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An especially bleak darkness over sexual assault survivors

With budgets squeezed, fundraisers impossible, and survivors forced to 'shelter' with their abusers, we are sending up an SOS flare
(iStock)
(iStock)

“…באנו חושך לגרש”

We have come to drive away the darkness…
Each one is a small light
and together we are a strong surge of brightness.
Depart darkness! Onwards blackness! Depart before the light!

This Israeli children’s song is hanging across from me, decorating our office wall.

Every year, kindergarteners across Israel, brandishing flashlights and other Chanukah paraphernalia, ‘chase off the darkness’ with their lights as their parents clap along. But this year is darker than usual. It is even harder to believe in our collective ability to dispel the darkness. We are socially distanced and emotionally fatigued after so many months of pandemic. So many have suffered and are suffering from this virus along with the extreme ripple effects that have racked society in its wake.

During the October/November nationwide lockdown, crisis interventions on the Tel Aviv Sexual Assault Crisis Center’s three hotlines — one for women in the greater Tel Aviv area, one for men throughout Israel, and a dedicated line for national-religious/Haredi men — rose more than 50%. Once again survivors of sexual violence were trapped with their abusers, isolated from the support that they need so desperately. Every day the darkness that survivors experience as a result of their trauma threatens to consume them. Every day the Center’s incredible staff and volunteers are there for them, trying to help them chase off that blackness. Some days it feels like light will never be able to pierce through.

Casting another heavy shadow is the ongoing anxiety over how we will continue making sure that such crucial services will continue. According to a report released last month by The Israeli Civic Leadership Association, one out of every three Israeli NGOs ceased activities over the past eight months and 84% of nonprofits face severe budgetary cuts. I have heard a number of experts estimate that we may find as many as half of Israeli NGOs closing within the coming year.

This is especially troubling as the state chose to outsource a large percentage of social services over the past decade, meaning that the nonprofits that are now providing some of Israel’s most critical social services may no longer be able to keep their doors open. Moreover, this week the government announced that there will be significant budget cuts, so funding for social services will be slashed in 2021, further compromising vulnerable populations. The go-to alternatives that could generate funding for vital services are impossible as benefit events are potential Coronavirus super-spreaders. At this time, when needs are the greatest, nonprofits are facing overwhelming pressures.

Usually, this time of year is a period of frenzied inspiration for me. For the past 17 years, hundreds of volunteers, more than 700 of Israeli’s top designers and thousands of supporters have mobilized for our annual weekend fashion bazaar “Mitlabshot Al’Ze”. The amazing positive energy generated by the event and the acts of generosity that I get to witness there always leave me on a high. It was with a very heavy heart that I finally accepted the fact that the bazaar would not be happening this year. To be honest, knowing that this incredible event, which feeds my soul while also generating 25% of the Center’s operating budget, had to be canceled darkened my horizon for weeks.

Then small rays of light began shining through.

The Center’s devoted bazaar volunteers decided to explore alternative online possibilities. An online “Giveback” fundraising campaign was launched and survivors began speaking out, sharing on social media how the Center has impacted their lives. Sarita Maya-Maamrot, posted:

I remember the girl I was. The great fear and shame that gnawed from within. The girl who went through that gang rape at school and was raped repeatedly afterwards. I remember everyone who saw, knew, heard, and especially everyone who was silent along the way. And in the same breath, I think to myself how lucky I was to get to the Center. I remember my first meeting with the Center volunteer who accompanied me throughout my journey. She was the first woman to believe me. She did everything to give me a reason to fight my demons. She held my hand in examinations, in meetings with the lawyer, in medical committees. When I was silent, she shouted on my behalf. It was as if she could enter my mind – understand my pain and see with such clarity the atrocities that had taken place. It took me a long time to understand the phrase ‘you are not alone’, even though truthfully… I was never alone. Today, when I am working towards fulfilling my dreams, everything seems possible. Today, my friend is no longer shouting for me. Today we shout together: “You are not alone!”

Sarit faced so much darkness, so much adversity, yet, she refuses to be defeated! She volunteers and has become an activist in her community, helping young women find their own voices. Her strength and kindness shine through the shadows.

As survivors like Sarit shared their stories, both openly and anonymously, more light has begun radiating through. So many people have come forward to contribute in any way they can – whether it is a local grandmother offering a cooking class on how to prepare homemade gefilte fish from scratch accompanied by dramatic storytelling on the subject of this traditional dish, or Olympic Judo medalist Oren Smadja, who has donated a series of motivational lectures – each patch of brightness brings its own powerful glimmer, driving away the darkness of these past months.

I have reflected many times before that working at the Center spotlights the worst side of Israeli society: violent perpetrators, silenced victims and apathetic enablers. Yet, it also brings into sharp focus the best side of what the Israeli people have to offer: generosity, acts of kindness, social consciousness and immense resilience. I am full of thanks to the incredible people who reinforce that we are capable of not only banishing the darkness, but also that we can truly illuminate this world. Let’s spark change together!

The Tel Aviv Sexual Assault Center’s Giveback Campaign is running until December 31st. The “all or nothing” campaign will go directly to helping the thousands of survivors of sexual violence who turn to the Center each year as well as our extensive prevention and education programming. Click for more information.

If you need support please contact us. You are not alone!
Women’s Hotline: 1202∙ Men’s National Hotline: 1203∙ National Hotline for Religious Men:  02-5328000

About the Author
Miriam Schler is the executive director of the Tel Aviv Sexual Assault Crisis Center. If you need support please contact us. You are not alone! Women’s Hotline: 1202 • Men’s National Hotline: 1203 • National Hotline for Religious Men: 02-5328000
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