The interview is interrupted over and over again by friendly faces poking their heads into the cluttered office. “Shana Tova,” says a hotline volunteer on her way into work for the evening shift.
“Let us hope for only good in the year to come,” says an outreach volunteer on her way out.
“I’m making a Greek salad in the kitchen. Hungry?” the young head of educational programming inquires.
“Happy New Year to you too, my dear,” responds Miriam Schler, executive director of Tel Aviv’s Sexual Assault Crisis Center, bouncing up from her seat. “Only good things, this year,” she says, bouncing up again for another friendly kiss, a chipped coffee mug in hand.
“Of course, I’m always hungry,” she responds, bouncing up yet again, with a smile, as we head to the kitchen to pick at feta cheese.
“The thing about this work,” says Schler, gesturing a hand across the bright kitchen – complete with fresh-faced volunteers cheerfully preparing snacks for an evening training group and piles of “You Are Not Alone,” leaflets informing us that one in every three women in this country has been sexually assaulted – “is that you meet both the ugliest side of Israel, and also the best.”
The 47-year-old baby blue-eyed Long Island native, who moved to Israel 25 years ago, has certainly seen up-close some of the very darkest sides of her adopted country – sides that many here either don’t know or don’t want to know about.
She started out as a young volunteer at the center, and has spent a good chunk of the two and a half decades since then counseling survivors of abuse and rape on the phone, accompanying them to hospitals and to the police if they so desired, advocating on their behalf in the halls of government – and working to educate the rest of the public about this violent crime.
She has also, since taking over as director in 2004, led efforts to grow and improve this center – the first of its kind in the country, and still the largest and busiest, which serves central Israel, a population of about 1.2 million. Today, the Tel Aviv Sexual Assault Crisis Center receives over 10,000 calls a year, facilitates some 5,000 workshops and lectures, runs a wide variety of support groups, does intensive lobbying, and has trained hundreds of men and women who now work and volunteer here. There are eight other centers around the country.
“When I first got here to Israel no one wanted to talk about all this,” she says. “It’s difficult for us to think of Jews raping Jews.”
Even today, she adds, the stories involving Arabs or foreign workers are often the ones that get the most attention. “But we needed to talk. We needed to start pointing out the issues and making it clear that we had a problem. We sadly still need to be doing this.
“Studies show that, beyond the one-in-three statistic on sexual assault, one in five Israeli women has or will be raped, and one of seven has been abused by a father, uncle, brother, cousin or other family member. These abuses take place among Ashkenazim and Sephardim, rich and poor, Arabs, Jews, men, women, the secular and the Orthodox, the very young and the very old,” says Schler. “They are taking place in every single sector of our society.”
Changing the world
Israel is no different than any other country in the world when it comes to rape and abuse statistics, she continues. The situation here is neither “better,” nor “worse” – but the story here has its own specific characteristics.
Schler calls Israel “a violent and militaristic society,” as well as “a chauvinistic and domineering culture.” Further complicating the picture, she argues, is “the religious structure of inequality, which is part of the accepted discourse.” These and other factors affect the types of services offered here.
As such, for example, alongside the 24-hours-a-day hotline for women, the Tel Aviv center also supports two unique hotlines for men – one for the general population and another for religious men and youths, where callers can also anonymously address religious questions to poskim (rabbinical authorities who act as decision makers). In addition, a Russian-speaking hotline is on call for when needed.
So how did the girl from Oceanside end up here? Hers was a “typically patriarchic” family, says Schler, and her parents, Polish and Lithuanian Holocaust survivors who worked “day and night” making a living in the wholesale jewelry business, were “not at all socially active,” she attests. But she, like her younger sister, was drawn to questions of social justice and equality for as long as she can remember.
Sure, she captained sports teams, was active at the student newspaper and participated in all forms of “regular” high school activities, but what she really was passionate about was, well, “changing the world,” she says with another grin and a bite of feta.
A macho sort of militarism
“What shaped my outlook and led me to this desire to make a difference was Young Judaea,” she says, referring to the youth movement in which she grew up. “I started going to the Sprout Lake and Tel Yehudah summer camps when I was 11, and I remained involved with the movement all the way through high school. I took on their philosophy and found a lot of my role models there. The idea that I needed to work for change became part of my DNA,” she says, recounting her personal life story at breakneck speed so as to quickly get to what she really wants to talk about – the work done at the center.
The Young Judaea youth movement not only imbued her with the need for tikkun olam, or repairing the world, it was also what got her to Israel. Not only because of the movement’s strong emphasis on Zionism, but probably more to the point, because it played matchmaker between Schler and Yehuda Kamari, a cute summer-camp crush who later became her husband – and in whose footsteps she came to this country Israel.
The two met in 1983, the summer before Schler went off to the University of Michigan to study political science. Kamari, the youngest of seven children in a Persian-Israeli family, was on the Israeli Scouts delegation to the camp. “We fell in love and have been together ever since,” she says, simply.
