You know those conversations that you can jump right into? The kind where you can go straight into what really matters for people? Especially these days, I find that these are the only kind I want to have- polite conversation can be so exhausting! I am referring to the kind of conversations where your heart breaks open from so much love or disappointment or both. Conversations about accepting that there are some things that can’t be fixed. Conversations that show us what we value and what we need and who we think we are.
As I sat observing a power point workshop at Her Academy last week, I felt like I was in the middle of one of those raw conversations. There we all were- in a florescent lit computer training room, and yet it felt like the most intimate setting. The teacher was fun and engaging, and about to give birth any day. Many volunteers were on hand, with nearly a 1:1 ratio to the students. Iris Stern Levi, the founder and co-director of Her Academy (‘Hamichlala’ in Hebrew), was cheering everyone on and facilitating as needed. And the students, I haven’t even gotten started on the students. I couldn’t quite explain why at the time, but I think, sitting there in this computer training workshop, my heart actually got bigger.
So, the students. The students were women, mostly in their 20’s and 30’s, who had been prostitutes for years. Sexually abused as children, they entered into the sex trade at an age when few of us make any kind of responsible adult decisions. Here, at Her Academy, these women had a reached the moment in their lives when they felt ready to pivot, to have those conversations about who they really are, and to find out if there is another way to be in the world.
Leaving prostitution is often a complex process, with many fits and starts. Each of the women has challenges that are characteristic of a lifetime of prostitution such as post-traumatic stress disorder, addictions and emotional difficulties. The women tend to be isolated, lacking social and familial support, and have to consider basic needs such as housing options, childcare and financial stability. Her Academy students are receiving therapy elsewhere – from Her Academy they are offered a syllabus of courses, lots of love and much more. As Iris Stern Levi and Tal Hamaoui Granot, co-directors of Her Academy, explain “What we do here is give them love and faith and understanding they never had before… It’s the message – we are here all here to support you- 100%.”
Whereas more than a decade ago there was little awareness or even acknowledgement of the scope of the problem in Israel, advocacy by groups such as the Coalition Against Prostitution has contributed to a political environment where comprehensive policy solutions are receiving widespread public support. These tireless efforts and a greater understanding of the phenomenon, following the publication of the first ever governmental survey of prostitution, slowly shifted the conversation over time.
In 2018, with a rare political consensus in the Knesset, the government passed a law criminalizing the purchase of sexual services, making Israel the 10th country in the world to adopt the ‘Nordic model’. Considered revolutionary by some, and controversial by others, the Nordic model imposes fines on those who hire prostitutes, rather than on the prostitutes themselves. The model was first implemented in Sweden in 1999 and has since continued to receive growing support in Europe and around the world.
These days, there are government sponsored rehabilitation centers in Tel Aviv and Haifa, therapy and outreach programs, Her Academy courses as well as vocational training on specific topics such as fashion design, and even Facebook groups that provide assistance. Yet, as these programs expand and government has earmarked more financial support, there is still great demand for extensive social and rehabilitative services to help the many individuals seeking to leave prostitution.
Since Her Academy’s founding in 2015, Iris and Tal have developed creative partnerships, building a community of support for women who are seeking to leave prostitution. With a model that is largely based on the in-kind contributions of private companies and individuals, they have recruited more and more local businesses to donate space, materials and instructors as needed for each of its workshops. Over a hundred volunteers are engaged and accompany the women as needed during the various courses. With the ongoing support of the Her Academy network, the majority of graduates have gone on to find employment in fashion sales and childcare, as pastry kitchen workers, secretaries and bike repairers. And as a recent vote of confidence in their efforts, Iris was just awarded the Zusman-Joint Distribution Committee Prize for her work at Her Academy in promoting innovative solutions to social services in Israel.
As I learn more about this school, which is unique in Israel, if not in the world, I am trying to figure out what makes it so enchanting. Is it that it is still in its relatively early stages- running primarily on dedication and commitment? Or is it the overwhelming sense of so much good will and profound individual change? Perhaps that’s why the power point course that I observed felt so entirely intimate. Between Iris, Tal, the teachers, volunteers and students, there is an ongoing, no-pretense conversation going on at Her Academy from which everyone involved seems to be drawing strength. It is nothing short of a conversation about breaking expectations- about what we agree to see, what we decide not to ignore, and how we move forward to repair ourselves.
Perhaps what is even most captivating is that Her Academy shouts out a reminder to all of us that we can always press the reset button. We can start our stories over again at any time. It is a journey for these women, and a journey for all of us as well.