My sister Nina

When my sister, Nina Leibman, was murdered by her husband in October 1995 in Santa Cruz, she was looking for a new beginning — struggling to end a marriage that had become unhealthy and draining, hoping to create a new family life for herself and her children, Philip and Laura. Instead, her husband made the callous and brutal decision to kill Nina — cutting short her dreams, plunging her children, her parents and sisters into a terrible nightmare of grief and depriving the world of a vibrant, intelligent, accomplished woman and all that she might have achieved.

Nina was always a passionate person, she always seemed to know just what she wanted, and she just went for it. She earned a degree in communications from University of California, Santa Barbara, and a doctorate in Television and Theater Arts from UCLA. She wrote a book based on her dissertation, “Living Room Lectures,” and she taught hundreds of students to appreciate and analyze the worlds of television and theater.

In 1989, Nina realized a dream that had resonated for her since she was a child: She became a mother. Phil was born while Nina was finishing her Ph.D., and Laura came along just over two years later while she was teaching and writing. Nina was the consummate mother — she doted on Philip and Laura. Phil used to say she could do magic — and I would not doubt it. She was a brand-new mother, working full time and finishing her dissertation. Every mother who works outside the home knows exactly how challenging this is, but Nina managed it all, and I know that Phil and Laura — who came to live with me after their mother’s death, when they were 7 and 4 — have never doubted for a moment that they were her first priority.

Philip has grown up to be just the young man Nina would have hoped for — he is smart but also wise; he is thoughtful but full of playfulness; he loves people and they love him. He recently graduated from UCSB with a major in sociology and plans to go to graduate school to get a Master of Social Work so he can work with children who have experienced trauma. 

Laura has grown into the young woman of her mother’s dreams. She is outgoing and creative; her insights into people and literature are truly brilliant, and she is undeniably a fantastic actress. She is a sophomore studying acting at Tisch School of the Arts at New York University.

I wish Nina could be here to know them. I wish they could know her. But on Oct. 27, 1995, Ken Donney made that impossible. In the early-morning hours of the day he was supposed to move out of their home in Santa Cruz, Ken beat and then repeatedly stabbed Nina to death. The attack was violent, vicious, deliberate and, I believe, premeditated. He is now serving a sentence of 16 years to life in a California state prison.

His actions changed our lives irrevocably — my parents lost their daughter, Phil and Laura lost a mother, I lost my twin sister, and the world lost all that Nina could have been and would have been. The students whose lives she will never inspire, mentor and teach. The field in which her contributions will never be published, discussed, debated. The colleagues who will never have the benefit of her insights, her wisdom. The friends who will never share all those special moments we hold dear but too often take for granted. Her joie de vivre was forever lost in 1995, and I miss it and her every day.

This is why I am proud to support Jewish Family Service’s Family Violence Project (FVP), home of the FVP Counseling Center that helps hundreds of domestic violencevictims each year. For Nina — and for every other person who we cherish and whowe never want to lose — please visit for information on the event honoring Nina’s memory, held each January, so that JFS may continue to provide shelter, safety and hope. And keep the “magic”alive.

Resource List:
National Domestic Violence Hotline:, (800) 799-SAFE (7233).
Jewish Family Service 24-hotline:, (818) 505-0900.
National Council for Jewish Women Talkline:, (323) 655-3807 or (877) 655-3807.
Batterers Intervention Program:, (310) 691-4455.
Jewish Women International: