Regina Benshimon was busy preparing for Yom Kippur last September, but she stopped as the sun set the evening before the Day of Atonement would begin to celebrate the Sabbath. After dinner with her husband and the five of her seven children who lived at home (the two eldest were already married) she went to bed early.
It was to be the 44-year-old chasidic woman’s last Shabbat.
Late that night and into the early hours of Saturday, Yakov Benshimon verbally abused his wife, screaming brutally enough for the police and a local Orthodox safety watch group, the Shomrim, to be summoned to the apartment. They left when the couple insisted help wasn’t needed.
Around dawn, Yakov sent his frightened children to the nearby home of their oldest brother.
When he heard why they had come, the married son ran to his parents’ apartment only to be barred from entering by his father. After a struggle, he pushed his way to the back bedroom.
There he found his mother dead, bludgeoned with an enormous plumbers’ wrench.
He ran several blocks to the nearest police station: he couldn’t use the phone because it was Shabbat. By the time he returned to the apartment, accompanied by police, Yakov had fled.
Police who traced his cell phone apprehended Yakov the next day (on Yom Kippur) in a Massapequa, L.I., park.
Benshimon, imprisoned without bail, is expected to go on trial this summer, according to the assistant district attorney prosecuting the case, Robert Lamb.
The trial will be about the murder of Regina Benshimon, but it won’t only be about her husband’s involvement. Lamb said it will also shed light on the role of two rabbis in the Kensington section of Brooklyn where the Benshimons lived who were familiar with what was happening in the violence-filled home but failed to save Regina: a situation he said is common in the haredi community.
Regina Benshimon’s story is a rare (though not singular) example of domestic violence in the Orthodox community gone so far that it ends in death. But in other respects the Benshimon marriage was not so unusual, as one long filled with psychological and verbal as well as physical abuse, and as one with a wife who felt that she had no place to turn because to seek help from the police or other outside authorities would have been considered, in her fervently Orthodox community, to be a betrayal of its values.
While the overwhelming majority of Orthodox marriages, like all others, are free of the abuses that fall under the umbrella of "domestic violence," which includes physical, psychological and financial abuse, the myth that all Jewish men make perfect husbands until very recently had taken particularly deep root in the observant community.
Its self-image as a religious community barricaded by walls of Torah from the social ills of secular society has long been cherished by Orthodox Jewry, particularly within the haredi community. As a result, its leaders have been slow to address real problems, like those of Regina Benshimon, say those who work in social services in the Orthodox community.
But recent tragedies (like the deaths of Brooklyn yeshiva students from heroin overdose and revelations about the existence of pedophiles in yeshivas and youth programs) are leading to a gradual change in attitude.
There is growing, though far from universal, openness about confronting problems like domestic violence, say those who work in the field. And there are a burgeoning number of new programs and facilities to assist Orthodox victims and even to try to rehabilitate the perpetrators.
"There is very rarely any kind of revolutionary change, but more and more rabbis are considering the possibility that the myth of Jewish husbands all being kings is just a myth," said Rabbi Abraham Twerski, a widely respected haredi expert on mental health issues and founder of the Gateway Rehabilitation Center near Pittsburgh, Pa.
"Resistance has been eroding slowly but surely," said Rabbi Twerski, who wrote a book on the subject, "A Shame Borne in Silence" (Merkov Publications).
Henna White, who works as the liaison to the Jewish community for the Brooklyn District Attorney and is herself haredi, says that "in the last two years it’s come out of the closet."
"It’s not a topic that’s hidden anymore. Organizations have made it an issue, and the community has started taking it seriously," she said.
Yet resistance remains, says David Mandel, chief executive officer of Ohel Children’s Home and Family Services, a social welfare agency serving New York’s Orthodox Jews.
"It’s a defense mechanism because it is too difficult to believe that our neighbors do this stuff, like batter their wives or molest 50 boys," Mandel said. "If the person is mentally unbalanced, you say that man needs psychiatric help. But if the person has a normal job, and he davens down the bench from us, and he looks like you and me, then we’re not sure how to deal with it because they are us."
Several aspects of the ways in which domestic violence plays out in the Orthodox community are unique to this population.
Casting a long shadow over all else is the burden of shame. Orthodox women, particularly those in the more cloistered haredi communities, often stay in abusive marriages longer than non-Jewish women for fear of the damage to their family’s reputation that seeking help would bring.
"The issue of the shanda [shame] and shalom bayis [peace in the home] is paramount," said Faye Wilbur, coordinator of Jewish family violence services for the Jewish Board of Family and Children’s Services.
Studies have shown that "Jewish women stay in marriages twice as long as non-Jewish women, on average 14 years rather than seven years from the time violence begins," she said. "I’ve seen women in abusive marriages 35 years who wouldn’t leave until their youngest child was married."
