When Liza* first met her husband, Jeffrey, he was friendly and charming. After a whirlwind courtship, they married and welcomed a child together. However, Jeffrey became increasingly critical of Liza and over time his behavior became more abusive, both emotionally and psychologically. When their child turned three, Liza made the difficult yet brave decision to leave her marriage. The civil divorce dragged on throughout the years, as Jeffrey used their child to continue the abuse during the custody battle. Finally, years later, Liza was free of her abusive ex-husband, but only under American civil law. She did not have her Jewish divorce, or Get, which would allow her to remarry under the laws of her Jewish community. Despite countless efforts made by her friends, family, and rabbis, she remained an agunah, a woman figuratively chained to a dead marriage, unable to move forward with her life.
Get refusal is a form of spiritual abuse, in which religious doctrine and faith is used as a weapon of power and control in an abusive relationship. This Passover, it is imperative to consider the plight of Jewish women whose marriages have ended but whose former husbands refuse to grant them true freedom. It is as if we have modern day Pharaohs, who have the power to enslave or free their former wives. Just as Moses served as God’s emissary to free the Jewish people from slavery, so too must we be ambassadors to help these women on their journey towards freedom.
Please join us in reciting the following prayer at your seder, asking that these resilient women be liberated from their anguish and spiritual abuse and enable them to establish peaceful homes and a new life.
*names changed to protect confidentiality
I was married for 15 years to a man who used his power and privilege to control my life. According to him, I was never smart enough or pretty enough. I believed I was a lousy wife and mother because that’s what I heard every day. I felt worthless and broken. I did everything I could to keep the peace and safety in our home, but I failed.
When I realized that I could no longer live this way, I called SHALVA. So many questions whirled through me: What was wrong with me? Why was he acting this way?
As I prepared for Passover last year, I thought about my own “enslavement.” And just like the Israelites in the land of Egypt, I had to decide: Should I stay or should I go? I was so frightened and had even more questions. Did I have the courage to move forward, or should I go back to the familiarity of my abusive husband? I knew if I left, he would come find me and try to convince me to stay.
Thanks to you, I am on my journey to freedom. My therapist reassured me that I was not at fault and that I didn’t deserve to be treated this way. She was my rock and was by my side for months. The first thing we did was create a plan to keep the children and me safe. Then, over our next few sessions, we began discussing all my options. Was there a way to feel safe emotionally? Was there a way for me to leave with my children and have financial security?
SHALVA has been a source of spiritual strength for me. Just like our ancestors in Egypt, I went from oppression to freedom. I gave up my home and my car, but I was willing to pay that price for my liberty. Knowing that SHALVA and the Jewish community are here has empowered me. I can’t thank you enough. Challenges remain and freedom rings, too!
The Haggadah speaks of four children: one wise, one wicked, one simple, and one who does not know how to ask. Tonight we speak of four community members and their responses to domestic violence. We acknowledge that at different times in our lives we all have played the part of each of the four community members.
The Wise Community Member asks, “How can we, as individuals and as a community, address domestic violence?” This community member accepts personal and communal responsibility, recognizing that when one is oppressed we are all oppressed.
To this community member you can explain that the social institutions, laws, and norms within our society, as well as the attitudes and behaviors within our interpersonal relationships, perpetuate domestic violence. You can discuss ways to create change with your life and community.
The Wicked Community Member asks, “Why don’t they just leave?”
This person adds to the shame and isolation of those experiencing abuse by blaming them for the abusive behavior of other people.
To this community member you can respond by saying, “Why is it that you don’t ask why people batter? You must hold those who batter accountable for their actions while creating safety and autonomy for those who experience abuse.”
The Simple Community Member asks, “What is domestic violence?”
To this community member you can say, “Domestic violence occurs when a person uses a pattern of coercive behaviors to gain and maintain control over an intimate partner. These behaviors hurt us all.”
The Community Member Who Does Not Know How to Ask can be told:
“Silence is part of the problem; it benefits those who batter. Domestic violence exists in every community. Freedom requires the end of violence in all of our relationships and institutions.”
From “A Journey Towards Freedom: A Haggadah for Women Who Have Experienced Domestic Violence”