Mind, Body & Spirit

JFCS sees economic woes trigger rise in domestic abuse

JFCS LEAH program coordinator Ilana Markowitz (Sheila Wilensky)

Domestic abuse is still “a big secret” in the Jewish community, says Carol Sack, Jewish Family & Children’s Services vice president of financial resource development. Too many people still believe that “it’s such a shanda, or shame, for Jewish women to walk through our door,” she says, “and the current increase in economic stressors doesn’t help.”

People from higher-income neighborhoods are now requesting emergency assistance from JFCS, says Sack. If these individuals had hoped their financial situation would turn around in 15 to 18 months and it hasn’t, “this creates more stressors that [can] lead to domestic violence in a big way,” she explains. People in financial turmoil are making major lifestyle changes; they may have to sell their homes, which is stressful even in the best of times.

JFCS doesn’t house a shelter for victims of domestic abuse but the agency has run the LEAH program (Let’s End Abusive Households) for Jewish women since 2000. What’s different in American society today, says Sack, is the “extent of time people have been unemployed, the longest since the Depression” of the 1930s.

Economic hardship clearly disrupts shalom bayit, or peace in the household, “which Jewish women put such a major emphasis on,” says Ilana Markowitz, LCSW, the LEAH program part-time coordinator. “It makes abuse much harder to admit. Pressure within the Jewish community promotes collective cultural denial about domestic abuse,” she explains. “Jewish women typically wait longer to seek help than women in the average population. They stay in abusive situations five to seven years longer than women from other religious backgrounds.”

Plus, women don’t want to embarrass their immediate or extended families, says Markowitz. “The Tucson Jewish community is very close.”

Jewish women have gone to sectarian community agencies for assistance from domestic abuse. “You might think that the only places we get referrals are from Jewish agencies and synagogues, but they also now come from Pima County Crime Victim Compensation,” notes Sack. Jewish women may first attend a support group at an agency such as the Emerge Center Against Domestic Abuse, which is the largest domestic abuse shelter and provider of domestic abuse prevention services in Southern Arizona. But often, she says, those women want a sense of “Jewish commonality.”

Jewish women who are victims of domestic abuse probably lie to their spouses and even their friends about seeking help, says Sack. “Therapists tell me that nine out of 10 of their clients come in secret.” LEAH program posters with “shoe cards” are displayed in synagogues and other places around the community, says Sack, explaining that women are afraid to put informational cards in their purses because abusers may find them, so they hide the cards in their shoes.

Nine clients ranging in age from their mid-30s to low-60s — from Orthodox to unaffiliated — currently participate in the LEAH program, says Markowitz, noting that “we consider a wide definition of abuse, including humiliation, intimidation and threats, abandonment, neglect and violence.”

“We’ve seen threats and manipulation around child custody and money, with increased abuse around separation and divorce,” she says. A married woman may be afraid to stop for groceries because she’ll be late arriving home, and even that could trigger abuse.

In the current economy, says Markowitz, a woman may be attending LEAH program sessions but her car breaks down. Her husband tells her they can’t afford to have it fixed, which further isolates a victim of domestic abuse. Or a woman’s husband can no longer afford treatment for psychological issues, exacerbating incidents of abuse.

Domestic abuse is a family issue, she says. One Tucson woman was shot by her husband; her child witnessed the violence and now attends a JFCS program for children.

Cases of teenage daughters abusing their mothers have been reported through the LEAH program. In one such case the daughter had herself been abused; studies show victims often become perpetrators.

Another client found out about LEAH through her synagogue and called to see if she was eligible, says Markowitz. Through the conversation it became apparent to the caller that she was being abused by her husband’s financial control and furious outbursts.

“These outbursts seemed to have escalated with the economic downturn,” says Markowitz. “The client worked with the therapist to regain her sense of self-worth. Over time she realized that her husband would have to change or she would have to leave the relationship.”

The client spoke with her husband, who began counseling at JFCS, as did the couple’s children. They have all participated in family therapy sessions, says Markowitz. “The client remains in the LEAH program to continue rebuilding her strength and develop greater insight into herself. The husband has continued his therapy.”

This client’s life has “forever changed,” says Markowitz. “She will not allow herself or her children to be unsafe in their home again.”

In the greater Tucson community, the Tucson Police Department investigated 8,255 domestic violence cases between Jan. 1, 2009 and Dec. 22, 2009. In 2010, the number was 8,610, according to the Arizona Daily Star (Jan. 2, 2011).

And the Jewish community experienced its own domestic violence tragedy on Sept. 8, 2010. “There were lots of calls inquiring about the program after Karla Ember’s death, and requests for gatherings at local synagogues,” says Markowitz. “There was increased alarm in response to her death.”

The LEAH program is fully confidential and operates on a sliding scale although it’s mostly free, she notes. “I want people to know that we’re here for them.”