Married to an abuser

Bat Melech provides a haven for ultra-religious women who have been subject to domestic violence.

Women's shelter members on boat trip 521 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Women's shelter members on boat trip 521
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Contraception is against the law in certain ultra-Orthodox societies. But there are, it transpires, other means of preventing unwanted births. Kick your pregnant wife in the stomach until she miscarries is one, or beat her senseless and hope that does the trick.
“I lost two babies that way,” says Sara Rivka (not her real name), with a resignation that belies her 27 years, “but I still had four children in the six and a half years that I was married.”
It seems superfluous to even note the obvious: Abuse occurs, unhappily, across the spectrum of society.
Too many tinkers or tailors, rich men, poor men, beggarmen and thieves beat their wives. Some figures claim one in six women is physically hurt on a regular basis, and the incidence is pretty similar regardless of socioeconomic status. But in haredi society, there are some specific issues that can complicate already fraught situations.
Haredi girls tend to marry young (think 17) and often come from large families themselves (Sara Rivka is one of 12). Even though each woman of worth’s price is above rubies, shekels are hard to find. Multiple siblings can drain parents’ resources – not too many Mea She’arim families can easily accommodate a divorced daughter and her brood. “When my husband started to abuse me soon after we were married, I didn’t even bother my mother,” Sara Rivka recounts. “I went to our rabbi instead.”
The rabbi advised her to return home and sue for shalom bayit (peace in the home), and a haredi psychologist endorsed that plan. The husband, shamed by the intervention, was even more enraged at his errant wife for seeking help – and even more empowered by the rabbi’s reaction. “He redoubled his attacks and started laying into me even in front of the children,” Sara Rivka, who was little more than a child herself at the time, recalls.
Abusive husbands are like pit bulls or cobras, claim doctors Neil Jacobson and John Gottman in their book When Men Batter Women. Pit bulls smolder and explode, monitoring their wives’ every move and feeling constantly infuriated by imagined betrayals. Cobras are cold and calculating, striking their victim with little warning. Both types make their mates’ lives a living hell. “I was left with two choices,” Sara Rivka explains. “Waiting until he killed me, or killing myself.
I simply had nowhere to turn.”
That’s where Bat Melech stepped in. Set back from the road and protected from unwanted visitors by a security gate and cameras, the sprawling building is a haven where exhausted, broken women and their children can heal. Founded in 1995, the organization came into existence quite by chance. Noach Korman, a family lawyer, was filing routine divorce papers for a haredi client and asked for her address. “I don’t have one,” she replied.
It transpired that the young woman had fled her home and violent husband and had nowhere to go. “She pushed her baby in his carriage all over Jerusalem,” Korman recalls. “They spent the days in shopping malls and the nights in hotel lobbies, until they were moved on.”
At that point there were no shelters in Israel catering to the ultra- religious; despite being beaten, these young women still didn’t want to expose their children to TV and music playing on Shabbat, which could happen in secular shelters. Kashrut was not stringent enough for them there; faced with bare arms and uncovered heads at a temporary home, many haredi wives preferred sleeping rough.
“I couldn’t let her leave my office with nowhere to go,” Korman explains, “yet phone call after phone call yielded nothing at all.” Eventually mom and baby were housed with an elderly woman in return for care, but that was not a long-term solution.
Korman swung into action. First he contacted a secular shelter in Jerusalem, which helped enormously with planning a religious equivalent. Serendipitously, at the same time, an American mother of newly religious daughters visited Israel and was moved to donate funds. Bat Melech soon outgrew its Jerusalem premises and moved to Beit Shemesh; today, the peaceful haven in its pastoral setting is undergoing renovations that will facilitate the accommodation of 12 women and their children.
“I was terrified to come to a shelter,” Sara Rivka says, smiling at the recollection. “The very word conjured up an image of a dank basement with concrete walls. I just didn’t know what to expect.”
In fact, the Bat Melech facility has light and airy rooms that front onto trees and sky, the dining area is spacious and inviting, and the crèche is crammed with colorful equipment. Each family unit has a bedroom and bathroom of their own; wall-to-wall pull-out beds give each child a tiny space to call their own at night. Each mother is responsible for feeding her children breakfast and dinner from huge fridges; lunch is eaten communally and cooked by a different woman every day. The tiny laundry with its one machine and drier is the busiest space in the place; when building work is complete there will be a second laundry station.
Psychologists, art therapists, social workers and policemen are constantly on hand to give support and care, and there are endless issues to be addressed. In a stay of roughly seven months, families are helped to heal, to laugh again, to love themselves – and to be strong enough to live alone. Of the 14 shelters in Israel, 10 are secular, two are exclusively for Arab women, and two for the ultra-Orthodox.
According to Bat Melech’s director, the secular shelters, which cater to any woman regardless of creed or color, have about a 50-percent success rate when it comes to rehabilitating women who go on to live independent lives. The others eventually go back to their husbands, and sometimes wind up in the shelters again in a spiraling circle of violence. Three-quarters of Bat Melech “graduates” do not return to their husbands, although life can be tough on their own. Sara Rivka subsists on NIS 3,000 alimony and another NIS 1,200 in child support per month. After rent, that leaves a few hundred shekels per person per month. Food stamps and handouts help a bit; working is a delicate juggling act between losing unemployment benefits and making a slightly better wage.
Bat Melech often supports its “alumni” even after they leave the safe (and free) confines of the shelter. Dedicated staff help with finding work and finances, and provide a listening ear and practical advice. The need is great. “My worst days,” confides the director, “are when a room becomes available and I have to decide who to accept from the waiting list – a young, desperate mother with one baby or an older woman with six kids at school. It’s an almost impossible choice.”
Perhaps in this new year we should add a prayer to the litany: Please, dear Lord, teach all your creatures to take out aggression on tennis courts or by chopping wood; eliminate the need for shelters; and create us a world where wives rich and poor, in swishing skirts and covered heads, in bikinis and tumbling curls, can find true shalom bayit. Amen.