Rachel, a fashionably dressed woman with tasteful gold jewelry and a neat blonde wig, looks like one of the well-heeled, 40-something, ultra-Orthodox mothers one might see walking the streets of Bnei Brak, surrounded by six or seven children.
The table where she is watching her four children eat pasta and chicken nuggets for lunch could easily be the dining room of a rustic bed-and-breakfast that caters to the religious crowd. As some kids eat and chat, other groups of children play behind them on a deck that stretches around a building that also has 10 simple but neat bedrooms and a large recreation area filled with well-worn toys.
But Rachel isn't on vacation. After suffering years of unspeakable abuse and cruelty in her own home, she fled to Bat Melech, the only organization in Israel that provides shelters for battered women from the national religious and ultra-Orthodox populations. Together with 10 other women and their children, she is staying in the shelter, recovering from years of trauma and facing the challenge of beginning a new life in a sector of society that seems to deny that domestic abuse even exists.
The discreetly located facility in a residential neighborhood has been created out of two large houses joined together. This particular shelter, one of two Bat Melech facilities, offers refuge, support and intense counseling four times a week for women for six months, plus therapy and support for their children, and longer-term legal assistance in the event that there are protracted custody battles, as often happens. The shelter is currently at full capacity; indeed, women are sometimes turned away because there is insufficient space.
Bat Melech was founded in 1995 by a young divorce lawyer named Noach Korman. When he learned that one of his clients, who had fled her home in fear of an abusive husband, was sleeping with her young child in a hotel lobby, he rented an apartment for her in Jerusalem. This became the group's first shelter.
The women at the group's two shelters apparently represent only a fraction of those suffering domestic violence in the religious sector. His organization's hotline receives between 60 and 100 calls per month, says Korman.
"There is definitely a rise in the number of women who are ready to leave these situations, and I am sure it has a lot to do with the awareness of their options now. Something has definitely changed in Haredi society, and more and more women refuse to live like that anymore," Korman says, adding that the organization receives financial support from some prominent rabbis, even though none of them will discuss the subject publicly. Ultra-Orthodox newspapers and magazines not only refuse to run articles about the shelter, "They won't even accept paid advertisements [from us]. It would be admitting this problem exists. Still, word gets around. People know we are here."
Korman adds: "It is very hard to be a religious woman in a secular battered women's shelter, and that's why it is so difficult for us to turn women away. Often there is a big-screen television in a central place that can't be avoided, Shabbat [observance] is violated everywhere, they can't eat the food. It is very difficult, and to make things worse, the children's fathers can point to these conditions in a religious court and argue that the mother is taking the children away from a religious lifestyle, and they will risk losing custody. So, many religious women would rather stay in an abusive situation than bring their children to a regular shelter."
If Bat Melech didn't exist, Rachel says matter-of-factly, "I would have stayed at home." She speaks fluent English, having grown up in South Africa. When her father decided it was time for her to marry, he turned to an international marriage broker, who matched her up with a British man from a respected rabbinical family. The couple wed and moved to Israel. Rachel has been married for 20 years, but, "I realized straight away that there was something wrong, totally wrong. I wanted to leave him three months after we married, and again after I had my first child. But my father told me I was young and didn't understand what a special man this was. Leaving would have meant not just defying my husband, but my father - my whole family."
Her husband continually insulted and humiliated Rachel, was extremely possessive and controlling, and refused to give her money, pocketing his yeshiva stipend instead of giving it to her to pay for rent and food. Though he did not beat her, she says, in a halting voice, she experienced "terrible sexual abuse and terrible emotional abuse." He belittled and degraded her in front of their eight children, telling them what a bad mother she was, and encouraging her older children to abuse her as well. "When he would speak to me, he would often climb up on a ladder, so he would be above me," she adds.
The emotional abuse included an element unique to the Haredi world, which Korman describes as "spiritual abuse": husbands using Jewish ritual to degrade their wives. Rachel's husband would refuse to sing "Eshet Hayil," the traditional Sabbath song praising one's wife, and he wouldn't hand her the wine after kiddush.
"He would say the prayer blessing the servants and the animals of the household, and he would look straight at me so it was clear I knew that that is what he considered me," she explains.
She wrestled with the question of whether to leave for years. With divorce so stigmatized in the Haredi world, she feared ruining her children's marriage prospects and their lives in general. She also tried to turn to rabbis for help: "The rabbis were impossible. The first time I went to a rabbi about the sexual abuse - and it took many years to work up the courage to get the words out - this is what he told me: 'Let him do as he pleases, he'll do it a few times and he'll get it out of his system.'"
