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A Stranger in a Strange Land

A Stranger in a Strange Land

Overcoming Spousal Abuse

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I walked unsteadily into the battered women's shelter with my baby in my arms. I'd brought a pitiful collection of hastily packed boxes and bags.

Emotionally, a baby is a mother's whole world. Everything else, however needed or longed for, is but embroidery, yet that tiny person needs so very much for his survival. Even now, when I see my seven-year old son he is still my baby, and more than ever, my world. But when he was still an infant, it was as if we shared a pulse, and his vulnerability was so acutely in my consciousness that I prayed to G‑d ceaselessly to protect not only my child but all children from harm, to manifest Himself in the world in such a way as to make anguish naught but a memory for any child.

We had left our home because there was no peace in our lives, and no hope of there being such. There was fear, hurt, and isolation. I was breastfeeding my child, and so I knew I could provide him with both love and nourishment, but to have little else with which to care for him – to have stepped off into a strange land of dependence on strangers – was terrifying.

One need not journey to another country to be a foreignerOne need not journey to another country to be a foreigner, and indeed, anyone who has sojourned in a shelter understands with a trembling heart the profound compassion of G‑d who told the people of Israel - no fewer than 36 times - that we must be compassionate and just towards strangers. Then, I was doubly a stranger because I was in a shelter, and because I was in an isolated city in a distant state from my New England origins.

The woman who took down our history and explained the rules of the shelter was very kind. She showed me the shelter kitchen, she brought me sheets and towels for the room I would share with my child, and she spent time talking with me to ease my heart. Surely she was, a righteous woman, of goodness absolute. Before I retired with my son to our room to sleep, she asked me if there was anything I needed. Stunned and exhausted by the circumstances in which I found myself, I could scarcely answer. What didn't I need for my child? But the young woman's question I knew, was a practical one. what would we need to get through this one, particular night?

Diapers. I needed diapers. I had needed to leave the house so quickly that I grabbed my baby's diaper bag, which had only one diaper left inside, and had left a new package of diapers by the baby's changing table. I had only a few dollars in my wallet, and realized I couldn't go out and buy diapers the next day, assuming I even felt safe enough to venture out of the shelter. Waves of shame joined with the fear and sorrow in my veins and nearly drowned me. My eyes flooded. What kind of mother has no diapers for her baby? The shelter staff member gently put her hand on my arm upon seeing my distress, and told me not to worry. There were plenty of diapers in the storage room. She brought me into a storeroom, went over to a large stack of packages of diapers, and handed me one. I felt absurdly rich, as if someone had handed me treasure, and my gratitude was immense.

No one would yell there; no one would make threats Our bedroom was dreary, with broken shades and rickety furniture, and I was told that if another family arrived during the night, we would need to share it. Still, it would be quiet. No one would yell there; no one would make threats; no one would break anything or call me names a child should never hear. I could hold my baby peacefully in my arms all night long, and my child would not hear violence, nor see things he should not see.

But the next morning, having slept little, I looked around me and felt overwhelmed. The shelter was built into a hill, and had little light. It felt like a portent, as if I were taking my child into a tunnel of poverty that would be even worse than the life we were already living. I couldn't imagine what my new life would be, if this was its beginning. How would I take care of my child? How could I find work and child care and a decent place to live? I had no savings, and no family within thousands of miles. The thought of leaving my beloved infant in daycare all day long hurt my very soul. I had no money for a divorce, never mind for an apartment. I had no money for anything. I had neither the strength, the confidence, nor the help I needed to begin anew. My spirit, ground down by a life with someone who belittled me constantly, was some years away from finding its true strength in a connection with G‑d.

Dry-eyed, stunned into despondency, I called my husband and said I would come home.

I put my son in his Snugli, and carried my few parcels downstairs, including the package of diapers. Then I went to find the new staff person on duty to tell her I was leaving. This time, instead of kindness, I encountered a rasping hostility that brought to mind my life at home. "Are you expecting things at home to be any better today than they were yesterday?" she asked sarcastically. "Has something changed during the night that you are taking your child back to a place you just left?"

