A PERSONAL NARRATIVE OF DOMESTIC ABUSE
By Katherine Gillett; Photography By Barg/Weisberg
A Beautiful Life Turns Tragic
Alona Epstein-Dayan’s story is all too familiar, yet it is as unique as this hauntingly beautiful woman. Born in Russia forty years ago, Alona moved to Israel with her family when she was eighteen. At twenty-four, she married a wealthy Israeli businessman twenty two years her senior and settled into a comfortable life as a wife and later a mother of two beautiful sons. To all appearances, her marriage was a success.
Five years ago, when they moved to Miami, unsettling changes in the couple’s relationship started to emerge. Alona’s husband seemed to relish being in a position of power over his wife, and he was able to do so easily. He controlled the finances. He spoke English—which Alona didn’t—and had lived in the United States previously, which meant he had friends, family and business connections. Alona was alone, isolated from everything and everyone familiar to her, except her sons Tommy, who was eight at the time, and Richard, who was just three.
Time of Crisis
She was suddenly and completely at the mercy of her husband, who became increasingly controlling and abusive. He wouldn’t allow her to work or make friends. He wouldn’t give her money. He limited her contact with her parents and sister in Israel. Too embarrassed and ashamed to tell anyone what was happening, Alona suffered in silence.
Finally, everything exploded when she told him she wanted out of the marriage. Her husband threatened her, saying she’d have to leave her children behind. He then called the Department of Children and Families (DCF), claiming Alona was not a fit mother and that she was in the Russian mob. DCF gave custody of the children to her husband and told Alona she could have no contact with them.
Starting Over with JCS’ Help
“It was the worst time of my life,” Alona says with tears in her eyes. “I talked to the staff at JCS. They were the only ones who were there for me.” JCS arranged services for Alona—providing her with a safe place to stay and legal help to get her children back. “I was not allowed to see them for five days,” Alona explains, “but it seemed like five years.” JCS Shalom Bayit helped the young mother build a new life. She received assistance getting an apartment and finding a school for her children. A stint as a volunteer working with autistic kids at a Jewish pre-school led to Alona’s current position as a full-time teacher there— a job she loves which allows her to support her family on her own. Her husband disappeared soon after she left him and has not returned. He has no contact with his children, nor does he pay child support. But JCS’ assistance didn’t stop there. Alona also received help with her immigration status through a referral to the Florida Immigrant Advocacy Center, which secured a needed visa so she could remain in the U.S. When she was in desperate need of a vehicle to get to work and transport her children, a generous JCS benefactor stepped up and purchased a reliable used car for her.
Repairing the World
“Alona represents Tikkun Olam for JCS Shalom Bayit,” says Judith Lieber, JCS Vice President of Behavioral Health Services. “By helping her we helped repair the world—one life at a time. In Alona’s case, we saved three lives. We remember Alona’s first frantic call, when she was afraid her husband was going to kill her. She was penniless, desperate, but once she got back on her feet she blossomed into such a strong, inspirational woman.” Life is good for Alona these days. She has her own apartment, a steady job, plenty of friends, and of course, she has her precious sons, who are both in gifted programs at their schools. “Thank G-d for Shalom Bayit,” Alona says. “We wouldn’t be here without the help of all the special people there. They literally saved our lives.”
A Precious Resource
Since 2006, JCS Shalom Bayit has been providing the empathy and essential resources that have allowed Alona and another 360 wives, mothers and their children—those without financial means or family support—to take the first life-changing steps to leave abusive relationships. In addition, its community outreach helps prevent future victims through educational programs conducted at schools, synagogues and organizations throughout South Florida. JCS Shalom Bayit clients have access to the full range of services offered by JCS, which include counseling, food assistance, and the Latin American Migration Program (LAMP) providing support, orientation and care management to members of the Jewish Latin-American community. Just as Alona was able to turn to JCS Shalom Bayit, many others to follow will need this vital community resource for a safe haven and a new start. These women have paid a high price in terms of emotional trauma, physical suffering and damaged self esteem.
That’s when Alona found JCS Shalom Bayit, Jewish Community Services’ program for survivors of domestic abuse.