And because the haredi world is closely knit, where three generations often live in the same area, women are also "concerned about the shame and embarrassment to their extended families," said Phyllis Mayer, director of children and family services for Ohel.
The experts say that there may be less physical abuse in the Orthodox world than there is outside of it.
"Perhaps physical violence is less common, but emotional abuse is the same or higher," said Gateway’s Rabbi Twerski. "It begins with a man saying ‘I am the obvious master of the house, I will make motzi and kiddush,’ but then says ‘I am the only one who can sign checks, you may not have credit cards, I don’t like you talking to your mother and friends so often.’ Total control and total isolation is a tyranny, and that’s where emotional abuse begins."
One woman who came to Jewish Board programs was ordered by her husband to keep their freezer filled. Then, from time to time he would wake her in the middle of the night, dump out the contents and make her start cooking to refill it.
"Lots of the husbands will try to have their wives hospitalized psychiatrically," Wilbur said. "They’ll do things to make them feel incompetent and depressed, tell them that no one will believe them, which the wives buy because the husbands are charming to the outside world, and then the husbands will call Hatzoloh or 911 and say ‘she’s screaming, she’s out of control,’ even though screaming is a reasonable response to her situation."
That also helps the husbands get child custody from the bet din, or religious court, which oversees the divorce proceedings: courts which are also staffed by rabbis who may know the husband from synagogue.
Financial abuse, when the husband withholds all money from his wife, is particularly prevalent in abusive Orthodox homes, more so than in secular homes, Wilbur said.
"The husband might do the shopping, tell her to shop in a store where he has an account, and give her no access to the checking account. There are even women who work full time whose check gets direct deposited into his account," Wilbur said. One client had to do a striptease in order to get money for household needs, she said.
According to Wilbur there is often psychological abuse and financial abuse without physical violence. And "women have a hard time identifying themselves as abused if they’ve never been hit," she said.
When physical abuse starts, it often happens during pregnancy, she said.
The husband of one woman she treated interrupted his wife while she was nursing their new baby to tell her to get him a drink or tie his shoes. If she refused, he threatened to hit the baby, Wilbur said.
That woman has stopped coming to the group meetings offered by the Jewish Board. "She was told by someone in her family that it wouldn’t be good for her family if she kept coming," Wilbur said.
In the last few years several new programs have been tailored to the unique needs of the haredi community. About 18 months ago Ohel established a two-apartment shelter near yeshivas and kosher food stores. Two other, larger shelters run by the Jewish Board that are not tailored to haredi needs can accommodate them, and have a total of 125 beds.
The Shalom Task Force, a confidential hotline begun in 1992, refers callers to professionals who are experienced in working with domestic violence and abuse, and can advise victims on Jewish and civil law, counseling and housing for families in immediate danger.
Ohel and the Jewish Board also run day and evening treatment groups for victims, which offer them peer support. And in March Mount Sinai Medical Center’s Sexual Assault and Intervention Program launched a project to provide counseling for Orthodox victims of incest, domestic violence and sexual abuse (see accompanying story).
Perhaps the most innovative program is Brairot, a just-launched treatment course for haredi perpetrators, which after two years of planning began last week. Brairot is Hebrew for "choices."
Fervently Orthodox men convicted of assaulting their wives may be offered the opportunity to attend the weekly, yearlong program that has been developed in close cooperation with the Brooklyn District Attorney’s office instead of going to prison. It’s also open to men who have been abusive toward their wives but aren’t in the justice system and volunteer to enter the program.
Based on a widely used secular course, Brairot is tailored to the needs of the fervently Orthodox. It meets in the heavily Orthodox neighborhood of Flatbush, sessions are led by Orthodox male social workers and talks from rabbis back up the concepts being discussed in the sessions with Torah-based sources, said Lisa Twerski, Brairot’s project director. She is a daughter-in-law of Gateway’s Rabbi Twerski.
Brairot is a joint effort of Ohel, New Hope Guild-Tikvah, a mental health clinic in Flatbush where the sessions will take place, and the Brooklyn District Attorney’s office. "We were seeing a lot of re-arrests of Orthodox batterers and needed a group for them," said White of the DA’s office.
The Jewish Board is now planning a similar treatment course for perpetrators in its Borough Park office, though attendance will be entirely voluntary.
Further options may come out of investigations under way by researchers at Columbia University’s School of Social Work, who are looking at three communities of Jews (Orthodox, Reform and those who emigrated from the former Soviet Union) to examine the ways in which their experiences of abuse are similar and different, said Kathryn Conroy, assistant dean of the school. Funding is coming through UJA-Federation of New York.
The Orthodox community "still has a long way to go" in terms of dealing with domestic violence, said Ohel’s Mayer. "The fact that we’ve acknowledged that domestic violence is a problem, that’s already a giant step. The next step is to create an environment to provide some solutions, and I think we’re now doing that."