"I'm doing what I need to do for now," I answered, shaken.

She looked at me, and shook her head. I didn't know it at the time, but she was a volunteer, and was doing the opposite of what she had been trained to do. I had no way of knowing it then, but I later learned that it takes many tries for most battered women to leave an abusive marriage, and every attempt represents an important step in the process of her becoming strong enough to build a new life.

Will they share her risk by taking her into their homes? Battered women who leave the men who abused them are more likely, instead of less, to be killed by them. To disparage a battered woman for not "succeeding" in leaving at any point is nothing short of criminal, for the challenges she faces are monumental. The very people who judge her for remaining with the abuser are rarely willing to do anything substantial to help her. Will they offer their homes for her to live with her child or children while she gains her bearings after leaving the abuser? Will they share her risk by taking her into their homes? Will they help her find another place to live? A job? Will they help her pay for a lawyer? Will they help her take care of her child while she works? Will they give her money, or lend her money without interest? No. Sadly, most people – thank G‑d, not all - will only judge her from the smug comfort of their own lives.

And then, of course, there are the people who judge her precisely because she does find the courage to leave the abuser. Here, too, they are unwilling to do anything to lessen the burden of abuse inflicted on the woman and her children. Will they challenge the abuser? Will they make it clear to him that his behavior must change? Will they make it clear that abusing a woman or a child is unquestionably wrong? No, no, and no. It is rare indeed, for anyone to challenge an abuser's cruelty to his family, particularly because most abusive men have public images that are upstanding and even impressive. Instead, the battered woman is drowned in judgment as she struggles to create a safe life for her child and herself.

I admitted that no, I doubted that anything would change, but still, I hoped so because it was impossible for me to leave. Then I said how grateful I was that the shelter had taken me in, and even given me diapers for my son.

"What diapers?" the woman asked. "You mean those?" She pointed at the package of diapers.

"Yes," I said.

"A whole package!" she cried. "We don't give out whole packages of diapers! That's against the rules!"

"Well," I said, suddenly worried that I'd caused the nice young woman of the previous evening trouble by mentioning the diaper. "Diapers get used up awfully fast. She didn't want me to run out in the middle of the night."

"A whole package," she muttered. "That's outrageous." She looked at me as if I were a thief.

She looked at me as if I were a thief"You can have them back," I said. "Here." I picked up the package and held it out to her. My mouth was trembling, with shame. It was as if I'd never left my home. Was I nothing but someone to be despised?

"Never mind," she said in a hard voice. "Keep them. You've got them now." She turned away abruptly, went into her office, and began noisily doing paperwork. Why was she there, if she was so contemptuous of people like me? I'll never know.

Life at home did not become more peaceful. On the contrary, it grew worse. Yet I could not find, until a few years later, the courage to again approach that shelter. To go from humiliation to humiliation seemed a futile journey. But eventually, I had no choice but to risk it. Fortunately, by that time I had rediscovered my faith, and it was a ladder that brought me out of the darkness of my life. The second time, again a stranger in a strange land, I found at the shelter compassion and support, and a few very generous friends and family members came forward to help my son and myself. While I cannot say that the years that following have been empty of struggle, still, I learned in my time of exile the urgency and magnitude of God's commandment to welcome the stranger.

Around us - in every community - are battered wives subsisting on crumbs of hope, wandering in a world of fear and shame, waiting and hoping for those around them to remember the commandment to welcome and protect the stranger. I pray that I will always be someone who offers such welcome, devoid of judgment. And I pray, for the sake of all our children, that all people might do the same. There is no dramatic conclusion to my story, only the tender creation of a new life, sometimes tentative, sometimes joyful, and a love of G‑d that carries me through each new day, in the land of our strange, but beloved new lives.


