Miracle Women: NY Federation helps create empowering community at Jerusalem shelter
For the women who gathered at the Woman to Woman: Jerusalem Shelter for Women this past Chanukah, miracles are not just for holidays. They’re a regular part of life.
The atmosphere at the celebration on December 15, equal parts optimism and heartbreak, reflected the truth that many of those in attendance had suffered serious abuse at the hands of domestic partners. A menorah candle-lighting ceremony, in which each participant shared her story, brought home the message of the evening – the path to empowerment is accessible to all and begins within each woman.
According to Elisheva Flamm-Oren, Planning Director at UJA-Federation of New York, that message is one that resonates with the federation, which has contributed about 400,000 dollars in the past 10 years. The NY community has been particularly active in the development and maintenance of the shelter’s second stage rehabilitation program and children’s center, including job training to grant women their first taste of economic freedom and psychological counseling for women and their children.
“The shelter’s mission, to create a supportive, caring community in which women can weather life’s challenges, is one that is embodied by NY Federation’s caring commission,” she explained. “The commission is all about people being interconnected and caring for eachother. Sometimes you’re on top and you can lend a hand; sometimes you need some help.”
The shelter too prides itself on its egalitarian approach to empowerment. As the name suggests, it aims to provide a comfortable, safe environment for women to help other women (and their children) live violence-free lives. Partly subsidized by the Welfare and Social Services Ministry, the shelter is dependent on donations for the rest of its operating budget.
“The most important thing we can do is empower women and show them they don’t deserve bad treatment,” said Miri Ben Shalom-Dor, a staff social worker who attended the Chanukah event.
Veterans of the shelter who have gone on to successful and independent second chapters were among those who addressed the group at the Chanukah event. One woman, now in her 70’s, described her experience first arriving at a shelter 25-years-ago. Her abusive husband tracked her down at the location and backed his car into the building, destroying it.
Although initially, she found herself returning to her abusive environment multiple times, she eventually found the strength to get the assistance she needed. With tears in her eyes, she asked the assembled women to learn from her example. “I want to ask all the young women here not to be afraid; fight for all your rights. I started late but now I live without fear. And I work! I’m 75 and living a good life and you can too,” she said.
Another veteran resident who spoke at the event emphasized that abuse does not discriminate and that anyone, of any class or culture, can be a victim. Although she was living a solidly middle-class life and was educated with an MA degree, her husband’s mental cruelty led her to the edge of sanity.
“He made me feel like I was garbage, a nothing. He used to say that we only had each other, but that was only because he had distanced me from everyone close to me,” she explained.
Referred to the shelter by her therapist, this woman found a safe haven to begin living her own life. Today a budding filmmaker, she returns to the center every Chanukah to celebrate her personal miracle.
According to Naomi Schneiderman, the shelter’s Director of Development, miracles begin when women are offered the tools to improve their life situation. The center offers legal help by a staff attorney – who will apprise the client of her rights and protect them – job training to allow women greater self-sufficiency and psychological counseling for women and their children.
Each year close to 100 women, victims of physical, sexual, emotional, verbal and economic assault and coercion, pass through the shelter, the largest of 12 similar centers nationwide. At any given time, up to 15 women may be in residence at the facility, coming to stay for anywhere from less than a month to over a year. Referred by police, hospitals, therapists and welfare authorities, the women generally arrive in an atmosphere of crisis, hiding from their abusive partners and often very much alone – having been abandoned by family members and isolated from friends.
“As soon as they get here, the stigma begins to wear off. Many arrive feeling embarrassed and thinking they are the only ones to which this has happened. But just being here, talking to other women, gives them the first push to start making changes, the courage to work or to pursue studies,” said Ben Shalom-Dor.
However, she adds, a short stay at a battered women’s shelter is no cure-all for the root causes of long-term abuse. The cycle of abuse is difficult to break and in addition to the success stories, there are the darker tales of recidivism, of women who continue to return to their abusers despite repeated stays at the shelter.
UJA-Federation of NY is committed to assisting the shelter residents in making the shift to lasting change in their lives. The halfway house program, supported in part by the federation, is the only such project in the country. It provides women with a supportive community for the crucial first year of transition to violence-free living. With individual and group therapy, practical assistance and training, women work together to get a foothold in self-sufficiency.
The children’s center has been another major funding focus for NY federation. The nurturing educational and therapeutic environment provides a unique healing space for children who have been exposed to violence and/or have been victims themselves.
“With our ongoing investment in helping children and youth-at-risk, providing for children affected by violence was something we really understood,” said Flamm-Oren.
Schneiderman is grateful for the support from NY, calling the federation “the kind of friend we very much need.”
As she looks ahead to the present and future needs, including expanding the very successful halfway house program and adding more scholarships for vocational training, it is clear that the shelter itself – like the many women who have successfully passed through its halls – has come a long way.
“People used to snicker about domestic violence but today it is finally recognized as a real issue. The results speak for themselves. This is the place where for the first time, woman have a chance to ask - what do I want from my life? What is best for me and my family?”
For more information on this and other projects funded by NY Federation, visit the online home of UJA-Federation of NY.
To learn more about the shelter, visit the online home of Woman to Woman: Jerusalem Shelter for Women.
Comments on this article are welcome. Contact Suzanne Selengut.
Counseling for children exposed to domestic violence is a major focus for NY Federation.
Festive holiday desserts and decor at the shelter party.