Meir Panim implements programs that serve Israel’s neediest populations with respect and dignity. Meir Panim also coordinated care packages for families in the South during the Gaza War.
Every woman who extracts herself from an abusive relationship exemplifies bravery to the fullest; a chareidi woman, requires a lot more than a dose of bravery.
They arrive here in a blind rush, at times in the middle of the night, wearing nothing more than pajamas, an attempt to escape years of sadistic abuse. They are educated in diverse fields; some are principals of well-known schools, others are managers, teachers, or simple home-makers. They come from every sector of Judaism: Chassidic, Chareidi, Ba’lot teshuvah, religious-Zionist, settlers. They are well versed in the language of beatings and the automatic hand-jerk raised to cover their faces.
Here, in the Bat Melech shelter, they will come to understand what they actually went through and how to emerge from within the shattered pieces of their lives. Here they will learn to grow and thrive anew.
Noa is busy setting the table for lunch; in a few minutes, twelve women and forty children will be seated around this table, not one adult male amongst them.
She straightens out her wig and spreads out the tablecloth. She arrived here five months ago, after a terror-filled night in which her husband lay in the bed next to her, a cocked gun at his side aimed at her temple. Ten times during the night, she silently and fervently recited Shema Yisroel in anticipation of the bullet that would end her life. In the morning, at sunrise, wearing only her nightgown against the early-morning chill, she managed to sneak out, three of her children following silently in her footsteps. Three others remained at home with their father.
Zahavit joins her, covering the pretty tablecloth with a thin plastic throw-away. She’s here with her seven children, aged from two-weeks old to twelve years. Pregnant once again, she escaped the terror after her husband’s fierce beatings left her with a wide, open head wound. To avoid a hospital visit, which will raise serious questions, he forced her to sit down while he sewed the wound with a thread-and-needle.
As Chani is setting out the plates and cups, she hears Zahavit saying: “Stop hearing him. It’s all in your head. He is not here. You are safe here.”
The dining room windows are wide open and the breath-taking view gives the shelter the illusion of a wide, open space. But it is not so. Bat Melech shelters are tightly enclosed enclaves for Chareidi and other religious women who were forced to leave their homes due to continuous violence and abuse. The shelters are hidden behind high stone walls and fortified with a heavy iron gate, window grates and closed-circuit cameras. For security’s sake we can’t even intimate as to the where in Israel they are located
One out of every seven women in Israel is categorized as abused. And the stated numbers don’t skip over any socio-economic situation, sector or community in Israel. The statistics do not differentiate. The twelve women who live here at this time are of varied ages, are highly educated and come from the entire spectrum of religious affiliation: Chasidei Gur, Vizshnitz, Chabad, Breslev & Brisk. Rav Kook graduates, Ba’alot Teshuva or National Religious. Once I visited the shelter, I look at my neighbors quite differently. Who knows?
“Our entire family would arrive in shul on Shabbos morning, the baby on his arms,” relates Ronit, one of the women in the shelter (all names have been changed to protect the individuals). “Such a sweet looking family, all nicely dressed for Shabbos. Yet, a few seconds before we left the house, he spit in my face and kicked me. But immediately after, he covered himself in the Talit, as if nothing happened and exited the house as we, all dressed in our finest Shabbos clothing, followed close behind.”
Every woman receives a small room, warmly decorated and sweetly furnished with a private bath and shower. A woman with more than four children receives an additional room; two women share a washing machine.
Everyone is on duty and tasks are divided amongst the shelter residents. They share the cooking, dish-washing tasks and cleaning the kitchen after the meals. An air of camaraderie, a kibbutz atmosphere, permeates the shelter.
Rose bushes bloom in the green lush garden and fruit trees are heavy with oranges and pomegranates. An infant is crawling down a garden path, rolling along fruits that have fallen off the trees. Two older children are playing ‘catch,’ while others are giggling in the sand-box. A few feet away, someone is hanging laundry to dry in the bright, warm sun. Inside, in the living room, someone pulled a Tanya from the book shelf and is preparing herself a cup of coffee. Above her head, on the wall, a purple-colored sign requests of the mothers “Do Not Allow Your children To Take Hot Drinks by Themselves.”
