper and was verbally abusive. “Scary” was the word she used most often to describe him. When they met, Sara was recently divorced from a cheating husband, with whom she had two sons. That experience had affected her self-esteem and her judgment and, like many abusers, David had a public persona that was charming and charismatic.
Despite her reservations and a warning from David’s sister to run the other way, Sara accepted David’s marriage proposal. During the course of their marriage, which included three children, David became increasingly abusive, verbally and physically. He was especially hard on the sons from Sara’s first marriage. Like many victims of domestic abuse, Sara blamed herself.
“I kept thinking if I were better and faster and smarter and did the right things, he would be different,” she said.
Chute says Sara’s reaction is typical of women in abusive relationships. Rivkah described similar feelings, saying, “I thought it was all my fault. If I had been a proper wife, my husband wouldn’t have felt so emasculated.”
When Sara went to her temple and asked her rabbi for help, armed with police reports and photographs of her blackened eyes, she found him disbelieving and dismissive. The rabbi said he could not take any action on Sara’s behalf, citing the large donations David had made to the synagogue as one of the reasons. After Sara left, he called David and told him about the conversation.
Eventually, Sara filed for divorce after developing an exit strategy with help from staff members at the HAVEN domestic violence shelter in Pontiac, where she also received counseling and restructuring services.
Other victims report repercussions that last long after the marriage or relationship has ended. More than three years after her divorce from an abusive husband, Lynn (not her real name) continues to receive bullying emails and text messages from her ex. He also tries to turn their children against Lynn by sending them messages containing disparaging lies about her. Lynn says she can tolerate his hostility; what upsets her is the emotional toll all of this has taken on the kids, especially her daughter.
To Stay Or Leave?
Chute said both partners stay in abusive relationships for a variety of reasons. Surprisingly, one is love.
“It’s hard to imagine, but they really do love each other,” she said. “They’re in a state of gridlock, locked in anger, criticism and fear.”
Economic dependence is another factor. Some men will prevent their wives from working outside the home; others exert power by controlling the family finances.
“A woman leaves an average of eight times before she leaves for good, if she leaves for good,” Chute said. “Sometimes he convinces her [to stay] by behaving well, sometimes by threats.”
Many women are afraid to leave for good reason. Experts agree that the most dangerous time for a woman is right after she leaves, or when she announces the decision to do so. This is when most homicides happen, and also when men are most likely to become physically violent for the first time.
“It’s all about power and control,” said Ellen Michaels, a local attorney who represents victims of domestic violence. “When a woman leaves, the man is losing control.”
Chute cautions well-meaning friends or family members not to encourage a woman to leave an abusive relationship without a carefully devised exit plan. She recommends listening supportively and encouraging the victim to seek professional help before taking action.
Attorney Michaels’ daughter, Alexis, chose to help victims of abuse as her bat mitzvah project by making fleece pillows for the residents of Safe Place. The pillows, with laminated copies of the Mi Shebeirach healing prayer inside, go with the women and children when they leave the shelter.
“I thought the prayer would make them feel safer,” said Alexis, a student at Orchard Lake Middle School in West Bloomfield.
In addition to Safe Place, National Council of Jewish Women, Greater Detroit Section, has a new secured credit card program designed for women to establish credit in their own names. The program, funded by a grant from the Jewish Women’s Foundation in cooperation with Jewish Vocational Service and the Hebrew Free Loan Association, also will offer financial education for women who have little or no experience handling money.
A Jewish Perspective
Rabbi Marla Hornsten of Temple Israel in West Bloomfield concurs that Jews are not immune to the problem of domestic abuse. She said Judaism addresses the issues through several themes that emphasize love and respect for one’s family and spouse. Among the most important are shalom bayit or “peace in the home” and pikuach nefesh, which means “to save a life.”
“The home is meant to be a place of holiness, of safety and security,” Hornsten said. “Peace in the home is a positive term, a goal to strive for, but it doesn’t mean peace at any cost. I have heard of women being told to go home and ‘deal with it’ in order to create peace.” Hornsten emphasized that the shalom bayit concept does not mean submitting to abuse to maintain a “so-called peace.”
In her 1995 book, When Love is Not Enough: Spousal Abuse in Rabbinic and Contemporary Judaism, Rabbi Julie Ringold Spitzer wrote that the tradition of shalom bayit can become a burden for women who believe they must maintain the pretense of peace in the midst of an abusive relationship.
Hornsten said that saving a life is so highly valued that Jews are permitted to break some of the most stringent laws to do so.
“Surely, abuse is the destruction of a life,” she said. “It is our obligation as Jews to work to end domestic abuse. And what about the theme of being created in God’s image? Abusing another person is abusing God.”
She added that many ancient texts address the theme of domestic abuse, stating it is absolutely forbidden and not a legitimate way to treat a spouse.
