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SNEC-supported rape crisis centers in Israel work to address dynamics of sexual assault

By Laura Porter

“No matter where you are, the issues are the same,” said Sari Bru, the Outreach and Support Coordinator for the Valley Rape Crisis Center in Afula.

The center is a satellite of the Haifa Rape Crisis Center (HRCC) and serves the communities of Afula, the Gilboa, the Jezreel Valley, Migdal HaEmek, Nazareth and Beit Shean in northern Israel.  The Valley office was founded nine years ago with the support of the Southern New England Consortium (SNEC) of Partnership2Gether.

In October, Bru and Shani Aloni, executive director of the Haifa center, traveled to the United States to visit with their American partners in SNEC and to discuss the nature of sexual abuse and violence in Israel.

In Worcester, they met with members of the community, gave a talk at the Jewish Healthcare Center, and taught workshops to young people from 8th to 12th grade at the Worcester Community Hebrew High School.  They also met with abuse and violence counselors at Jewish Family and Children’s Service.

In Springfield, the Jewish Endowment Foundation (JEF) of the Jewish Federation of Western Massachusetts hosted Bru and Aloni. The rape crisis center receives funding from the Federation, as well as JEF, through the Anna P. Housen Fund for Israel and NEFESH: Nurturing the Female Spirit of Hope Fund.

Senator Michael Moore (D-Millbury) invited them to attend a hearing at the State House, where he is working to pass a bill addressing the way sexual assault is dealt with on college and university campuses.

A visit to Pathways for Change, the rape crisis center in Central Massachusetts, cemented the women’s belief that the situation around sexual violence in Israel parallels that in the United States.

As he introduced Aloni and Bru at their October 27 presentation at the Jewish Healthcare Center, Howard Borer noted, “What happens in Israel also happens here.”

Borer, executive director of the Jewish Federation of Central Massachusetts, met them both during a visit to the Afula/Gilboa region last June and invited them to visit New England.

“It seemed like a good time for them to come here and build relationships,” he said. “There is nothing like people-to-people connection.”

Shani Aloni has been executive director of the Haifa Rape Crisis Center since 2013 and a volunteer since 2007.  She is an attorney as well as a social worker, with a focus on public policy and advocacy on behalf of victims of sexual violence. Her particular focus is on prevention of sexual harassment, the social roots of sexual violence, and methods for social change.

Sari Bru, who is completing a Master’s degree in educational counseling at Oranim College, has a B.A. in behavioral psychology.  She has been in her current position in Afula since 2012, a volunteer since 2004, and a member of HRCC’s educational team since 2005.  She is an expert on the prevention of sexual violence in schools and youth programs as well as crisis intervention in small communities.

Together, the women are at the forefront of Israeli efforts to address the dynamics of sexual assault.

Founded in 1979, the Haifa Rape Crisis Center runs a crisis hotline that receives 4500 calls a year; there are 1000 new cases annually.  250-300 of those calls come from the Afula area. In addition, its educational programs reach 7000 people every year; half are teenagers at risk.  A relatively new cooperative relationship with Haifa University has incorporated students into the center’s work.

Ninety percent of sexual assault and violence cases in Israel are closed with no conviction, and women who call the center for help do not always file charges.

Staff members leave the choice of whether to go to the police up to each woman.

“We give them all the information about their rights,” she said.  “A volunteer will walk with them to the hospital, the police, the district attorney, the court.  We will be with them every step of the way.”

But, she says, they ask survivors to think carefully before they choose to pursue justice.

The police are the weakest link in the process, she said. They are “extremely judgmental” as well as understaffed. Investigators are “very unprofessional.”

Inevitably, some victims decide it’s not worth it.

In Israel, Shani Aloni stressed, sexual violence is a problem that affects every community: Jew or Arab, religious or secular.

To that end, in both Haifa and Afula “we see ALL women,” she said. “Arabic women ask us for help because they’re afraid they’ll be identified in their communities.”

