The unsung – the women behind the Jerusalem Rape Crisis Center

We sit down with the women who, for many sexual-abuse victims, are the first port of call.

Volunteers meet at the Jerusalem Rape Crisis Center (photo credit: Courtesy)
Volunteers meet at the Jerusalem Rape Crisis Center
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Her voice is soft and calm. It’s early on a Sunday morning. She thanks the caller, who chooses to remain anonymous, for calling and talks her through her options. She is one of the unsung heroes helping victims of rape and sexual abuse.
The Jerusalem Rape Crisis Center is a sanctuary for sexual abuse survivors. The center’s main goal is, as the team explained, for victims to know that they are not alone, that there is somewhere for them to go.
“In many cases, we are the first station for callers. It’s important that we connect with them,” explained Liat Sirota, the JRCC Hotline Volunteers Coordinator. “Creating and holding that trust is key.”
Daniel Roe, responsible for ensuring that calls are handled appropriately, said that she makes sure that the volunteers – all women – explain what options are available for callers.
“The callers stay anonymous unless they choose otherwise. The hotline stays open 24/7.”
The volunteers undergo a deep, intensive and wide-scale training process that spans several months.
“The volunteers are trained to connect with the vulnerability of the victims – we don’t have to know the full story to help. We take each call slowly. If they want to tell us everything, we will listen; if they don’t, that is okay, too. It’s not easy to share intimate details of such experiences with an anonymous person. When a victim calls, we make sure to thank her. We tell her we appreciate her bravery and the call.”
Roe added from her own experience as a volunteer in the past, “I have to find it in myself to help someone else.”
This was the case when In Jerusalem contacted the center recently to witness the process.
Sirota highlighted that there are many things that can trigger a victim’s memory days, months or even years later – which is the case for many sexual abuse or violence victims. There are also certain times of the year that can act as triggers.
“Certain regular experiences like smells and sounds – a perfume or sweat – can suddenly trigger memories and make the victim realize what’s happened to them or relive that experience,” she continued. “Family gatherings where the victim may see or be confronted by the offender can also be a trigger and affect them badly.”
“Annually we hold about 100 personal meetings with survivors and accompany about 130 women to the police and for medical examinations,” Roe and Sirota added.
According to statistics from the Association of Rape Crisis Centers in Israel, the abuser is known to the survivor in 87% of abuse cases.
In 2016, 10,610 women and men turned to rape crisis centers throughout the country, and in 60% of all abuse reports the victim was a minor.
HOWEVER, LAST year alone, the JRCC received about 9,000 calls from about 1,500 callers; during recent #MeToo campaign, it noticed an increase in calls from victims.
“#MeToo brought sexual violence to the forefront, but there’s still a long way to go,” Sirota said.
“It’s still a taboo subject. Victims don’t talk because they feel shame and guilt – they blame themselves and question, ‘What did I do wrong?’ We have to create more awareness. Often the victim feels alone, that they’re the only one who has been through this. We want this to change this. She must know she is not alone – there are so many who have been through this type of abuse and we want victims to know, ‘You are not alone.’”
Alma Keness, head education coordinator at the center, said that the #MeToo campaign helped change sexual abuse from being “a secret” to something that is now talked about.
“It helped a lot of us who have been hurt.
“However,” she added, “I don’t believe it has changed what people think in general. It’s complicated; individuals do talk about it [the concept] socially, but at the same time it’s suppressed. People feel like their back is against a wall and will just nod and say, ‘You’re right.’ They’re not pushed to their extremes. The real opinion doesn’t come out, which is a defense mechanism; it’s still really hard to talk about the word ‘sexual’ in terms of violence and harassment.”
Keness highlighted that people struggle to talk about sexuality and sexual violence in an honest way, “even with our friends,” adding that parents also struggle to speak about sexuality and such issues “with our children.”
“We have to question – are we talking about this with our friends and with our children? Such conversations are important and need to be discussed truthfully, even if it is difficult,” she said.