Editor's Note:Below are some of the many organizations working to prevent abuse and help survivors of abuse to heal. This list was orginally compiled by Miriam Karp for a related article on abuse:

The SOVRI Helpline is an anonymous and confidential helpline staffed by trained volunteers who provide help, information, support, and referrals to survivors of abuse. We don't have caller ID. Our volunteers are trained to understand the dynamics of sexual abuse. They also have training in listening and counseling skills, emergency department protocol, legal protocol, post-traumatic stress disorder, domestic abuse, childhood sexual abuse and incest, and recommending appropriate resources. Our volunteers are supervised by licensed social workers with extensive experience in dealing with these issues. SOVRI Helpline is under the auspices of Beth Israel Medical Center in Manhattan.

The helpline is open Monday-Thursday 9:30am-5:30pm and Friday 9:30am-1:30pm. The phone number is (212)844-1495.

Shalom Task Force Hotline provides information on rabbinic, legal and counseling services for victims of abuse in the Jewish community. (888)883-2323.

Faith Trust Institute is a clearinghouse for information on domestic violence and clergy abuse in the Jewish community. Faithtrustinstitute.org.

Jsafe: The Jewish Institute Supporting An Abuse Free Environment is an organization led by Rabbi Mark Dratch, which provides a certification program for communal institutions, publications and educational initiatives. Jsafe.org

Ohel Children's Home and Family Services of Brooklyn, NY, has therapy and treatment programs for both victims and perpetrators, sensitive to Jewish needs. (800)603-OHEL

The Awareness Center is a coalition of Jewish mental health practitioners dedicated to building awareness in the Jewish community. They also offer an extensive online collection of articles on issues affecting survivors of sexual abuse. Awarenesscenter.org

Association of Jewish Family and Children Services (AJFCA). (800)634-7346. ajfca@ajfca.org

National Center for Victims of Crime (800)FYI-CALL.

National Child Abuse Hotline (800)4-A-CHILD.

National Hotline for Victims of Sexual Assault (800)656-HOPE.

National Organization for Victim Assistance (800)TRY-NOVA.

Find Jewish resources by state at jewishwomen.org/directory/state_res.htm

Sources for internet and general safety include kidsafe.com

Much additional information is readily available online, through family service agencies, and in the library.

Jampa Williams is a single mother, poet and writer in Connecticut, and has journeyed through (and beyond) domestic violence and cancer.
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Ariella Mansfield, Texas June 14, 2012

Leave or not leave L.E.A.V.E.
Learn- learn that you and you children do not deserve, did not provoke, and do not have to suffer abuse.

Educate-Educate yourself on how to avoid abusive people, and how to assert yourself and be more confident. Learn to love you.

Ally--form a support system FAST after you leave. DO not worry about what will happen if you leave. think about what would happen if you stay. HaShem will help guide you if you just ask for help.

Vision--Focus on the NOW. Focus on getting out NOW. Focus on Validating your feelings as THE RIGHT ones. Value yourself. Value your humanity and that of your kids above any abuser. You are better than they are. InVision yourself with a new world of possibilities at your feet and do not limit what you are capable of. You are a strong and mighty daughter of Israel. You do not NEED a man to validate your life. The Right man will Validate his life with you.!

Excel-- You will find when leaving the abuse you will excel in in your true purpose. Reply

Anonymous Atlanta, GA December 13, 2010

It is very hard to start with zero-- You, my dear, have voiced what I have feared more than the abuse of the man I'm trying to leave now- - how humiliating to be emotionally and verbally abused by a stranger at a shelter you had just escaped to- - you have voiced exactly why, even tonight, I won't go to a shelter even if they had the space. Reply

Anonymous June 21, 2008

G-d's guidance to Leave Thank you for confirming what I am not at liberty to safely talk about at this time. A child's safety is often our L-rd's wake-up to us to clearly define any boundary of compromise we may have excused previously. Bless you and the children Reply

