A safe haven

Today, awareness of the deep-rooted problem of domestic violence is rising in every sector in the country.

Bat Melech organization (photo credit: CHELSEA DEE THOM)
Bat Melech organization
(photo credit: CHELSEA DEE THOM)
Jenny celebrates two birthdays. One is the date on her identity card; the other is the date that she took her life and the lives of her five children into her hands. That’s when she first arrived at the Bat Melech shelter for battered haredi (ultra-Orthodox) and Modern Orthodox women.
“I’m beginning to understand that I’m entitled to freedom, that I’m allowed to be happy,” the 32-year-old says.
“For too many years I lived in constant terror. Suddenly I find myself at happy events, on group outings. I smile, I’m happy, I even dance. I’m back to who I once was, and I believe that soon I’ll start living a truly independent life, creating a safe and warm family unit for myself and my children.
“Today I have an enormous mission – to tell my story. If even one woman in my situation understands that there is a way out, that means the world to me.”
Jenny never thought that her life would end up this way. She grew up in a normal family in an observant community. She studied at a state-religious high school, graduating with extremely high marks, always surrounded by friends. When she got married she looked forward to building a healthy relationship with her soul mate, both physically and spiritually.
“I wanted to educate our children on the basis of a love for Jewish principles,” she says. “I wanted a large and loving family.”
Then she ended up in a Bat Melech battered women’s shelter.
The organization, in coordination with the Welfare and Social Services Ministry and funded in part by the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews, established a woman’s shelter in Jerusalem and one in the center of the country out of a dire need to provide physical, mental and legal assistance to observant women suffering from physical and emotional abuse, sometimes in life-threatening danger.
Over the years, more than 1,000 women and more than 4,500 children have been rehabilitated and integrated back into society via the Bat Melech shelters.
Zilit Jacobson, the organization’s chairwoman, became involved with Bat Melech as a legal volunteer.
“We believe that it can be different, that we deserve a better fate and we must make a change,” she says. “If we tolerate the pain and tell women that they must continue to be victims, what have we done? We need to explode the myth and the usual way of thinking. The solution isn’t out there in the middle of nowhere – it’s right here in our yard.”
Violence doesn’t wear a specific type of kippa, Jacobson says.
“In a shelter, you understand the social codes nuances in religious streams, where the community plays an important role as a positive and embracing force. Unfortunately the community isn’t always aware [of these issues], because women are reluctant to reveal domestic problems and break up the nucleus of the family.”
Yet Jacobson is beginning to sense a change.
“In the past, only older women came to the shelter; today we’re seeing younger women with children, because they feel more secure to come and ask for help,” she says. “This work requires sensitivity and patience; there is still is a long way to go. Unfortunately, the shelters are still filled up.”
THE TERM “shelter” doesn’t adequately describe the facility. A well-kept fence hides the security cameras. There are two large courtyards, one of which leads to the house for children up to the age of three. On the way to the house there are birdcages, fruit trees and a wall for the children to climb on. The children spend their days there from 8 a.m. to 1.p.m., under the guidance of a kindergarten teacher and female National Service volunteers. There are 40 children from different age groups who need to plug into a daily routine. All of them have experienced some form of violence.
The main house has a large dining hall, a spot to light Shabbat candles on Friday nights and a designated sink for the women to ritually wash hands prior to eating bread. There are separate meat and dairy kitchens.
A significant portion of the psychological treatment happens around the kitchen. For many women, the kitchen was a center of violence. It was there that husbands threw plates or yanked up a holiday tablecloth, ruining the festive meal. Anne, for example, who was constantly told that she is an awful cook and could never produce decent pastry, dreamed in the shelter about opening up a bakery where she would employ women who had experienced violence. After she left the shelter, she made it happen.
‘Significant timeout’
They arrive at the shelters with only their children and the clothes on their backs. This is the moment they know their lives will never be the same. From that moment until the end of their rehabilitation, this is home.