In addition, in Haifa, the HRCC building is shared by four NGO’s.   Two are Jewish – the HRCC and another organization working on behalf of women’s rights. The other two are Arabic-Palestinian: a rape crisis center and an agency focused on LGBTQ issues.

Collaboration between Jewish and Arabic rape crisis agencies in Haifa and in Afula has been consistent and positive, even during times of tension such as the 2014 Gaza War.

It is, she says, a reflection of “the power of women that we can come together to work on shared issues despite cultural conflict and political confusion.  It is really a privilege for us to be able to bridge the differences.”

Sexual violence remains an “unspoken issue,” she said, and that fear and silence meant that for many years the Haifa center wasn’t reaching those who needed help in Afula and the northern villages.

“We weren’t getting any calls from Afula,” she said.  “We needed education on the spot to be open to people’s needs.”

The founding of a satellite rape crisis center nine years ago came about as a direct result of the P2G relationships, says Howard Borer.

He recalls, “It was a pet project of Judith Antonelli, who was the chair of the Israel Steering Committee for the SNEC P2G.”

Antonelli, then chief of Pediatric Emergency at Emek Medical Center, brought her concerns to her American counterparts on the SNEC Steering Committee in the United States.

“She said, ‘This is really an important project and I would like you to consider supporting the program,’” says Borer.

After visiting the site, the Americans agreed to provide the seed money.

“There was no center like this in the area,” says Borer.  “The only one was in Haifa and Afula couldn’t be serviced appropriately out of Haifa.”

As a result, SNEC was the first American source of financial support for the Valley Rape Crisis Center; that support remains ongoing.

In the Afula/Gilboa region, the challenge has been to develop relationships within the community, an essential element in providing help for women and girls who have been sexually assaulted.

A key part of that work is to connect with villages.

“When something happens in a small community, the whole community is affected- it’s not just an individual issue,” Aloni said at the Jewish Healthcare Center.  “If it happens in a school, for instance, it affects other students, teachers, parents, the community – there is a concern about what is happening here.”

And, in Israel, sexual violence is very much an issue in the schools – not only high schools, but also middle schools and even reaching down into the elementary schools.

In Afula, Sari Bru’s work involves education and the dissemination of information as well as support for individual victims. In a situation where a sexual assault has occurred, she ensures that parents and teachers know that there is therapy available for the victim and, more rarely, for the offender.

Support groups for parents of victims help them to be more emotionally available to their daughters. The center has also done a great deal of training with those who deal with sexual violence, focusing on secondary trauma.

In that process, Bru has developed working relationships with police officers and district attorneys. She knows whom to call and they respond immediately.

“They have Sari on speed dial,” says Aloni.

Education is essential, particularly in the schools and among young people, and Bru regularly tries to sit down with members of the community and urge teachers, parents, leaders and social workers to become involved.

As high school students begin to recognize that it is their responsibility to speak up when they see something happening, the Valley Rape Crisis Center will initiate a young ambassador program within the next year. The center will give the students the tools and support necessary to speak with schools and youth groups about healthy sexual behavior.

As people increasingly see the center as a place to help them, thirty percent of the calls to the hotline now come from the Afula region.

To illustrate the importance of having a rape crisis center in the north, Sari Bru offered a devastating story about a young woman from a Chabad community who had been sexually abused by her music teacher from the ages of 13 to 17.

Although she told her parents and the abuse was an open secret, nothing was done to stop it until a new principal joined the school. Once it came to light, the girl’s family threw her out, and she was left on her own.

“She had to go through the police interrogation alone,” said Bru. “She had no psychological treatment. I was able to be with her constantly until the trial because we had a position in Afula. I knew the policewoman, I knew the welfare people.  For nine years, we have had someone in the field. I was able to get her therapy by pushing hard.  Support is important not just in words but in action.”

CAP: The Israeli guests with representatives of Jewish Family & Children’s Service (JF & CS) Shown here are, from left, Deb Shrier, Sari Bru, Shani Aloni, and Elizabeth Schon Vainer.

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