“I think it’s important for people to know that this is not a modern topic, and that it is an issue that people across all spectrums and movements of Judaism are addressing and taking seriously.”
Some victims expressed dissatisfaction with the remedies afforded by the legal and law enforcement systems. Gutman’s sister Linda applied for a Personal Protection Order (PPO) when she began to fear for her safety, but the court 19 years ago refused to grant her request.
Another victim, Lynn, reported her ex-husband came to the house on several occasions, violating the PPO she had obtained. When she called the police, they would tell him to leave instead of arresting him.
According to 48th District Court Judge Kimberly Small, the legal system is often hampered by victims who change their stories once the matter is brought before the court.
“When fear sets in, many women tend to go into denial,” she said.
Survivors may also become caught in the middle of conflicts between domestic relations orders regarding custody and parenting time and child protection proceedings. Because the general presumption of the courts is that strong relationships with both parents are in the best interest of the children, a woman who tries to keep her children away from an abusive ex-spouse may face contempt charges for violating custody and parenting time orders.
On the other side, survivors can be cited for “failure to protect” if they continue to maintain ties with a batterer, even if the court has ordered joint custody or unsupervised visits.
West Bloomfield attorney Jonathan Warshay advises survivors to seek advice from a lawyer familiar with those issues and to disclose any history of abuse, even if it is no longer occurring.
“Abuse can be a factor when deciding matters relating to custody, parenting time, spousal support and payment of court costs and legal fees,” he said.
Warshay recommends keeping detailed documentation of every incident of abuse, verbal and physical, including copies of police reports and photos of bruises or injuries. “This makes it easier for courts to give favorable rulings to survivors,” he said.
Domestic abuse affects not only the victim, but also the entire family. Gutman said his parents never recovered from their daughter’s murder.
“It ended my mother’s life,” he said. “She could function and go to the store, but mostly she would sit at the kitchen table with her black cup of coffee and just stare. My father, who was a Holocaust survivor, said he went through everything terrible, but this was the worst … this shouldn’t happen to anyone.”
Children who grow up in abusive homes also are affected long into the future. Although Sara has been happily remarried for what she describes as “several flawless, drama-free years,” her prior experience has had a lasting effect on all of her children, especially her two oldest sons.
“They have had issues with alcohol and drugs, self-esteem, trust, anger and self-confidence,” she said. “And the others have trust issues, feeling like they have to be perfect to be accepted. It’s kind of a morph of all the issues I had.”
Men Can Help
Although domestic abuse has traditionally been considered a women’s issue, Chute and other advocates would like to see more men become proactive.
“A Call to Men,” a national organization that focuses on the role of men in ending domestic violence, has a website (www.acalltomen.org) that lists ways for men to get involved. Suggestions include speaking out instead of using silence to affirm abusive behavior, educating boys and young men about treating girls and women with respect, and changing the traditional images of manhood that foster domestic abuse.
Nineteen years later, Gutman says the hole left by Linda’s death has never really gone away. “After we had the unveiling, I went over to where her husband was buried, and I spit on his grave,” he said. “I didn’t care. There were people in the cemetery, but I didn’t care. She was a jewel.”
– By Ronelle Grier/Contributing Writer
- National Council of Jewish Women, Greater Detroit Section (NCJW/GDS): Secured credit card program, financial information, Safe Place Kosher women’s shelter, BATR (Bullying and Abuse in Teen Relationships) program for high school students. Call (248) 355-3300 for confidential information
- Jewish Family Service of Metropolitan Detroit: Counseling, support and resource referral for victims of domestic violence; Jewish Coalition Against Domestic Assault (JCADA). Contact Ellen Yashinsky Chute at (248) 592-2300
- Common Ground Sanctuary: Counseling, free legal clinics, referrals and housing for women/children/teens. 24-hour crisis hotline: (800) 231-1127 or (248) 456-0909; www.commongroundhelps.org.
- HAVEN Domestic Violence Center, 92 Whitmore, Pontiac: Confidential 24-hour crisis line, (248) 334-1274; toll-free crisis line, (877) 922-1274; TTY line, (248) 334-1290; www.haven-oakland.org.
- Family Law Access Project: Free assistance at (248) 335-0125.
- Jewish Women International: (800) 343-2823, www.jwi.org.
- Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance (JOFA): (800) 550-JOFA, www.jofa.org.
- A Call to Men: www.acalltomen.org.
- Abuse in the Jewish Community: Religious and Communal Factors that Undermine the Apprehension of Offenders and the Treatment of Victims by Michael J. Salamon, Ph.D., 2011, Urim Publications.
- The Shame Borne in Silence: Spouse Abuse in the Jewish Community by Rabbi Abraham J. Twerski, M.D., 1996, Mirkov Publications Inc.