June 12, 2024
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A Unique Shelter Offers Salvation to Religious Women

Jerusalem—It has been eight years since “Sarah” has been able to sleep soundly. Since she was married at the age of 20, she had moved eight times, had five children and endured nonstop emotional and physical abuse at the hands of her husband.”I was barely living. There was no life for me. I was trapped in the small bubble that my husband had created and it was just a terror of a life.”

There were a few major incidents—such as the time her husband beat her as she lay in bed miscarrying. And then there were the incessant minor attacks, like his barking at her for not translating the menu quickly enough at a “romantic” night out. But after seeing her husband beat her children, and insisting that she too hit them, Sarah finally worked up the gumption to leave him last year. When looking for a place to run, she discovered she had limited options. In Israel today, there are 14 shelters for victims of domestic violence.  Many of them offer safety, guidance and support. But there is only one option for religious women, the Bat Melech Shelter.

Bat Melech runs two religious shelters that enable women and their children to survive and flourish in an environment that feels both familiar and safe. Since 1997, Bat Melech has helped over 800 women and 3500 children escape their difficult home situation and begin their rehabilitation process.  Noach Korman was an attorney working in divorce courts when he met two women that unknowingly changed the landscape for abuse victims. One abused hareidi woman was told by her parents that she was no longer under their care and that she should return to her husband, no matter what he did. Another client of Korman’s was sleeping in a hotel lobby because she couldn’t bring herself to enter a secular shelter with all the religious and cultural differences it would have imposed upon her.

Korman sought out solutions for these women and found that religious women and their children had no suitable place to go.”A haredi or even dati-leumi child cannot be placed in a shelter where he can’t eat kosher and the TV is blasting on Shabbat.  Certain religious schools would not accept such a child and the courts might deem the mother non-religious and therefore an unfit custodian.  Women were being forced to stay in abusive and life-threatening situations. God was watching over me as I began my mission to start a shelter. Esstane Fawer, an American woman with vision, and I found one another and were able to create Bat Melech.”

With seed funding and an agreement from Israeli social services to cover half the operating costs, Bat Melech opened its doors 16 years ago with three families. It quickly grew, with social services thrilled to have found the right setting for their religious clients. The religious community, though reluctant to admit the need for such an organization, warmed up to the concept and works with Bat Melech to find solutions for the couple and family. Bat Melech now houses 18 families at a time in two locations with plans to open six more rooms next year. Relying on donations from Israelis and overseas donors, the shelter requires $700,000 annually to function.

Women generally live at Bat Melech for six months. They are provided with a room for their family (though some women may have up to two rooms depending on the number of children they bring), unlimited food, four hours of therapy a week for themselves and their children, as well as legal and financial guidance.

Despite the pampering and love that Bat Melech staff and volunteers provide “living in Bat Melech is not easy at all,” the home director explains.”In addition to the major trauma they are dealing with as women and mothers, they are sharing space with five to 11 other families, adjusting to a new life, and dealing with religious and cultural differences within the home. Children have a very hard time here—as much as their mothers may have ‘chosen’ to come, they have not, and their worlds are turned upside down. But the hardest thing for me is to watch the women after they leave. We do our best to send them out as prepared as possible, and obviously stay in touch and do what we can, but it’s not easy for them.”

The success stories, however, make it all worthwhile.  Today Sarah and her five children are empowered and she is becoming more secure in her legal and emotional freedom from her abuser.

“[At Bat Melech] I entered a bubble that was just all good—love, healing, health, support, nurturing, acceptance, growth. It was really Techiyat Hameytim for me and the other women that I have watched go through the process. Besides the physical security, therapies and legal services they provided for me and my children, Bat Melech created a space for me to begin to heal. I was able to find myself and learn to love myself, slowly. For example, my first time cooking for the women in the shelter I was stressed out beyond belief. All I had known was someone criticizing my cooking. My self-esteem was so injured. But in the shelter, people were rooting for me in every way and they enabled me to express myself, accept myself, and even enjoy myself.”

Sarah does not focus on the year of hardship she spent living in a shelter, even though the experience is fresh in her mind. She is very conscious of the choice she made while in the shelter to be vulnerable, opening herself to the pain and buried trauma by talking and crying to both peers and professionals.  “There is a treasure house of good they can give you, but it depends on you.”

Not all women who come to Bat Melech have that strength to go through the process that empowers them to leave their abuser forever—25 percent of the women return to their husbands. Though Sarah still fears for her physical safety—living in near anonymity and not going out at night—she realizes that she has a different kind of power than her abuser.”The law is on my side.  The social workers and the police are good people and they are there to help.  My husband is just a wuss who tried to convince me that he was the strong one.”

Sarah’s children are doing well and she hopes to obtain a get.”Next time I will date for at least a year and watch how his mother is treated by him and his father—so much is mimicked behavior.”

Sarah is a recent recipient of Bat Melech’s services, but Korman has been fortunate to see the long-term effects of his work as well. A boy who was 8 when he entered the shelter recently invited Korman to his wedding.”As he entered his chuppa, I was overwhelmed by his physical similarity to his father—it was like a mirror image and that was a bit scary for me. But he had invited me to his wedding and he nodded at me and I knew that he would not be one of the 80 percent of abused children that end up abusing their own families. For every woman and child that we save, we are also saving the next generation, guiding them to healthy and loving relationships.”

Sari Meir, a teacher at Maayanot High School living in Teaneck on shlichut, served as the director of Bat Melech for 12 years. Despite her geographic distance, the Bat Melech women and their successes live inside her.

“Sixteen years ago, I was a young social worker living in a yishuv in Mateh Binyamin. I was on the community’s absorption committee and therefore responsible for welcoming all new residents, including a woman leaving Bat Melech for the shelter of our yishuv. It was an amazing experience for me to work with this woman and the good people that embraced her in our yishuv, Though she moved out of her caravan to an apartment in a different city after two years, I continued to work with Noach and develop Bat Melech.”

Meir is proud of the work Bat Melech does with the families needing their care, but also of the general awareness that Bat Melech has raised within the Orthodox and haredi communities.

“When people hear of my work, they always ask me what they can do to help. I want them to understand that Bat Melech’s existence is essential. It relies on the support of many good people. The professionalism and extent of services that we can provide depends on the generosity of donors. As someone who worked with these families every day, I see that some of the “smaller things,” like horseback riding or drama therapy that add up in the budget, make big differences in helping women and children. And these women and children really need our love and help ”

To donate, host a parlor meeting or get involved, please contact Noach Korman at noachkor_yahoo. com . More information is available at

http://www. batmelech. org/index-english. html

By Jordana Schoor

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