Fallout from COVID-19 Brings More Domestic Violence, Jewish Women’s Collective Fund Responds

Thousands gathered in Tel Aviv in June 2020 to protest against domestic violence in Israel. The rally came as the Welfare and Social Services Ministry published figures that showed a 112 percent increase in the number of complaints about domestic violence it received to its hotline since the beginning of the Coronavirus pandemic. (Photo Credit: Eddie Gerald/Alamy Live News)

By Lonye Rasch

For all Israelis, the lockdown triggered by COVID-19 poses a myriad of challenges, both emotional and economic. For those who experience domestic violence, however, basic safety becomes more elusive. “Home is the safest place to be for most people,” relates Liza Nikolaichuk, CEO of Maslan, the Negev’s Sexual Assault and Domestic Violence Support Center. ”But for some women, home is far from safe. Women and children forced to stay home with an abusive partner or father can suffer severe violence.”

For Maslan, which offers women in mostly disadvantaged, patriarchal communities a hotline in eight languages, this escalating domestic abuse coincides with a large drop-off in donations and government funding from both the Ministry of Welfare and the Beer-Sheva municipality. Yet, calls to its hotlines have increased over 100 percent.

Maslan, which serves Israel’s entire Negev region, is one of three recipients of a $15,000 grant from the Jewish Women’s Collective Response Fund (Collective Response Fund), the other recipients being Tahel Crisis Center for Religious Women and Children and Women’s Spirit. The Collective Response Fund, convened and facilitated by The Hadassah Foundation, is comprised of five women’s funds – Greater Miami Jewish Federation Women’s Amutot Initiative, Israel Lions of Judah, Jewish Women’s Foundation of Metropolitan Chicago, Jewish Women’s Foundation of Atlanta, and The Hadassah Foundation. The Collective Response Fund was created to provide sorely needed financial resources during this pandemic to Israeli nonprofit organizations that support survivors of domestic violence.

The participating funds came together to form the Collective Response Fund to examine the COVID-19 crisis through a gender lens, looking specifically at how women and girls are being impacted by the pandemic and how, with their shared Jewish values, they can combine their resources and knowledge to have a more immediate impact in mitigating the stressors that COVID-19 creates.

For example, Tahel reports that when abusers are at home most of the time, it is often not possible for the women to make phone calls to the hotline to ask for help. Their privacy has disappeared. Tahel will use the grant to develop and advertise a specially designed WhatsApp hotline in addition to its 24-hour phone hotline so people who experience domestic violence have another avenue to reach out for urgent help without their spouses knowing. As Debbie Gross, Founder and Director of Tahel, explains, “This is an entirely different form of support. Every word must be carefully considered since the WhatsApp message is often read over and over by the abused woman.” A WhatsApp coordinator will be trained to supervise volunteers. Tahel expects hundreds of calls to come in through this new hotline.

In preparing for a successful launch of this new initiative, Tahel plans to partner with the Haifa Rape Crisis Center, which has been using a WhatsApp hotline successfully for two years. In this way, Tahel can learn from the rape crisis center’s experience. While the app will be widely available, the project will target individuals in the religious and ultra-Orthodox communities. Many Haredi and religious women, though they do not have access to the internet on their “kosher phones,” do have the WhatsApp application.

Maslan’s grant will enable it to train additional volunteers to answer the hotlines and to perform other crucial services that Maslan provides at a time when the demand for these services has doubled. For example, volunteers accompany the abused women to shelters, along with specially trained taxi drivers, who take the women and her children to their temporary home. The volunteers go with the women on hospital visits as well as to court and police proceedings. As Nikolaichuk explains, “When a woman is undergoing legal proceedings, her time is often characterized by emotional struggle, loneliness, self-blame, and loss of faith in society.” The volunteers are there to mitigate secondary traumatization at this difficult time.

Interwoven with the traumas that abused women face is the loss of their jobs, thanks to the pandemic. This devastating phenomenon is being addressed by Women’s Spirit, which promotes empowerment of abused women through economic independence. The nonprofit now prepares these women for jobs that are still available – in supermarkets and medical offices, for example.

Women’s Spirit will use its grant to expand the hours of its case manager in northern Israel, who will help these woman assess their skills, create a CV, and prepare for interviews. While Women’s Spirit reaches both Arab and Jewish women, the emphasis will be on increasing support to the Arab-speaking community.

In addition, for the first time, Women’s Spirit has been providing necessities, such as food baskets and laptops, to women who have lost their jobs or been put on unpaid leave. “Our policy is teaching someone to fish, not to give them the fish,” explains Sharon Rubinstein Mikram, Marketing & Development Manager at Women’s Spirit. “But, in view of the crisis and immediate needs of families, we have also been meeting basic needs as they arise.”

Anticipating the challenge of meeting its organizational costs in 2021, Women’s Spirit plans to reserve part of the grant for its future operational expenses. “Our dread is 2021 and what financial chaos awaits us,” Women’s Spirit’s Vice President, Amy Slater-Ovadia, relates. “The unknown is unbearable and leaves us up at night. Knowing we have funds to continue our vital service to women survivors of violence will enable us to approach 2021 with confidence that we can do our best to ensure that the weakest receive the aid they need.”

The operational budget for Women’s Spirit also includes funds for advocacy on behalf of legislation to prevent economic violence. At the initiative of Women’s Spirit, a bill is now proceeding through the legislative process which mandates that a woman cannot be held responsible for her husband’s debts. Nor could a husband withhold money from his wife or access to their joint bank accounts, at the risk of being sued. Women’s Spirit is also advocating that the National Insurance Institute provide child support when a father does not pay, and that banks make financial assistance more available to these women.

The Jewish Women’s Collective Response Fund grants comprise Phase 2 of the Hadassah Foundation’s grants to help Israeli organizations address the escalating domestic violence during the COVID-19 pandemic. Read about the Phase I grantees and how they are empowering women who experience violence and move forward.

Lonye Rasch is a Hadassah Foundation Board Alumna.