Machelle Plainview, TX USA December 20, 2007

It is a cycle I just brought my daughter home and out of an abusive marriage. My heart is broken for her. Her father also abused me and she saw all of it. What can I do to help her heal? I want so much revenge against him! I know that Hashem (G-d) will take care of him. It is written, "Vengence is Mine saith the L-rd." and I know from my past that HE will take care of the situation. My abuser is now in a federal penitentery for 10 more years. (Thank you Abba Father) I am so heartbroken for my daughter. Please pray for her and I will be praying for all of you. Reply

Jampa Williams West Hartford, MA November 16, 2007

I care... I so much admire the women who have shared their hearts and souls in this section, and I want to say to you how deeply I respect you and your individual journeys. I know that G-d cares for you, and I want you to know that I care about you, and you and your children are always in my prayers. If any of the women felt it would help to talk, I would always welcome hearing from you. May you always move from strength to strength. Feel free to contact me through the site. Be well. Reply

Anonymous November 16, 2007

An abusive spouse Typically those with an abusive partner doubt and blame themselves very much. And, though they may see that the partner is imperfect, as we all are, they typically do not see how bad his or her behavior is/was till somebody helps them see it, or after they have left and started to get an accurate perspective again.

It is the opposite with an abuser. In fact I think it is one good test to see where the blame is put.

Many do not know they are being abused or are abusing, or how much and what effect it is having. Doing this is not helped by those who are quick to dismiss or blame the victim. I finally got a much better idea by keeping a detailed journal of what my husband said and did; looking at his behaviour (and my own) as opposed to what he (or I) said was going on. Then I looked back on it, especially in relation to what we are taught is right or wrong.

But I still find it hard to leave. One cannot magically move oneself and one's children to a new life. Few help or care. Reply

Anonymous July 15, 2007

leave or stay? This is the eternal question for those of us in marriages that are not destined for happiness, no matter how hard we have (and continue to) try. How can I judge what is best for the children we have had together? When the abuse is predominantly emotional/verbal and not physical, the women herself doubts if it's "that bad" or "dangerous" even when her emotional health is at stake due to depression, anxiety and chronic PTSD. (Many of these victims also seem to succumb to cancer.)

I have seen a rabbi together with my husband who told me privately afterwards that he doesn't expect my husband to change at all, thereby putting the situation entirely in my hands. I now am stronger both financially as well as having improved my self-image due to having worked out of the home the past several years and being acknowledged there for my talents and strengths and yet I still deliberate what to do. I don't hate my husband; I just can't live with him. Reply

Anonymous highland park, il May 6, 2007

writing You have a gift. You are a beautiful writer. May G-d bless you always use your gift in such beautiful healing ways. May G-d bless you and your family with all revealed good. Reply

Shosh Jerusalem May 3, 2007

I think this is a very important article. I too hung onto an abusive, adulterous husband - because I had many young children, no money, no family, and because I believed that I could never make it on my own. In the end, I got out and am supporting my children alone financially. But I survived, and have proved everyone wrong. Society judges women like us much too harshly. We are punished by the system and by others if we don't fall apart. I constantly feel as if I am on trial as a parent and expected to be downtrodden. It almost angers other people when they see that I am not. All power to you, Jampa. I am sure that your son will grow up to appreciate the fact that you had the strength to get out while you could. Reply

Jampa Williams West Hartford, CT April 29, 2007

Screaming? No. The voices of women who have been abused tend to be sadly muted, if not utterly silenced. There is no financial gain to be found from separating from one's abusive spouse; indeed, leaving requires a willingness to trust that G-d will provide. It is the nature of women that they do everything in their power to preserve their marriages; they cannot do otherwise, for that is how their souls have been fashioned by G-d. I have observed that when a woman is characterized in a distorted fashion, portraying her in a way that is opposite of whom she really is, that there exists a deep inner turmoil in the accuser himself that is not related to the woman herself - a turmoil for which the woman, tragically and wrongly, is blamed. Perhaps that is why, no matter how desperately women work to preserve their marriges with abusive spouses, they are unable, sadly, to succeed in creating the harmony that they long to create. May we all be healed. Reply

