Help and hope for abused religious women

A victim of domestic violence deals with despair at the Bat Melech shelter for  religious women. Photo: Yossi Zelliger
A victim of domestic violence deals with despair at the Bat Melech shelter for
religious women.
Photo: Yossi Zelliger

For a woman in an abusive relationship, the decision to extricate herself from her violent partner is just the first in a long series of difficult decisions she will have to make, especially if her children are involved. Her first challenge is to find someone or someplace to take her in, help her heal and begin the process of rebuilding her life. A shelter is often the answer, but not all shelters suit all women.

For an Orthodox or ultra-Orthodox Israeli woman, the decision to flee an abusive marriage is even more difficult. Her community is much more circumscribed; her life – and that of her children – is inextricably intertwined with her rabbi, her synagogue and her neighbors. These women generally marry younger, become mothers at an earlier age and have more children than secular women. Leaving their marriages often means being totally cut off from family, friends and their accustomed environment where religious tradition and practice govern behavior.

Of Israel’s 14 shelters for victims of domestic violence, only two – founded and operated by Bat Melech, under the supervision of Israel’s Ministry of Welfare and Social Services – are suitable for kosher and Sabbath-observant women. Parenthetically, there are only two shelters for Arab women, whose religion and culture also dictate their behavior.

“I came to Israel with my family when I was 18, a year later I was married, and a year after that, I had my first child,” says Rachel, a 28-year-old woman with a distinct American Midwest accent. “I left this shelter exactly two years ago,” she says. “We fled from ‘real life’ prisoners to a warm, loving home. I planned to be here for two weeks and stayed for seven months.”

In the warm embrace of Bat Melech’s Jerusalem building, encouraged by the comforting presence of director Einat Engelman, one of the two social workers, and Amy Oppenheimer, overseas director, Rachel describes the harrowing circumstances that brought her – and her four children – to these people and this place. It is clear she has told her story often. It is also clear that, as difficult as it is, she believes it is empowering to talk about how she arrived at this stage in her life and hopes her experience will help other religious women make a break, if necessary.

“The battering began right away,” she says. “In the beginning, I didn’t recognize verbal, emotional, sexual and spiritual torment. A lot of women don’t.” During the next 6 1/2 years, Rachel endured the roller-coaster cycle of her husband’s abuse and apologies. She had three more children and two miscarriages brought on by abuse, but she was determined to make the marriage work.

It was only when she stopped her 5-year-old son from jumping off the balcony in despair over the violence he was witnessing that she realized she couldn’t allow the situation to continue. During the seven days of mourning following her mother’s death, she managed to tell a sister and brother about the horror that pervaded her home. With their help, she escaped and with their help, she contacted Bat Melech.

“In this place, I learned that the abusive situation wasn’t my fault,” Rachel says. “The therapy saved me. It helped me build up my self-esteem. Bat Melech gave me the inner strength to leave the shelter, which was very difficult. They gave me the support to deal with the financial and family issues, get a divorce and raise my children on my own. Little by little, my children are blossoming,” she says with a small smile.

Because the entire staff is religious, Engelman says, they can easily identify with the women who come to them for help – and they can interact with the rabbinical authorities. Currently, there are six women and 17 children in the Jerusalem shelter and 12 women with 35 children in the Beit Shemesh facility.

Bat Melech receives referrals from social service agencies, rabbis and through its own hotline. “The hardest part is the triage,” Engelman explains, “determining who gets to come to us. We meet with the woman and decide if a shelter is the best solution for her. Those who finally come are the most needy, those without a safety net.”

“This is often the case for women from English-speaking countries who have moved to Israel on their own and have no extended family or support network,” Oppenheimer says. And, she points out, “there is growing awareness of families in distress in the religious community. The average age of the women who turn to us is decreasing as they more readily acknowledge the problem.”

“We can accommodate 18 families. We take every woman we possibly can, but we rarely have an empty room. In life-threatening situations, we send the woman to a secular shelter,” Engelman adds. “Unfortunately, sometimes we have to advise a woman to go home to her abusive environment and wait until there is room.”

Oppenheimer is pleased to add that with the acquisition of a neighboring building, the Jerusalem shelter will be able to double its capacity and serve all those on the current waiting list. The organization, which is supported by an equal mix of public and private funding, has already raised two-thirds of the $1.9 million necessary for the project and hopes to raise the remainder in the next two to four months so the purchase can be finalized.

Every family has its own room, but a decidedly communal or kibbutz-like atmosphere prevails, as Engelman points out during a visit. There are several rosters that help make responsibilities clear. Each day, one woman prepares the main meal, which is served in the large main room where the children and their toys share space with their mothers.

“The women become like family to each other and reinforce each other,” she says. “With the help of the social workers – one for the mothers and one for the children, as well as personal and parenting support groups – they strengthen themselves and learn how to reclaim their roles as mothers.”

Bat Melech’s staff includes volunteers and professionals who help organize child care, after-school programs for the children and evening activities for the adults. Their professionals also provide legal advice and assistance on divorce, custody and alimony issues. From the important first step of walking through the front door through the departure date and ongoing follow-up, Bat Melech offers religious women more than a haven. It gives them the courage to create a better life for themselves and their children within the framework of their beliefs and practices.

Sarabeth Lukin is an American/Israeli journalist who lives in Jaffa.

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