It’s hard to talk about anything but Israel. Although I live in New York, like many, I identify as a Zionist; Israel is a large part of our family life. I liked to believe that Israel was always on my mind, but in reflection, perhaps that wasn’t true. Because now, that is really all I can think about– and this experience is shared by many of my friends, colleagues and community. We go through the minutia of our days- with constant check-ins on the news and X (formerly Twitter), WhatsApp’s with friends and family in Israel, take part in ongoing Tehillim chats, and as I write this, my challah dough is rising, as I will pray for the hostages.
And knowing that is all that we are thinking about- I wonder how to continue to provide support for all the vulnerable in our community. Their needs don’t go away during a crisis, even a war, but it feels harder for us to attend to them. The needs may even increase.
In my role as CEO at Shalom Task Force, I am tasked with the job of amplifying the voice and needs of survivors of intimate partner violence (IPV) and removing barriers for survivors to obtain social and legal services. Our services serve the global Jewish community, and we provide a support hotline/chatline, education and legal services.
In a typical year, the weeks post the Jewish holiday season are very busy. The holiday season is wrought with stress for the families we serve, and once routine returns, individuals reach out for support. This year was different, we saw a dip in the month post Succot of approximately 35 percent in hotline calls from the previous two years. Our colleagues in the UK report a more dramatic decrease of over 70 percent.
Many of the clients we serve are Israeli, or have family in Israel, and as we all know, there is only one degree of separation in the Jewish community. They cannot focus on their personal safety now. Some callers describe stress related to the added fears and concerns about the war, and uptick of local antisemitism.
In addition, the reports and images of sexual assault and rape used by Hamas as a weapon of war are triggering and retraumatizing to survivors. The fact that on social media and beyond these crimes are being questioned, and that they are largely unrecognized and dismissed by human rights organizations perpetuates the silencing of victims of assault and perpetuates the fear of not being believed. In the victims’ services community, we believe survivors when they have the courage to disclose, and the dynamic and denial of the assaults has a crippling effect on victims and women everywhere.
This decrease in the numbers of survivors accessing services is concerning and reminiscent of our work during COVID lockdowns. Survivors were more hesitant to reach out for many reasons including fears of global instability, economics, anxiety and managing a deep personal question of – is it okay to prioritize themselves at a time of global crisis?
I’m in ongoing communication with my colleagues at Bat Melech- a social service and women shelters in Israel. In the first weeks after October 7th, they experienced a significant decrease in the number of referrals to Bat Melech’s legal and support helpline. Similarly, there were very few referrals from women to the shelters of Bat Melech, and that is true of many of the other shelters in the country. Only in the last week of October did the number of calls increased, and new women are entering the shelters.
The concerns for our Israeli colleagues are more acute. Families are at immediate risk, managing a completely new reality, schools are intermittently open, workplaces are closed and tens of thousands of families of residents from the south and north are living in hotels or staying with family members throughout the country. Additionally, many parents are called back into army service and for all, there is the constant threat of rockets and danger has increased anxiety. And even so, fewer survivors are coming forward for help and we know, stress is a risk factor for escalated abuse.
In discussion with Noach Korman, Executive Director of Bat Melech he has pondered, “is this decrease the calm before the storm?” Noach noted interestingly that their agency stays in touch with women that left the shelters, and that the women report feeling that the resiliency from their personal experience as survivors of IPV have helped them with coping during this national trauma.
We pray that the situation will improve, we don’t know how long this war will last, and what life will look like after. We still need to ensure that we are providing services and removing barriers to accessing help for those that are in need, now, and in the future.
We may feel we can’t talk about anything else, but we need to. If we don’t, we risk losing the important strides we’ve made on supporting the vulnerable and maintaining a communal infrastructure for those that are at risk. We now need to hold both- remaining focused on the needs of Israel and ensuring that we are still highlighting critical resources and services to the most vulnerable in our community. We need survivors of IPV to know that we see you, we remain here for you, and you are not alone.
Thank you to Noach Korman, Executive Director of Bat Melech for his input.