Mori Toronto, Canada via chabadflamingo.com April 27, 2007

How much work was done by yourself AND your husband to change the circumstances? There are just so many women screaming abuse because they are told to do so to better their chances of greater financial and custodial support. I would not be so blind as to make accusations in this case. There are too few facts without hearing from the husband. I have been accused of abuse where there was none but family services have taught my wife how to break up and leave a family rather than work together and keep it! Again, I mean no disrespect to Ms. Williams. Reply

Anonymous baltimore, md April 27, 2007

domestic violence Thank you for telling your story- I too overcame the stigma and have gone on to marry a wonderful man who loves my children and myself.

Please write more about the internal changes a person has to make to be ready to leave and make it last this time. Leaving isn't enough- staying strong is the most important.

Reply

Anonymous Sydney, Australia April 27, 2007

Good for you! You are a gutsy Lady and I hope your son appreciates all you have endured for him!.May G-d watch over you and may you never have to be so downtrodden again. May your son grow up to be a better person than his father and know how to value and treat women with the respect and love which is due to all human beings. Reply

Anonymous Mountain View, CA April 27, 2007

research person before dating and marriage I was crying as I read this moving story of courage and hope. The author and the other writers are an inspiration to other sufferers. I knew an Israeli Jewish lady handwriting expert, who helped people research potential mates and partners. She had also worked with school psychologists and a women's prison to help people solve problems. There are other ways to research people to see if there is a criminal record. There are great role models so people can know how a spouse and other relatives should behave. Blessings on the author, her family, and all other women. Reply

Rochel April 26, 2007

Your aritcle is riveting, and takes the reader through your journey in a vivid manner. I too was once very angry at a friend for forgiving her husband abuse 'too soon.' Your article gave me greater insight into the impact of our response to people who were abuse. Thank you for sharing your soul with us. Reply

Anonymous April 26, 2007

All the best. May G-d bless you have much joy from your son. Thank you for the courage to share your story. We are often all too invisible. Reply

sheri tacoma, wa April 25, 2007

In 1992 I left my abusive husband. It was a challenge raising our children because after I left he would see the kids for weekend visits but emotionally neglect them. I felt guilt and heartbreak because of that. My kids got into trouble as teenagers but with a lot of counseling they have turned out great. It has been a recovery in process. Looking back I know it was good for my son and daughter to learn that dad bullying mom is wrong. Reply

Tirtzah Wright Frisco, Texas April 25, 2007

Autobiography I felt as if i were reading my own autobiography with only some variables. It took me 2 yrs to become completely free, as well. Predominantly due to stalking that would not stop. I also lived in fear for my baby boy (like you) only also a small boy, who became my best and only friend through it all. Finally, the police officer who created the "Amber Alert" took the stalking seriously enough to confront him and end it all. Grateful does not describe what I feel toward this gentlemen. I, also faced serious illnesses and required multiple surgeries through which G-D sent friends to care for my children while I recovered. Later I became a Software Engineer and was able to work from home with my "babies" being homeschooled. It is not G-D's Plan for us to be alone. But with G-D we are never really alone! Now there is finally a man who fears and Loves G-D. Therefore loves us. We married & he adopted my sons as his! Thanks be to G-D Who redeems the exiled into families. Reply

Jampa Williams West Hartford, CT April 25, 2007

I feel overwhelmed with gratitude for the kindness and love that flows from Chabad readers...G-d bless you. Your stories and words are immensely inspiring. May healing be a blessing bestowed upon us all. Reply

Beth Miriam Grayslake, IL April 25, 2007

I am a DV advocate and I volunteer in a shelter. I am so very sorry that the first volunteer you encountered behaved in such a horrible manner; there is no excuse for her.

I am so proud of you for writing your story here and sharing so that others may not feel alone. May G-d continue to bless you and your son and may you find the joy in life that you deserve. Reply