Sam is a mother of five, a black belt Tae Kwon Do martial artist, an American olah, and a survivor of domestic violence. On Sunday morning, she walked through the doors of Yad Sarah’s Jewish Family Center, with a bag full of foam noodles and punching mitts.  The room was filled with women– mostly Orthodox and married, who are all receiving therapy and support for issues of domestic violence.  Yad Sarah invited Sam to teach at the Family Center as an El Halev instructor. The Jerusalem based nonprofit, El HaLev is a women-run NPO founded on the principles of violence prevention through a unique method of empowerment-based self-defense, as well as martial arts programing for women, children, the elderly, people with special needs, and individuals from vulnerable sectors of society.

It was only seven years ago that Sam found herself on the other side of the table.  She was going through a protracted divorce with small children, and was referred to Yad Sarah’s Family Center.  After completing the course, Sam realized that her Tae Kwon Do skills could be fostered and channeled as a means to help others learn to assert the boundaries safely and effectively. She contacted El Halev and they recruited her into their instructors training school.  Sam now travels around Israel teaching self defense and martial arts classes, while also teaching regular courses at El HaLev’s facility in Talpiyot. She is a well-loved and successful martial arts and self-defense instructor and educator, and doesn’t need to modify her language or behavior when teaching to victims of violence.  This is her baseline. And the statistics support her assumption. Most women will experience sexual harassment or abuse in the course of their lives. She has found that being upfront about her life story allows women to realize that they are not alone, and that they too can move forward.

Sam opened her class at Yad Sarah by having her students practice the assertive standing position: back straight, head up, arms out in front with one hand forward and one behind it, asserting the message “No! Stop. These are my boundaries and I am entitled to protect them.”  This simple position took lots of practice.  Many women sat down with solemn faces, and were not able to stay focused through the exercise.  It wasn’t the actual standing that drained their energy, it was the exercise in  assertiveness which was exhausting.  After the class, several women approached the supervisor, terrified of being punished by their abusive spouses or family members for using this new technique. For individuals who have repeatedly felt dominated by physical and/or emotional abuse, this lesson of “No!” is tremendously challenging to integrate.  Through this posture, Sam is teaching students  how to recognize and honor their boundaries, and how to communicate and protect them with both voice and body.

The therapeutic component of the self defense workshop cannot be understated. Standard therapy in situations of domestic abuse often include private therapy and support groups. But in a self defense class, which she terms, “dynamic therapy”, the women challenge their own misgivings and surpass their perceptions within a supportive environment.

Working with survivors of domestic abuse is not new to El HaLev. Since its founding thirteen years ago, the organization has been focused on the most vulnerable sectors of society; individuals who are targeted, and who are physically, mentally and/or emotionally unable to defend themselves against violence. At the beginning of 2014, Alon, a multi-billion dollar Israeli energy corporation, granted El HaLev ₪74,000 to organize workshops in shelters throughout Israel.  Alon had previously financed a project on domestic violence as part of their corporate responsibility work; when they discovered El HaLev, they decided to make this generous grant. Sam’s course at Yad Sarah was one of fifteen empowerment self-defense workshops for women recovering from domestic violence, sponsored by Alon last year.

“We consider healing a part of self-defense,” says Jill Shames, co-founder and senior instructor.

Jill is a black-belt Karate expert and has been teaching since before the organization’s founding. El HaLev instructors  provide an environment for building a social network of support, a critical component of healing.  The class becomes a sisterhood, and the organization acts as a surrogate mother to those who may not feel safe in many other places. Examples of this in classes include verbal assertiveness exercises through role playing, and collective cheering for individual participants who are practicing new self-defense skills.  This social network is “an essential tool of empowerment self-defense”, she says.

The donation from Alon made fifteen courses for women recovering from domestic violence possible.  Each of these courses opened up an entire world of empowerment that will help these victims of violence heal and move forward with the tools to defend themselves.  “The most common feedback we get  from these workshops is that participants wished they had learned these skills when they were young,” says Adi Vimer, VP of Operations and Development. She says El HaLev’s vision for the future is to focus more of their efforts on youth, in a campaign to promote “safer families.”  Adi states that the success of El HaLev’s children and youth workshops, and the feedback of the workshops for women survivors of domestic violence, inspired this goal.  “We want to help raise a new generation who can protect their boundaries and who can make empowered, healthy choices.”