In the midst of the pastoral scenery, the memories of the recent horrors pop up. They all came here at the last moment, in a frantic hurry to escape, often in middle of the night or the wee hours of the morning, clad only in their pajamas and nightgowns. They have been referred to this address by the police, social services or concerned Rabbonim. Some happened to see a notice on the Mikveh billboard – ‘When Everything Is Closed, We Are Open’ – which Bat Melech posts in hundreds of such places. Their hair-raising and terrifying stories of horror make the rounds amongst the women; each story told by one sounds familiar to the other. As one speaks, another easily finishes her sentences.
There are thirteen shelters for abused women in Israel, two are run by Bat Melech and cater primarily to the Chareidi and National Religious sectors. The women arrive with their children – boys untill the age of 13 (older boys dorm in Yeshivas) – and girls without age limit. The length of stay is usually six months. Here they receive physical protection and a chance to heal emotionally. “We want the women to enter a kind-of bubble,” a staff member explains. “In their home, they were constantly on edge, fearful of momentary consequence and terrified of the imminent violence. Here, in the shelter, they receive the serenity they need in order to overcome the trauma they experienced. Their cell phones are handed over to the staff for safekeeping and no one will call to disturb them. The shelter is closed and guarded; no one can enter without having been invited. Now they begin to learn how to survive and live on their own.”
On the kitchen wall hangs a letter written by a former resident who was persuaded to leave the shelter and return to her husband as part of an agreement coerced by the Beit Din for Family Affairs. In the letter she describes the rescue, the salvation she experienced in the Bat Melech shelter. “From the pit of Hell,” from “the iron shackles” that kept her a prisoner. But her signature at the bottom sends shivers down the spine. “Love, from Esther, who is returning tomorrow to the darkness of hell.”
Dressed in tzniut yet pretty attire, she sits on the bench in the garden under the orange tree and slowly opens the window into her life. She’s from the National Religious sector, with a Ph.D from the Israel Technion. She arrived at Bat Melech immediately after the birth of her fourth daughter. In any other place, besides here in the shelter, her story would have been received with skepticism.
“We met,” she began her story, “through mutual friends. Looking at it from every other aspect, Shaya was the perfect shidduch for me. His education, the family he came from and the style of life he wanted to lead fit perfectly with my concept of how I wanted to build my life. He was very sweet, charming and knew the exact words and sentences with which to complement and woo me. He understood what my hashkafa was, what my needs were and what my visions for the future were. He said that he wanted the same, and what a fit we would be. In hindsight, I see it as a calculated hypnosis which he worked to perfection. In retrospect, everything was illusionary and a fraud perpetrated on an innocent girl. I should have seen the red light go on with a number of episodes before the wedding but I dismissed them and never imagined to what level it would reach.
“To the rest of the world, Shaya portrayed an easy-going, calm and serene persona. At home he was like a violently shaken bottle of Coca Cola. The second the cap is twisted off, the liquid explodes out in a fury. At first it was strictly emotional abuse. In order to “punish” me for perceived offenses I committed, he would remain overnight in his office rather than return home. This was done time and time again in order to implant the message in my mind that I am not a part of his life. Soon, the physical abuse began; bending the fingers, twisting my arms, pushing, shoving me against the wall, slapping me across the face and punching me in every part of my body became routine. If I would stoop from the pain or fall to the ground, he would drag me by the hair across the floor. Shaya controlled me to the fullest extent. On the door he hung a schedule-sheet listing exactly when I must wake up in the morning, when I was permitted to shower or to eat and when I must go to sleep. Everything was detailed to the minute and he forced me to sign it.
“After I gave birth to our first child, his obsessive control manifested itself in the nursing process. He forced me to nurse the child until the age of one-and-half. When I returned to work after giving birth, he would appear in the office in middle of the day, force me to pump milk and watch me as I was complying. He forced me to nurse even when I was simply not able to, when I was too exhausted from the fear and terror and on top of all that, once again pregnant. I would shake with fear and anxiety whenever the time to nurse would near. ‘I can’t now’…was not acceptable to him. He would forcefully shove the baby on top of me and compel me to nurse her.
“One night, as he ordered me to nurse but I simply had nothing to nurse with, I told him ‘No! I can’t!’ In a rage, he kicked me, dragged me by my hair on the floor and threw me out of the house, slamming and locking the door and leaving me beaten and bruised for hours; I’ve been left outside all night, more than once.
