In Israel’s ultra-Orthodox community, abused women are finding a way out
It was a journey filled with complicated emotions.
Vulnerable and scared, she was heading to an unfamiliar place but finally was escaping more than 10 years of humiliating verbal, physical and sexual attacks by her husband. He was so controlling, she said, that he even decided when she could use the bathroom, which forced her to wear diapers.
Reut’s story might not be so different from many other cases of domestic abuse. But what sets it apart is that Reut grew up in Israel’s deeply devout and insular ultra-Orthodox community — and is willing to talk about her experience so that other women like her know there is a way out.
As she suffered for nearly a decade, Reut said, she believed it was God’s way of testing her.
“I thought if I endured, I would find a better place in the world to come,” said Reut, 32, who spoke on the condition that her full name not be used.
Ultra-Orthodox Jews, also known as Haredim, make up roughly 9 percent of Israel’s Jewish population of 6.5 million. But with women having an average of nearly seven children, the community is expected to grow rapidly.
Haredim are exempt from military service, and many shun work to focus on religious studies. They largely segregate themselves from the rest of society. That presents a challenge for the Israeli government, which would like to see them sharing the national burden.
Changes are happening, but slowly. More Haredim are signing up for the army, and an increasing number of Haredi women are working outside the home, giving them more contact with the rest of the world.
In turn, abused women such as Reut are recognizing that they have options. And they are starting to seek help.
“Domestic violence is universal — it happens in every part of society. But we have noticed an increase in the number of Haredi women seeking help in recent years,” said Ayala Meir, director of the family services department at the Social Affairs Ministry.
Reut and her children moved to Jerusalem to one of only two shelters in Israel dedicated to Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox Jewish women. It accommodates their dietary and religious needs.
The shelter, which is run by the nonprofit organization Bat Melech under the auspices of state welfare authorities, will soon expand from 17 spaces to 24.
There is already a waiting list.
Between 15 and 20 Israeli women are killed each year by their partners, but Meir said religious women have not been included in those statistics until now. In one grisly case this year, a husband said he had been directed by God to kill his wife and walked through the neighborhood with her severed head in his hands.
“The community is difficult to penetrate. It is very insular — they try to solve problems inside the community,” said Israeli police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld. He said the police can get involved only when someone complains or provides information. Often, people do not complain.
“All abused women worry about leaving their husbands or breaking up the family, but in the Haredi community, it is even harder. The community lacks understanding, and the women can pay a high price,” said Orly Tobolski-Hadad, spokeswoman for Bat Melech.
Often, they have no one to whom they can turn. Discussing marital problems with, say, a girlfriend or mother is viewed as inappropriate. Rabbis and community leaders tend to turn a blind eye to the abuse, fearing that bringing it to light might damage their community’s reputation. In some cases, violent husbands and their abused spouses are counseled to stay together and work out their “differences.”
“There are good people in the Haredi world, but when it gets to domestic violence, no one wants to know, and the rabbis do not have the time or tools to deal with it,” said Heidi Moses, a lobbyist for women’s rights who grew up in the Belz Hasidic sect. “When a woman complains, she is told she must have dreamed it or that she must give in more in bed, then her husband won’t be so frustrated.”
Moses, the daughter of an ultra-Orthodox Knesset member, Rabbi Menachem Eliezer Moses, said she became estranged for a while from her family after she divorced her husband.
In Israel, rites of passage are overseen by religious authorities. For Jews, the rabbinical authority or rabbinical courts grant divorces.
One woman at the Bat Melech shelter said her former husband was instructed by the rabbinical authority to work out the couple’s problems. She spoke on the condition of anonymity because, she said, he continues to stalk her.
“He went there and said he still loved me, that he did not mean to hurt me,” said the woman, a mother of three. “They said he had one month to try to win me back.”
“I just can’t understand why they would try to set someone up for the cycle of violence again,” she said.
For Reut, family intervention eventually saved her from her husband’s abuse. When she became pregnant with their fifth child, he sent her out to work as punishment. Her mother stepped in to care for the other children and noticed something was very wrong.
With the help of her family, Reut devised an escape plan: She would wait until the baby was born, then go straight from the hospital to the shelter. Her mother would bring the other children.
For the next 40 days at the shelter, Reut rested and began to deal with the trauma of her abuse.
“My husband used to make me leave the hospital straight after each birth. He immediately put me back to work,” she said. “It was amazing — I didn’t really know what it meant to rest, because I didn’t have any for 10 years.”