written by Lonye Rasch

Bolstered by grants from the Jewish Women’s Collective Response Fund, three Israeli nonprofits are expanding their support for women experiencing domestic violence, a circumstance exacerbated by COVID-19.

The Jewish Women’s Collective Response Fund was convened and facilitated by the Hadassah Foundation, under the leadership of Tracey Spiegelman and Audrey Weiner. In addition to the Hadassah Foundation, the fund includes the Greater Miami Jewish Federation Women’s Amutot Initiative, Israel Lions of Judah, the Jewish Women’s Foundation of Metropolitan Chicago and the Jewish Women’s Foundation of Atlanta. Combining their resources and knowledge, the group set out to mitigate the pandemic’s impact on women and girls. Thanks to the Jewish Women’s Collective Response Fund, Tahel, Crisis Center for Religious Women and Children; Maslan, the Negev’s Sexual Assault and Domestic Violence Support Center; and Women’s Spirit, promoting economic independence of women survivors of violence, were each granted $15,000 to further their work in this time of crisis.

As Debbie Gross, the founder and director of Tahel, comments, “It was terrifying for me that women were trapped in their homes with their abusers” as a result of the COVID-19 lockdown and so many men losing their jobs. Within six weeks, Tahel received 557 calls to its hotline. “Women were calling in the middle of the night so their abusers could not hear them,” she relates. And then there were those women who were fearful of calling at all. 

These frightened women needed another option with which to reach out. In response, with the help of the grant, Tahel created a WhatsApp hotline. It is poised to launch shortly, along with a major awareness campaign about its availability. As Gross explains, this is not the regular WhatsApp that we are familiar with; it’s a special version tailored for Tahel with many other features. For example, a woman who communicates with Tahel on this version of WhatsApp can immediately delete the conversation so her abuser cannot see it. But Tahel saves it in case it is needed in the future.

“No woman should have to cry alone,” says Gross. Now, ultra-Orthodox women can have their “kosher phones” configured to enable this app.

The Jewish Women’s Collective Response Fund grants to Maslan and Women’s Spirit provide money to train more volunteers and extend staff hours to meet the increasing demands for help. Maslan Resource Development Coordinator Noam Shmallo reports that her organization has witnessed a “massive” increase in sexual violence, including abuse of children, and she fears “more challenging times ahead of us.” Providing hotline help in eight languages, Maslan gives its volunteers eight months of intensive weekly training, which equips them to respond to the cultural nuances of Maslan’s diverse communities. Maslan is working with Bedouin sheikhs and other community leaders to raise awareness about sexual violence in their patriarchal community and is providing workshops to their schools. “We are trying to prevent the next tragedy,” Shmallo says.

Women’s Spirit Executive Director Tamar Schwartz emphasizes the crucial role that mentors play in her nonprofit. “What women who experience violence need,” she says, “is a loving big sister. And that’s what Women’s Spirit’s mentors are!” Every week for two years, the mentors get in touch with the women and support them through the process of overcoming abuse.  Schwartz explains that Women’s Spirit is unique because it combines the worlds of domestic violence and economic rehabilitation. The number one factor that keeps women in the vicious circle of violence, she says, is economic. These women are dependent on their controlling husbands for financial support. Frequently, the husband incurs debts that the woman doesn’t even know about but is responsible for to the same extent that he is. Schwartz relates that she has been working for five years to change that situation and is optimistic that the courts will finally right this wrong.

The Knesset, with the advocacy of Women’s Spirit, nullified a law that hurt women particularly during the pandemic. The law had dictated that a woman could not receive both child support and unemployment insurance, making things extremely difficult for those women who lost their jobs. Now women can receive both.

Women’s Spirit’s’ end goal, Schwartz emphasizes, is to enable a woman to be independent economically. Once she is, says Schwartz, “she will not return to her violent husband.”

Read more about the grantees and the Jewish Women’s Collective Response Fund.