In the secular sector, children in shelters generally study at the nearest school. At the Bat Melech shelters, the women range from Modern Orthodox to haredi. The subtleties are significant, so the organization spends more on education per child than other shelters in the country. Almost all segments of observant society have their own nuances, and finding the right educational institution for each child is critical, even if Bat Melech has to pay for a taxi to take the children to school each day.
The number of children in the organization’s two shelters is higher than in the shelters for the general population. About 60 women and 250 children are in each of the shelters. Shelters for the general population average fewer than two children per woman.
The women also run the communal house, to foster their strength and enable them to realize they can manage a home and be a parental authority. Each mother plays a role in preparing, serving and cleaning up after breakfast, and there is a rotation for supper, Shabbat meals and other chores.
The average stay in the shelter is around six months, during which women receive five sessions of psychological treatment. Children take part in extracurricular activities, such as animal therapy, and meet on occasion with a social worker. There are 45 staff members in the two shelters, including managers, housemothers, kindergarten teachers and volunteers – lawyers, National Service volunteers and others.
The costs are high, and the shelters depend on donations from people, such as Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein, founder and president of the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews.
“The Fellowship has defined for itself the goal of strengthening the weakest populations in Israeli society and giving them social support – and at times even real, physical defense,” Eckstein says.
“The level of danger and exposure to life hardships is high in the female population. Women are susceptible to physical violence and monetary discrimination and are dependent on their husbands, especially in closed and traditional communities, where women are forced to sacrifice themselves for the good of the family and the children. That’s why we provide assistance to frameworks that support women and empowerment programs that will help lead them to financial independence. Family life is important and empowering, as long as it does not violate the rights of women to live a safe, happy and meaningful life.”
On an average day, 46 cases of domestic violence are filed in the country. In 2015, the Social Services Ministry’s Service for the Individual and the Family treated more than 10,000 people, of whom more than 6,700 were women and almost a thousand were minors. The country’s 14 shelters took in more than 700 women and 900 children. In addition to the two shelters for observant women, there are two for Arab women, two Jewish-Arab mixed shelters and two that treat women with mental health issues. All shelters take in observant women, but getting them to a place of refuge isn’t easy.
“Every woman has a unique story, but there are certain things that every woman affected by violence goes through,” says Michal Hanoch-Ahdut, the Social Services Ministry’s national inspector of domestic violence, responsible for shelters and transition apartments for woman and child victims of violence.
“One of the things you’ll find in the haredi sector is a process that the community is more ready to talk about and acknowledge the fact that there is violence. When we started with these shelters there were very few haredi women, but the number is increasing every year.”
Hanoch-Ahdut says there are many questions specific to the haredi community about battered women’s shelters. “Is the request for asylum legitimate, does it harm her sisters’ chances of being offered a favorable match for marriage, how will she be treated after she leaves the shelter, and other questions.”
On all of these issues the ministry is working to get the word out and raise awareness, Hanoch-Ahdut says. They’ve established support units alongside the rabbinical courts, that work with the courts in mediation and assistance. A woman is referred to a shelter through the ministry’s welfare departments for the haredi population and they are sent to the shelters after a risk assessment.
“A shelter is a significant timeout that helps women choose their future. The idea of having a choice is unfamiliar to women who have experienced violence, so it is very significant for the future.”
‘The choice is really mine’
Jenny met her husband via a matchmaker. Everything seemed so right, she says. He was a God-fearing man, everyone said he had positive attributes, he studied computer technology and was working in the same field.
“What could go wrong?” she asks.
“A few weeks after the wedding I was suddenly made aware of one of his problematic sides. I never thought that the person I would build my future with would dare to speak to me like this.”
This first sign that he was capable of trampling on her respect and ruining her life occurred when Jenny was hanging a picture in their new apartment.
“He saw me and screamed, ‘What are you doing, you idiot?’ Up until that point in my life, no one had ever spoken to me like that. I didn’t understand what I had done to deserve such treatment.”
