By Zilit Jakobsohn
COVID-19 has brought domestic violence to center stage. One in seven women in Israel suffers from domestic abuse; violence against ultra-Orthodox women is identical to that of the general public. However, this community is unique because it exists in self-imposed isolation from greater Israeli society. Of the 160,000 Orthodox households in Israel, most have no access to television, internet or social media. Many are unwilling to turn to social services or rights-based organizations as they distrust non-religious authorities and the community does not look kindly on members who seek outside help for domestic problems. This places victims of domestic violence in a particularly dire and dangerous situation.
COVID-19 has hit the ultra-Orthodox community hard. The very real, or even perceived fear of sickness and death from the virus triggered the development of PTSD amongst many individuals. Even those who were not infected have been closed in densely-populated conditions for extended periods of time. Families with multiple children live every moment of the day in tiny, three or four room apartments. This, together with high levels of poverty that pre-dated COVID-19 and that are now exacerbated by the situation, create extreme tension and psychological stress. In too many cases, the result has been violence in the home.
Victims are stranded and do not receive help. In addition to the regular isolation in the ultra-orthodox community, many women fear infection and are reluctant to leave the house. Social distancing is separating victims from support groups, if any exit, and make her more vulnerable.
Bat Melech, is the only organization in Israel committed to reducing domestic violence in the ultra-Orthodox community and rehabilitating its victims. It operates two of Israel’s 14 physical shelters, which provide a safe haven for battered women and their children and caters to the unique needs of ultra-orthodox women.
Bat Melech’s shelters provide more than physical safety for victims. Professional staff provide both the women and their children with psychological and practical rehabilitation. The women learn to regain their self-esteem and self-worth and acquire tools for empowerment and financial independence. Bat Melech also offers free legal services to victims, as well as a 24-hour hot line for women in distress and a strong community outreach program to raise awareness about its services and to flag the warning signs of the presence of domestic violence. All of this is done in line with the community’s unique needs.
One of Bat Melech‘s achievements has been the success of reaching victims of domestic violence in such a closed and traditional society. This is truly a critical challenge because the media and many public figures refuse to openly address the issue of domestic violence and social media is not a possible channel. In response, Bat Melech uses innovative action that bypasses the media and penetrates the community in a discrete manner, exposing its message directly to the target audience. We work with agents in the community who have access and ongoing contact with women in need and places advertisements on buses in orthodox neighborhoods with the support of local Rabbis. These measures not only give victims a place to turn for support that understands their needs, it also raises awareness about the subject and its warning signs to encourage people to take action. Bestowing this responsibility upon the community leaders and service providers is a new and perhaps even daring concept within the ultra-orthodox community.
The Rabbinic institution’s role is critical in creating change on the matter of domestic violence in the ultra-orthodox community. These Rabbis have immense influence over the population and they can direct women to assistance should they identify, or become aware of, domestic abuse. To that end, Bat Melech also works with Rabbis and Rebbetzin by bringing them to the shelters, holding meeting and organizing awareness raising workshops. They are taught how to address the complexities and sensitivities of the subject and danger of silencing and brushing off violent occurrences.
One of the result of Bat Melech’s activism and groundbreaking encounters with the leaders and service providers in the ultra-orthodox community, has been a steady annual increase in the number of calls made to the hotline. This has changed Bat Melech’s status in the community and is a significant achievement within the previously silent community.
Raising awareness on issues pertaining to domestic violence must continue in the ultra-Orthodox community. This should include pioneering unique awareness and prevention programs that apply universally, including models for closed, tight-knit communities of all religions and beliefs. We believe that it is the joint responsibility of all communities – across religions and religious groups – to take part in combatting domestic violence. Given the strong connection between the Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox Jewish communities inside and outside of Israel, we at Bat Melech believe that a strong partnership here is inevitable and very much needed for the benefit of all victims of domestic violence in insular communities.
ADV. Zilit Jakobsohn is Chair of the board of Bat Melech and a leading activist in the fight to reduce family violence in the Orthodox Community.