“At the end of the day, we hope to see a decline in sexual violence, but the more calls that come through, the more we know it’s being discussed, and this is important,” she emphasized.
Keness said that victims are often afraid to admit what they’ve been through because of the long and excruciating process.
“What we try to do is make it [the process] work as best as possible. [Once the victim approaches us], we try to give them the right tools and right type of support. We take their hand and guide them through the procedures – with lawyers, social workers, support and knowledge. We don’t push; the victim guides us once we give them the options. She has the choice to decide how they want to proceed. They need to walk the path, trusting us and themselves to know what the right way is to go forward.”
Keness explained that the center also runs informal education programs in schools and in the workplace that include creating discussion, understanding personal boundaries and abuse of power in the workplace, as well as relationships in the workplace – especially in a manager-employee setting. The workshops show “how to communicate, how to say ‘no’ if those boundaries are crossed,” Keness said.
“We aim to create a safer, more respectful work environment for women by holding some 180 lectures and workshops a year reaching more than 3,000 managers, workers and volunteers.
“We also discuss who you can talk to if boundaries are crossed in the workplace or at school,” she added.
With older children in schools, Keness explained that part of the program includes speaking with them about consent – what sexual consent is, free will and what it means to break those boundaries.
“Our programs are tailored to the needs of the specific group we are addressing – age, purposes and the like.”
Workshops for teenagers and young adults are also held “to raise awareness of sexual violence as well as of our support Volunteers meet at the Jerusalem Rape Crisis Center.
In 2017, we reached about 6,000 teens and held 500 workshops.”
When it comes to professional outreach, the JRCC holds about 250 lectures and workshops a year for more than 1,400 professionals who work in the mental health, medical and criminal justice fields. “This helps to educate therapeutic professionals on the unique needs of survivors of sexual violence so that they are prepared to help their patients and clients through trauma,” added Clinical Outreach coordinator Tova’le Kirschenbaum.
In addition, the JRCC is home to “Forum Exist – Kayamot” a unique group of activist survivors who tell their stories to professionals such as judges, health professionals and government officials in a bid to help them understand how important it is to treat such matters with sensitivity and care.
CALLERS VARY in age from teenagers to young adults in their 20s, as well as teachers and parents of sexual assault or rape victims, and even parents of the offender. The demographic is also across the spectrum with calls coming from Arab communities, National Religious communities, secular people and ultra-Orthodox victims as well.
Homing in on the haredi community, both Sirota and Roe said they are seeing “winds of change.”
“In the past, they would send the girl [the victim] away to a family member out of the country or to a boarding school. There is a center especially geared to the haredi community; once we’ve established that the caller is from the community, we will consider whether the case will benefit from the cooperation with that specific center – like connections to rabbis and people of influence in that community.
“In each case, we will let the caller know about all of the options available, and many times they will still choose ‘our’ center because it isn’t connected to the community... since they are afraid of being recognized.”
Roe added that volunteers also come from a variety of backgrounds including Arab, secular, haredi and National Religious women.
SEXUAL ABUSE victim Rachel* said that had it not been for the center, her life would have been destroyed.
“A few years ago, a family member molested me. I was a teenager and I didn’t understand what had happened or why it had happened. There are no words to describe the shame and guilt when something like this happens to you.
“I didn’t know who to speak to. I felt I couldn’t tell my mother; I was scared she wouldn’t believe me. After a few months, my grades started to slip and I became quiet. My teacher noticed and asked me what was wrong. I just started to cry and cry. Eventually, I told her what had happened and she told me to speak to the Jerusalem Rape Crisis Center. She sat with me as I called and gave me the strength to do it.”
Rachel said that she immediately knew she was in good hands as the woman on the other side of the line just listened to her story. “She believed me. I can’t tell you what it meant to me that someone really believed me. She talked me through my options and I decided to go to the center and have a meeting [with a volunteer]. We talked a lot. I was still afraid to tell my mother. The volunteer, together with my teacher, helped me to do it.”