In those pre-email and Skype days, the two spent four years writing each other letters every day and using the money Schler’s mother gave her to buy kosher meat in Michigan to make occasional phone calls. “These days, my nieces will say they can’t date someone because they live in Netanya, and I’m like: ‘What the hell is wrong with you?!’” says Schler, who is known to spice up her chat with some choice curses.
After she graduated and Kamari got out of the army, the two spent a year traveling, and then went back to Israel together to start life there. Kamari went to medical school and Schler, four days after landing at Ben-Gurion International Airport, started law school in Tel Aviv. “I could barely understand anything,” she recalls.
There were other things she had trouble getting used to in her adopted country. The basic power structures in Israel were no different than those in the U.S., she says, but still she generally found being a woman here “jarring and different.”
“In law school they would make the kind of chauvinistic jokes you would not hear in the U.S., and there was definitely a macho sort of militarism everywhere,” she says.
Kamari’s family’s traditions, meanwhile, also took some getting used to. “At Passover I was not allowed to read from the Haggadah because I was a woman. That’s just the way it was.”
Often she had to remind herself not to get frustrated, and that change takes time. But just as often, says Schler – who now reads proudly from the Haggadah at the Kamari seders and admits times have changed and some attitudes have improved in both academia and the military.
When she finished law school, Schler joined a corporate law firm but also sought out a way to get involved in the nascent feminist movement in the country.
“I was looking for both a way to integrate into my new society and get involved with something I cared about,” says Schler, who at Michigan had been involved with “Take Back the Night” and other feminist movement activities of the day which, she notes, seemed light years ahead of what was going on in Israel at the time.
‘We are with them’
What she found was the Tel Aviv center, then called the Rape Crisis Center, which was founded in 1978 by the Tel Aviv branch of the Israeli feminist movement and later evolved into an independent nonprofit organization. But more than a decade later, when Schler first encountered it, the whole operation still consisted of a tiny two-room office on Ben Yehuda Street and a handful of volunteers working a hotline and running a few support groups.
But the main idea then, as now, was the same: to give survivors a sense of control.
“We listen to them, validate their feelings and give them a sense of their options. We never suggest or advise them what they should do, nor do we have any responsibility to investigate or report on what has happened. We do not even make anyone identify themselves if they don’t want to,” explains Schler. “If a woman wants to go to the hospital, we might accompany them. If they want to go to the police or to court we can go with them. Whatever they want – we are with them.”
Such a sense of solidarity is very important, says Schler, in particular because when abuse takes place within a family – as happens in far too many cases – it is common for the family to close ranks and even take the perpetrator’s side. “Not always of course, but in many such instances the family wants to protect the perpetrator or the family’s name and cohesion – and so the woman ends up being victimized twice. And we end up being the only ones who are there for her.”
Corporate law was clearly not where Schler belonged. “Every time we lost a case I was happy, because we were always on the wrong side,” she grins. “My colleagues would say: ‘What are you doing here? Why don’t you do what you care about full-time?’”
Still, she stayed at the law firm for six years – “because I’m a loser,” she jokes – during which she had three children. After her third child, instead of heading back to her desk at the office, Schler started a master’s degree course in law with a focus on feminist jurisprudence – while continuing to spend more than 10 hours a week volunteering at the center.
In 2004, when the center’s first director stepped down, Schler, who by then was a board member, decided the time was right for a professional change. She applied for the job, and has been the director ever since.
Today the center, with the help of $700,000 Schler helped raise from private U.S.-based foundations and the Tel Aviv-Jaffa municipality, has moved into a bright, two-story house on a leafy north Tel Aviv street. Fourteen full-time staffers and 238 volunteers run the three separate hotlines from the center and coordinate 23 different support groups, including a support group for parents of survivors, one for female prisoners in Neveh Tirza jail and even one that incorporates yoga into its practices. Individual short- and long-term counseling also take place in the center, and a victim witness assistance program has, over the years, helped support thousands of sexual assault survivors through the judicial process from beginning to end.
Beyond this work with survivors, and the lobbying and fundraising, the center is very active in outreach and education efforts among the broader public, offering training to everyone from high-schoolers to soldiers and police officers, doctors, judges and therapists who deal with rape and abuse. And while the number of those seeking help for abuse has not gone down over the years (in fact, with more people feeling comfortable reporting these crimes, the calls for help have actually increased), awareness of the problem is clearly changing in Israel, as it is around the world.
It’s an accomplishment Schler derives satisfaction from. Another accomplishment she is proud of is the team she has built. “The people here are incredible,” she says, now back in her office and bouncing up and down again to greet more of the staff and volunteers who pop by with New Year greetings.
“Working with sexual abuse and rape is very threatening,” she says. “It’s not like working with Holocaust survivors, where you can safely think, ‘This is not me. This can never happen to me.’ It’s very personal. You begin to see society as a less rosy place.”
What keeps her, and the men and women who work here, going, she says, takes her back to tikkun olam. “We give these women survivors, and the men, validation that they are not crazy,” she says, simply. “The tragedy of rape and sexual assault is that it has such a ripple effect. You start to have so much self-doubt. A lot of times it can be a very powerful experience for these survivors just to find someone who believes them. And we are here to be that someone.”