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Behind the Headlines: Jerusalem Shelter Provides a Home Away from Home for Battered Women

May 8, 1992
See Original Daily Bulletin From This Date

It’s dinner time, and on an evening a few nights before Purim, a house in Jerusalem is bustling.

Kids are running around, their faces streaked with makeup as they test out their holiday costumes. Onions are peeled and thrown into the soup for dinner. When a favorite song starts playing on the blaring radio, everyone drops what they’re doing to dance around the kitchen in a spontaneous jitterbug of joy.

For a few moments this house seems almost normal, full of life and love.

But it is brief respite for the six women and dozen children living in the Jerusalem Shelter for Battered Women.

The song ends and sadness quickly returns to Etti Malka’s blue eyes as she remembers her upcoming court date, scheduled so that she can get a divorce from her husband of four years.

It will be the first time that Etti, 21, will have seen or spoken to her husband in the two months since she arrived at the shelter without anything but her two kids and the clothes on their backs.

Though he beat her since their first year of marriage, and his mother hit her regularly as well, Etti had not told a soul of her predicament until she left for the shelter. Not her mother or father, or sister or friend.

“I don’t want them to hate him,” she says, Why? “So that it should all be OK.”


“That’s the mentality of these women: just to smooth things over, that they deserve what they get” says Ruth Rossing, an administrator and fund-raiser for the shelter.

The Jerusalem shelter has six bedrooms, each simply furnished with two trundle beds, white storage closets and shelves.

It can accommodate a dozen women in relative comfort, and 15 in a pinch, with all the children they bring with them — as many as five, though on average, each woman brings two or three. The kids share beds, sleep in the trundles or sleep with their mothers when it is crowded.

There are four shelters for battered women in Israel: in Jerusalem, Haifa, Herzliya and Ashdod, with a total of 60 beds.

But demographic studies indicate that at any one time, some 100,000 Israeli women are in a relationship where they are being physically abused.

The number of Israeli women murdered by their husbands or boyfriends has skyrocketed, and violence against women is thought to be rising proportionally.

Thirty-six women were killed by their husbands or boyfriends last year in Israel. Thirty of the women were Jewish, six Arab.

Until 1989, four or five women were murdered by husbands or boyfriends each year. In 1990, that number leapt to 27.

And so far this year, nine women have died at the hands of their husbands or boyfriends.

The increase is directly related to the economic and emotional pressures on many of the new immigrants, according to Dr. Alice Shalvi, the founding chair of the Israel Women’s Network, an activist and lobbying group.

One unemployed new immigrant from Russia murdered his wife in full view of their three children, turned himself in and told the authorities that “I couldn’t bear seeing her go out to work everyday.”

But most women are beaten, even beaten to death, because the culture in which they live permits it, says Rossing of the Jerusalem shelter. “Domestic violence is intergenerational. It’s a way of life” in many families, she says.

Most of the women who stay at the Jerusalem shelter are Sephardi — of Middle Eastern or North African background.

They are likely to be less educated and have a lower income than their Ashkenazi counterparts, and as a result, have fewer options. A woman with her own income can more likely afford to rent her own apartment to get away from her abusive spouse.


They are women who “have nothing left to give up. They are at the bottom. They have not been able to find any other solution.”

Most arrive with nothing but their kids.

The shelter provides them with donated clothing, toys, food and everything else they need for the duration of their stay, which can last as long as nine months.

Ultimately, 75 percent of the women go back to their husbands.

One-third go back within two weeks of leaving home, another third go back within the first six months and one-third do not go back to their husbands within the first two years. But 20 to 30 percent of that last third do return to their husbands sometime after that, says Rossing.

They go back “for financial reasons, plain and simple. This is not a country where life is easy for single mothers. And finding affordable housing in Jerusalem is hell,” Rossing says.

The women at the Jerusalem shelter are from all over the country. But none is from Jerusalem. They need to go to a place where their husbands cannot find them, so they never stay near home.

According to Naomi Shahar, a board member of the Herzliya shelter, the financial problems are part of a complex picture.


The women must leave family and friends behind, take their kids from one school to another, find a place to live and find a job, often in the face of tremendous family pressure to just smooth things over, she says.

The emotional strength it requires is often more than these battered-down women can muster.

One woman at the Jerusalem shelter may, in the end, return to her husband, who has beaten her for decades, because she has no alternative.

Tamar Ben Yoseph is a tiny, 65-year-old woman whose much older appearance belies her difficult life. Born in Yemen, she has been married for more than 50 years.

She stayed with her husband until she married off the last of her nine children, whose framed photographs are proudly arrayed on the shelf above her bed at the shelter.

She is too old to work, and though each of her grown children has met with their mother’s social worker, none is willing to take her in, according to Rossing.

“It’s difficult for me at the shelter, but there’s no money” to rent another apartment, Ben Yoseph says plaintively. “Where can I go?”

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