After speaking with her mother, that family member was immediately banned from visiting their home.
“He wasn’t allowed anywhere near me or the house. My mother didn’t care if it caused a rift. She said all she wanted was to protect me. I was lucky; it’s not always like this. Sometimes parents don’t believe their children. I went through therapy and learned to live with what I’d been through and the guilt it came with. I don’t feel the shame as deeply as I did. My molester must be ashamed, not me.”
At age 27, Rachel is studying clinical psychology and hopes to help victims of sexual violence and abuse in the same way she was assisted. “People must not be afraid to speak out. The more we speak out, the more the stigma will disappear. We must talkyou [the men] must listen. We are not objects; don’t treat us like objects,” she said.
“It doesn’t always happen this way, sometimes family doesn’t believe you and you have to see that person [the one who hurt you] at gatherings or celebrations. The center helps people understand how to deal with such situations,” Rachel added.
ANOTHER VICTIM, Tammy*, told IJ that the JRCC saved her life.
“I was abused several times as a young child and until I was in my 20s. I didn’t realize what had happened to me. There were things that happened in my life and I was in a mess. The more I thought about it, the more I started to connect the way I was acting at that time – using alcohol and drugs to dull my pain – to what had happened to me as a child,” she said.
“I was having suicidal thoughts. I started to Google abuse, suicide and somehow the JRCC’s website and the number came up. I called late one night and that phone call changed my life. I had tried to call a few times before but had lost the courage and put down the receiver as soon as someone answered. I finally spoke because I was feeling so low, sad and confused.
“They were so empathic and caring. I don’t know what would have happened if I hadn’t come across that number,” Tammy added.
Today, Tammy is a secretary, married and a mother of four. She still attends therapy twice a month to deal with her traumas.
“It took me a long time to tell my parents and siblings what I’d been through, but eventually I did and it’s because of the JRCC. I just remember my mother’s eyes welling up with tears. I learned that as hard as it is, if you have to tell someone, you must tell them. If you are being abused, tell somebody. Get help. It’s the only way you’ll be able to move forward with your life in the future.”
KIRSCHENBAUM, AN intern clinical psychologist when not at the center, wants to see a change in the way sexual abuse is taught to those going into careers that may risk it.
“Ninety-nine percent of people who are going into psychology, medicine, paramedical fields and even social work don’t learn about sexual abuse. In general, there’s no application. It’s not spoken about or encountered during their studies. This has to change. All courses [where sexual abuse may be encountered] should call us in to raise the issue and discuss it. There needs to be more talk.”
She explained that the more talk and discussion is created, the more people who have been sexually abused will come forward.
“If sexual abuse is talked about openly, then the anxiety level for victims goes down. People will no longer turn a blind eye if they hear about it or come across it in their lives, careers or amongst their colleagues and friends,” she said. “We have to break the silence. If we do this, it makes it accessible for victims to open up.
“You can’t completely prevent a sexual assault, but once someone comes forward or opens up about it you can give them the hadracha [guidance] to deal with it. You can be the ambassador, the person who tells them where they should go or to call the JRCC or speak to a professional instead of turning a blind eye to it,” she said.
She added that working at the JRCC has enabled her to develop the knowledge and abilities to help sexual abuse victims and to shape and even “give back to society.”
At the end of a 20-minute call, a caller knows what can be done and what options are available. These women show kindness to victims of the most heinous and bone-chilling crimes, help them, guide them and give them strength. These women are angels, heroes and for many saviors, leading them back to the light and giving them the tools they need to restart their lives and deal with their traumas.
They are the unsung heroes of Jerusalem.
The JRCC was founded in 1981 with the goal of providing service and support to victims of sexual abuse and sexual harassment. It currently has 11 staff members, including executive director Silvina Sosna and about 180 volunteers.
The JRCC can be contacted 24 hours a day, seven days a week on at (02) 625-5558, or 1202 – the national hotline that is connected by the geographic area you call from.