Spiritual, and safe too

Social worker and psychotherapist Ayallah Greenberg is attempting to spread awareness of domestic abuse among English-speaking women in Safed

Ayallah Greenberg of HERS 311 (photo credit: Karolyn Coorsh )
Ayallah Greenberg of HERS 311
(photo credit: Karolyn Coorsh )
Ask Ayallah Greenberg if she knew at a young age that she’d one day live in Safed – and her answer would be an unequivocal yes. The 31- year-old native New Yorker fulfilled that dream with her husband and two young sons in October, and now she’s on a mission to make a difference in the lives of the local female population.
It may seem like a tall order, but Greenberg, a social worker and psychotherapist, is attempting to spread awareness about domestic abuse among Safed’s English-speaking female population.
Her vehicle is Healing Empowerment Resources and Support for Jewish Women (HERS), the agency that she recently created to provide support, education and counseling.
“I started to think there was a need here,” Greenberg says during an interview at the Ascent Hostel, where she worked for a summer as a teen.
“Basically, I asked myself, ‘who are you to say no to this?’” Eager to dispel the dangerous myth that abuse doesn’t occur in religious communities, Greenberg set to work on a brochure she is now trying to circulate in the community. And she’s making some headway: “Reclaim Your Home” gives examples of the different types of domestic abuse that occur, and she is now working to make the brochure available at local mikvaot (ritual baths).
Working and living in Safed is a homecoming of sorts for the Brooklynraised Greenberg. It was during the summer of 1998, when she worked at Ascent, that she fell in love with the city.
“It was a very life-changing experience and I felt like I was coming home,” she said.
When she began dating her now husband Izzy over 11 years ago, she told him about her desire to live in Safed one day.
For much of her 20s, Greenberg lived in Toronto, earning her bachelor’s and master’s degrees in social work. She amassed experience working in distress centers, women’s shelters, and with teenage mothers.
In 2009, Greenberg, Izzy (a native Torontonian) and their young son Schneur spent a “pilot year” in Safed.
Back in Toronto shortly thereafter, Greenberg gave birth to her second son, Yosef, now over a year old, and this past October they moved to Safed, where Izzy runs a marketing business.
Now settled in Safed, Greenberg says she’s out hitting the pavement to make connections with women in the community, rabbis and other community leaders. She recently conducted a seminar on healthy dating and relationships at a local seminary for young girls.
She wants to make it clear that she doesn’t think violence against women is a bigger problem in Safed than in other Jewish communities around the world. What she is trying to convey is the fact that, religious or not, the city is certainly not immune to domestic violence.
She is targeting Safed’s English-speaking religious community, which she says is currently experiencing a growth spurt in the area.
Some women have already approached Greenberg seeking guidance for problems at home, but she refuses to discuss any of this in detail, mindful of maintaining boundaries.
She says she needs to respect the privacy of clients who are living in a relatively small community where everyone knows everyone.
“It’s a very spiritual place,” she says, adding that while it’s not mainstream religious, it does see “a lot of people returning to Judaism.” Indeed, the hilly northern city is a distinct mix of hassidic Kabbalists, secular Jews drawn to an alternative arts-based culture, and other populations.
A Lubavitch Jew herself, Greenberg advertises her services on her website as coming from a “Torah-based, hassidic and feminist perspective.” She says her approach is to empower women to make healthy life choices for themselves and their families.
She wholly believes in the sanctity of a Jewish marriage, comparing it to a painting and says she provides “tools that are the bones, the framework that will hold it up.”
“Reclaim Your Home” quotes from the Torah: “A husband should love his wife as much as he does himself, and respect her even more than he respects himself.”
For the most part, she says, she’s received “very, very positive feedback” in the community, including encouragement from a rabbi who is also a social worker in the community.
Greenberg is determined to avoid too much exposure or alienation, recalling a controversial domestic violence awareness campaign in Toronto years ago that featured billboards depicting photos of a woman with a black eye.
Her brochure features only literature and images of a butterfly and outstretched arms. While she felt the Toronto campaign was effective, she wants to avoid alienating women who may already be reluctant to speak out or seek help.
“I don’t want these women to see me as ‘other,’” she says.