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Battling abuse and a community’s disapproval

Ultra Orthodox Jews at the Western Wall
Ultra-orthodox Jews are an extremely closed community (Premasagar/Flickr)

Ruth* suffered for five years before she summoned up the courage to escape her abusive husband and fled their home with her two young children.

Her story is not just another tragic tale of abuse; in making her decision, Ruth had to overcome a lifetime of inhibitions. She was born into an ultra-orthodox Israeli sect, where women are raised to serve their husbands and to consider the family their most important asset. In a community where women are forced to stay at home, observe strict modesty rules and keep what happens in the house private, Ruth had to break many taboos to survive.

Battered women who choose to leave have found their community and families unsupportive. “You shamed me," was one mother's response when her daughter begged for help after being severely beaten by her husband only days after the wedding. Another pregnant woman escaped from her husband and was shut in a room in her former school; although her family wanted to help they were afraid for their reputation.

Women's exclusion from various public activities in the ultra-orthodox community has been highlighted recently after women in these communities were ordered to sit in the back of buses, separated from men.

Ultra-orthodox Jews are an extremely closed community and differ even among themselves with different sects, some of whom may work and even serve in the Israeli Defense Forces, while others do not recognize the state of Israel and take no part in any interaction with civil or government organizations, live in isolated neighbourhoods and operate their own education and self-help system. Young girls are educated separately and differently from their male peers and are married off as early as 17 in arranged marriages. They do not interact with the men they marry before the wedding.

Once married, they will shoulder the entire burden of the household, some will work part-time while husbands study at religious schools from 18 to old age. Most ultra-orthodox families live below the poverty line; this, coupled with the fact that most men have no experience of family life, breeds frustration and at times leads to domestic violence.

According to Ministry of Industry, Trade and Labour statistics, only 49 percent of ultra-orthodox women have some employment and their wages are 54 percent lower than those of secular women; 56 percent of ultra-orthodox Jews live below the poverty line.

Raising awareness

For many years, ultra-orthodox rabbis failed to acknowledge the problem of domestic violence, claiming this “only happens amongst the secular population”, but a tiny NGO that runs the only shelter for battered and abused religious women has put the issue in the spotlight.

Bat Melech (a king’s daughter) is a small NGO striving to help these women: only 8 percent of Israel’s population - 650,000 men, women and children - are ultra-orthodox, yet in the 15 years of operating, 750 women and 3,000 children have stayed at the shelter.

''The issue requires delicate handling and must involve the community and the leading rabbis ... We believe this community is undergoing some changes from within and the slightly raised awareness of the options for battered women is in itself a change''

The Ministry of Social Affairs is well aware of the problem, according to spokesperson Roni Malkai. “The issue requires delicate handling and must involve the community and the leading rabbis. The Ministry of Social Affairs and social services is in charge of the shelter operated by Bat Melech and we’ve also opened three centres across the country for treating domestic violence in the ultra-orthodox sector. We believe this community is undergoing some changes from within and the slightly raised awareness of the options for battered women is in itself a change.”

The closed community and the women’s rare encounters with welfare or social services make providing help difficult. The NGO, run by religious staff, has a better chance of raising awareness of available help.

Noach Korman, founder of the NGO, estimates the women who use its services are only a fraction of those who need help. “Many are too afraid to leave, the price they will pay is high, it’s nearly excommunication, it’s going against the way you were raised.”

The NGO runs a hotline and receives roughly 100 calls a month from battered women, neighbours and concerned rabbis. It conducts day seminars for rabbis, to teach them how to help women in their communities.

Sal’it Geva, the shelter’s manager, explains that at least 25 percent of the women go back to their husbands after they leave the shelter. "It’s just too hard for them; I know of families who told their daughters ‘go back to your husband, you shame me, this is not the way I brought you up'.”

Those who choose to stay in the violent situation know well that the odds are against them; in the community where marriages are arranged, leaving one’s family will have a great effect not only on the woman but on their children’s chances to marry "properly". A runaway mother "brings down the value of the family".

Ruth’s story

Ruth took advantage of a short break in her husband’s constant watch over her and escaped. "The neighbours said nothing, the community said nothing, I think they knew all these years. I was afraid of him, I had no money of my own, and he would monitor my every move. In the [religious] community he was considered a righteous man, his rabbi tried to convince me I was crazy, but I knew I wasn’t, my sister called the shelter and was told I had to leave to get help.”

The women leave the shelter after six months and must start from scratch, with no family ties, no community help and hardly any vocational training, yet most report a sense of empowerment and happiness. As Ruth says: "Finally I managed to leave with both my children. It’s not an easy thing, it’s a challenge but I feel I changed my life and theirs.”

*Not her real name


This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information:

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