In Jerusalem, fervently Orthodox women in abusive marriages today have what they’ve never before been able to find: a place to go.
The founder of the first shelter for haredi victims of domestic violence, a reticent man named Noach Corman, recently came to New York on his first trip outside of Israel, in order to raise money for the shelter. He has, until now, declined all requests to speak with the press in Israel and elsewhere.
But now the shelter must buy the building it fills with women and their children in search of refuge from violent homes, because the owner is selling it, and Corman has come to United States to raise the money.
Corman, who is now 31, was just a few years ago a newly-minted toain, or rabbinical court pleader, working essentially as a public defender in the religious courts of Jerusalem, accepting the cases of people too poor to hire private representation. Then he was handed two cases at the same time: One was that of a young woman and her baby who had left a violent husband in the winter. With nowhere else to go, the woman and her infant were sleeping in Jerusalem hotel lobbies, moving from one place to another. Hotel managers allowed her to stay late nights in the lobbies, but wouldn’t give her a room, Corman said.
In the other case, another young woman and her baby were essentially prisoners in a girls’ yeshiva dormitory, forced to stay inside all day by the school’s administration who also granted them conditional shelter.
"I couldn’t believe that a woman with a child had to be in this situation," said Corman. "When I asked why no one was dealing with this, my colleagues said to ‘Leave the problems at work.’ I couldn’t be at peace with this reality."
At the time, there were 11 shelters in Israel for victims of domestic violence. But none were geared toward the haredi woman: and no haredi woman would go to them, Corman says. "In a secular shelter there is no Shabbat, no haredi education for the children, no religious atmosphere," he says. Moreover, "if she goes to a secular shelter the husband can use it against her in a beit din."
Soon he gained a reputation for being sympathetic to the plight of battered haredi women, and the phone began to ring, with stories of people in need of a place to go.
With the idea of establishing such a place, he began approaching leading haredi rabbis for their approval which, he said, they were eager to give.
But "I needed to open the shelter, not get endless recommendations," Corman says. He went to the welfare department but felt daunted by what they required in order for a shelter to get public funding: accommodations for 15 women and a large staff. He didn’t think he would ever be able to build such a facility.
"It seemed like a dream that I could raise that much money, and I wasn’t sure how much need there was," he says. He started out in 1995 with one apartment that could accommodate two families. Last year he had two apartments, which over the course of 1999 sheltered 18 women and 29 children.
In 1999 the shelter (called Bat Melech, or Daughter of the King) received 140 inquiries. Thirty-five women needed to leave their homes immediately, but Bat Melech could take only half of them. Some came straight from the hospital, where they were treated for injuries inflicted by their husbands, such as burns from boiling water poured on them from a large Shabbat percolator, Corman said.
"The others, we just had to say we couldn’t," he said. "There is so much demand that I could take more. We always take all the children. I can never say no," even if it means they must double- and triple-up.
Today, in a building that he has been renting, but whose owner now wants to sell for $550,000, Bat Melech has secure apartments which can accommodate 10 families with three children each.
Corman needs to raise the money to buy the building, and also to fund about half of Bat Melech’s $300,000 annual operating budget. The other half comes from the government. Corman also hopes to find funding to be able to develop intermediate housing for women who are ready to move out of the shelter.
Those interested in contributing can call the New York public relations firm representing Bat Melech, which can be reached at (212) 840-1166.