“On Fridays he would order me to clean in the morning hours and only cook towards afternoon so that the food will be ‘as fresh as possible.’ If, for any reason, I reversed the order, he would lock me into a small room for hours.
“My parents didn’t know anything; as it is they didn’t much like him and I was afraid that they would come to despise him completely. So I kept it inside.”
Rachel never even thought of going to the police; only later, in the shelter, she wondered to herself why, actually, she didn’t file a complaint. She portrayed the classical abused-woman syndrome of compressing the violence and terror into one lump of guilt feelings. They are the cause of the vicious attacks, they rationalize. If…if only…they were better wives, the abusive husbands wouldn’t become the dictators they are.
“My husband also used financial abuse against me,” says Rachel. “I was forced to hitch rides or simply walk to work in order not to waste money on buses, even though we had a car.
“There were other methods of abuse. In order to ‘save money,’ he wouldn’t allow me to drink coffee or to take any hot showers. I was forbidden to go shopping because I was ‘a fickle-brained spender.’ He would bring home only rotten fruits and vegetables, outdated food products and other inedible items he dug out of garbage cans. Yet, he would, on a monthly basis, donate 1,000 shekel to charitable causes.
“During the six years I lived with him he was able to convince me that I am worthless, zilch, a nothing. I’m looking back at those years, how he constricted my entire personality into a rag; how I would return from the Mikveh and he would ridicule me that I didn’t do it right and refuse to touch me. I was devastated and drained.
“After the birth of my fourth child, two episodes literally pulled the black covers from my eyes and made me decide to act. The first was that I discovered that he was sexually abusing our two-and-half-year old daughter. He had an obsession about our daughters; he and only he would bathe them. And he, and only he, would lay down with them to sleep. I happened to enter the bathroom and saw him with my daughter. The meaning of what I saw could not be interpreted any other way. It was evidently clear and I was flabbergasted and furious. I was at a loss as to whom I could turn for help, who I could speak with.
“The second episode transpired when I had an appointment in the morning with the Children Clinic. They handed me a form with a number of questions regarding abuse in the family. I marked them all truthfully and never connected the dots. But a clear picture emerged; I was an abused and beaten woman.
“The nurse at the clinic handed me the phone number for the Office of Emotional Emergency Help. I called that very day and the person who answered uttered one sentence which suddenly filled me with courage. ‘Rely only on yourself,’ and referred me to Bat Melech. I called the shelter and was asked if I am scared, am I fearful of my husband. I responded that my husband is like a cocked revolver with the finger just itching to pull the trigger. The shelter staff member urged me to leave now, immediately, not a moment later. I grabbed my ID card, a pacifier for the baby, my medical insurance card and with all four girls, I took a taxi out of the city, to Bat Melech; I was terrified of remaining another minute.
“The last six months in this shelter turned my life 180-degrees. The women here have become my sisters and we’d stay up nights relating our stories to each other. It became quite clear that it made absolutely no difference whether the husband was a rav, a dish-washer or had a Ph.D in history – the basic mold was the same. Each of us received an hour of private therapy every week and redirection in regards to raising our children. I feel like I am being wrapped in a blanket of warmth and that this shelter, Bat Melech, is the place I can really call home.
“For a while after arriving at the shelter, I was terrified that he would appear. I was afraid to leave the shelter to open a personal bank account or to visit the clinic. Somehow I received a message from him that he knows where I am and only due to his good heart and pity he doesn’t come to kill me. But I found inner strengths I never knew I had. The on-going therapy sessions at the shelter helped me shift the burden of guilt to where it belongs, his shoulders. I know now that I am a worthy and good person and that he is the evil one. I am no longer afraid of him.
“A few months ago I ventured out of the shelter, found a job and rented an apartment. Sometimes I see him watching the house, stalking me on the street and then he attempts to pull the child from my arms. I resist and stand up to him. His courage seems to have melted somewhat. And I am scheduled to receive an order of protection which will keep him away from me. My attitude towards the abuse and violence changed dramatically. If until I left him I lived with the imagination and illusion that he can change, that I will be able to help him stop the abuse, today I don’t really care. He totally does not interest me and I couldn’t care less. My goal is to rehabilitate myself with and for the sake of my daughters.
* * * * *
The Hebrew version of this article was published in Yisrael HaYom, 10-11-2013 and translated By Isaac Kohn.
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