Rafael Robb’s Parole Is Denied, Case Raises Abuse Awareness
Rafael Robb came from Israel to the U.S. with a bachelor’s degree from Hebrew University. He got his Ph.D. in economics at UCLA, and joined the faculty at the University of Pennsylvania in 1984.
In 1987, he met 30-year-old Ellen Gregory through a dating service; the two married in 1990. As his career as an academic powerhouse thrived, the couple bought a house in Upper Merion and had a daughter, Olivia, in 1994.
From the outside, everything seemed perfect for this scholarly Jewish son of Holocaust survivors. But inside the house, a battle raged.
The marriage was not a happy one.
Gregory told relatives her husband was controlling. They fought over money. She suffered from depression.
But in 2006, Gregory finally consulted a divorce lawyer, detailing years of physical and emotional abuse on her husband’s part. She told Robb that she wanted a divorce.
Then, on the day when she was scheduled to leave, he bludgeoned her to death in the kitchen of their home.
At first, Robb denied it, saying an intruder had tried to rob the house. But police arrested him and charged him with first- and third-degree murder, and he eventually pled guilty to voluntary manslaughter.
He said he and Gregory had been arguing that day, and she pushed him; he snapped, took a chin-up bar and beat her to death with it. As the result of a lenient plea agreement, he was sentenced to five to 10 years in prison.
The crime — and all the developments since — made headlines internationally.
It seemed shocking that such a well-respected scholar at an Ivy League university would commit this heinous crime. And there were those who said it was doubly shocking because Robb was Jewish.
This is an attitude that Robin Axelrod Sabag, clinical supervisor and coordinator of the Domestic Violence Program at Jewish Family and Children’s Service, is familiar with.
“People will say to me, ‘You probably don’t have too many cases to work on, in the Jewish community.’ But domestic violence does happen in our community,” she said, noting that it happens at about the same rate as in the community at large. “The one thing that’s different is that it takes longer [for a Jewish domestic violence victim] to leave. It can take five to 15 years longer — three times as long as in other communities.”
This is, in part, because of the notion that domestic violence doesn’t happen among Jews, so victims are especially chagrined. But there are other reasons, too.
“There’s a shame of leaving — in the Jewish community we’re supposed to stay together,” Sabag said. “And what does that say about you as a woman if that’s happening? There’s the notion of shalom bayit; we’re supposed to have peace in the home.
“There’s the issue of getting a get for more traditional women. There are the financial stressors of leaving. And then, it’s a smaller community, so more people will know about it, and it’s embarrassing and shameful that this could be going on.”
Sabag said if the perpetrator is an upstanding member of the community, the victim may be afraid that they won’t have enough credibility.
“There’s a fear of not being believed.”
Though JFCS’ services are non-denominational, Sabag works with many Jewish clients who come to the organization specifically because it is culturally sensitive. Clients derive comfort from the fact that there are people who understand the cultural and religious dynamics at work in a given situation.
Sabag and her colleagues will mediate with a client’s rabbi, if need be. They also address issues around child abuse in the home, which can complicate a situation enormously.
“There’s a fear of reporting because their child may be placed in a non-Jewish home,” Sabag said.
JFCS even employs someone to work specifically with Orthodox victims of domestic abuse.
“It might pose more issues in leaving if you’re more traditional,” Sabag said. “There’s some spiritual abuse that can occur, especially if you weren’t raised in the traditional sense and then became traditional later in life, the religion might be used as a way to manipulate. Like, you have to do this for me because it’s written in the Torah.
“Someone who’s not as aware of what’s written in the Torah and isn’t as knowledgeable about it might not know what to do. That’s why it’s important to get support, to get a rabbi who says, ‘It’s not okay to do that, and you do have rights.’”
A few weeks ago, the Montgomery County District Attorney’s Office announced that the state parole board declined Robb’s recent bid to get out of prison early, which means he’ll serve his entire sentence and be released in January 2017. It also means he’ll stay in the headlines a while longer.
“When you hear about a high-profile case, you think, that would never happen to me or to my neighbors,” Sabag said. “I don’t know if the cases do a lot to provide awareness. When a casualty happens, people think about it, but I don’t know for how long.”
High-profile cases tend to perpetuate stereotypes, too.
“It’s not just men doing it to women,” Sabag said. “Abuse happens in every community, and there’s some abuse of women towards men.”
But Sabag agrees that the Robb case merits attention, especially because of its sentencing.
“The judge called that homicide the worst physical bludgeoning he’d ever seen. How do you get a 5- to 10-year sentence for that?”