For a long time he tried to disconnect Jenny from her family and friends. He didn’t allow her to meet with her friends and forbade her from speaking with them. If she did anything he didn’t like, he would punish her by not letting her phone her mother. The first occurrence of physical violence came after they had their first child.
“We were at a hotel on Shabbat for a family event,” Jenny says, “and he decided he didn’t want to go the lobby after the meal to be with my family. I tried to explain to him that if he didn’t want to go at least I would go down with the baby. Then he completely lost it. He pushed me against the wall, punched me and kicked me, without mercy.
“I cried and screamed and was afraid. I don’t know where I got the courage, but I grabbed the baby and ran out of the room, shaking and crying. In the stairwell I met my brother and told him what had happened. He wanted to go and beat my husband and end the story there, but I pleaded with him not do to that, not to hurt the shalom bayit [domestic harmony].”
Her family intervened and the husband promised not to hit Jenny again. They went for treatment and things were back to relatively normal, Jenny recalls. But gradually, the brutality returned. He quit the treatment after their second son was born, and Jenny was embarrassed to tell her parents that they were no longer receiving help and she was withering under the violence. The trauma – physical, spiritual and mental – will stay with her forever.
“He controlled my soul and my brain. He forbade me to do anything that made me happy. All the decisions that I made were out of the consideration of ‘what will he think, and if I do this will I get into trouble?’ He forced me to study a field that didn’t interest me at all, and what I really wanted to explore was forbidden. Now, in the shelter, suddenly I appreciate the fact that when I want to eat something I can eat it, and when I want to do something I can do it. The choice is really mine.”
The examples of the impossible life that Jenny was living are innumerable, but the one that emphasizes the despicable treatment, she says, was not allowing her to go to the bathroom.
“He decided that I needed to train my body and control myself so that I would only go to the bathroom within a range of a few hours of the day, as he would see fit. When he would fall asleep I would take advantage of it and run to the bathroom. Sometimes I would do it in the bathtub, and even sometimes in the baby’s diaper. It was so humiliating that I never dared tell anybody for a long time, even after I had already left the shelter.”
The moment that Jenny decided her life could no longer go that way was when she started having contractions during her fifth pregnancy.
“I told him that I wanted to rest until the pressure stopped and then decide if we needed to go to the hospital. He told me that there was no way [I could rest], and that I needed to clean the house and I couldn’t rest until he decided.”
When she went to sit down he moved the chair and Jenny fell to the floor.
“He laughed. I’m there having contractions, crying from the pain and the humiliation. I wanted to go the couch and he said that if I should even dare to sit there he would throw it off the balcony. He just stood there and watched me to make sure I would start cleaning. I didn’t understand how he could behave like that toward me.
“Then he kicked me in the stomach. That was the moment. I told myself that no helpless creature should suffer because of his madness, and I understood that I could no longer stay with him.”
A new life
The next day, with more severe contractions, Jenny took her four children to a relative, and after speaking with a Social Services Ministry representative and a referral to Bat Melech, it was decided that security guards would escort her to the hospital and her admittance would be confidential.
“With God’s help, I gave birth to my daughter, and the joy was unbelievable, but it was mixed with apprehension and fear of what would come. I knew that I was here to save my children and I understood that they didn’t have to live in this type of world. After a two-day recovery in the maternity ward, my family helped me pick up my children and with the hospital bracelet still on me I arrived at the shelter, pale and afraid.”
Jenny vividly remembers the housemother, the shelter manager and the other women receiving her with open arms – taking her in, helping her and giving her time to understand what she had been through and to finally recover.
“The shelter saved my life,” Jenny says. “From the beginning I felt like I was home. The warmth and love there allowed me and my children to go through a process – hand-in-hand with the social worker, caregivers and professional staff – that enabled me to examine my life with my husband and the challenges I faced. I understood that I didn’t have to live with this terror anymore. The process made me want to start a new life for my children and for myself.” ■
*Some of the names mentioned in the article are fictional for privacy reasons. This article was originally printed in Ma’ariv and translated by Benjamin Glatt.