Rachel has sacrificed a great deal to escape a life of abuse: She has had no contact with the four older children she left behind; she only has the four youngest with her, over whom she is fighting for permanent custody.
"They side with their father," she says sadly of her older children. "I don't blame them. They've been told by his family that I'm crazy, that I've left the religious path and many other things about me that aren't true."
Ronit, 33, another Bat Melech resident, has even more horrific stories, which, again, seem incongruent with her calm and dignified appearance. Tall, with a colorful scarf wound around her head, Ronit escaped three months ago from a violent seven-year nightmare of a marriage in northern Israel.
The violence came early in the marriage; Ronit's husband beat her when she first became pregnant. But she stayed on and became more and more isolated and dependent on him, quitting her job, and seeing friends less and less. At first she and her husband would visit her family once a month, then only for holidays, then not every holiday.
The husband drank heavily and attacked her self-confidence in order to keep her under his control, she says: "He said that if I didn't have him, I would be alone. Nobody would want me. For him, I was like a possession, an object. Still, I took it and took it. He would tell me 'You're nothing, you're nothing' ... The verbal abuse was so bad that it often got to the point where I would say, 'Just hit me, just get it over with.'"
Like Rachel, Ronit also suffered extensive sexual abuse; there was no love and affection in their physical relationship, only violence. Finally, he beat her in the face and broke her front teeth, and after that she fled for the sake of her children.
"I saw what it was doing to my kids, they could feel it all around them. My children used to wet their pants from fear when he was around. They were terrified of him. Today, they never ask me where he is," she says.
Throughout Ronit's marriage, she was afraid to report the attacks because her spouse was a police officer, and because "when someone looks so religious, people don't believe they are capable of this kind of behavior."
Though she feels safe at Bat Melech, Ronit worries intensely about what will happen when she leaves - even fearing she will become yet another murdered wife: "I am scared of what will happen when my husband catches me. We've had no contact since I left. None. He's made no attempt to contact me. His silence frightens me. I'm afraid he must be planning something."
As part of the shelter's rehabilitation program, Ronit and Rachel participate in therapy, as do their children.
Hadassah Shalom, the in-house social worker in charge of children's therapy at this Bat Melech shelter, says ultra-Orthodox children often have special problems: "It is hard for these children to say bad things about their father: They are educated to respect their parents no matter what their behavior. A lot of the children blame their mother for the violence. They say if Mom doesn't do what Daddy wants, if she put the pan down in the wrong spot, then he hits her. Why doesn't she do what he says? The kids tend to identify with the strong parent."
Children are, quite naturally, a huge focus at the Bat Melech shelters. "The big difference between our shelter and a shelter for the secular sector is the number of children," says Ora, the woman in charge of running this facility. "We have a lot of children, and so we need a full-fledged day-care facility here and must have a lot of activities to keep them busy."
Touring the recreational area, one sees that it is particularly challenging for the mothers and staff when some of the children are forbidden from watching television and videos, or playing computer games. In one of the recreational rooms, there is a screen to sit behind and read books, and girls and boys must be separated.
According to the Social Affairs Ministry, in 2011, 12 percent of the Jewish women who stayed in shelters in the country were national religious or Haredi. That year, 40 women stayed in a Bat Melech shelter; because of lack of space, 15 ultra-Orthodox women and 35 Orthodox women stayed in other shelters, which were not adapted specifically for their needs.
Korman says that the percentage of religious and Haredi women who return home is low compared to other groups. That is because, he believes, the women who come to Bat Melech shelters truly do so as a last resort. Women there also tend to stay for longer periods of time than at the secular facilities as they figure out how to live independently.
Says Korman, "The women here have already tried everything. They've turned to rabbis, who have told them to go back and make peace in the home. They know that life as a divorced woman in Haredi society will be terribly hard, harder than for a secular woman. If a Haredi wife and mother takes the radical step of leaving her husband and coming to a shelter, the situation is extremely bad."
Accommodating the needs of the Orthodox population presents unique challenges, says Michal Hanoch-Achdut, national inspector for domestic violence and battered women's shelters at the Social Affairs Ministry. Hanoch-Achdut is in charge of the 14 shelters in the country, which include not only the Bat Melech facilities, but also two shelters for Arab women.
Working with extremely Orthodox women, she says, often necessitates cooperation with their rabbis, whom they consult before every decision. The increase in recent years in the number of very religious women, particularly those from the very insular Haredi world, who are turning to shelters to escape domestic violence, says Hanoch- Achdut, "shows that this society is slowly going through a slow, long, process in which it is acceptable and possible for a woman to leave an abusive situation, though she still pays a very, very high price."
Some of the names and identifying details of women mentioned in this article have been changed for their protection.