A Journey to Family, Community and Empowerment
By Amy Oppenheimer
If you had told me five years ago that I would be making aliyah in the midst of a war to work on behalf of Israel’s only shelter for observant victims of domestic violence, I would have looked at you very funny.
At the time, I was living in Riverdale New York, the international capital of JOFA (or so it felt!), and was happily employed in the fancy and fast-paced world of management consulting. By day, I donned a business suit and visited clients in the CFO suite, by night, I edited my first documentary film and educational curriculum, Faces of Israel, and by weekend, I led youth programming at the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale.
So, how did it happen?
Over the past decade, my family began to make aliyah. My older sister took the first leap in 2007. My little sister jumped onboard as soon as she possibly could in August 2013, and my parents (and family dog!) completed the migration in December 2013.
It was once my dream to make aliyah too. Judaism felt more alive and vibrant in Israel. The holidays were celebrated in an intense and exciting way that I had simply not experienced in America. The very idea of building the Jewish homeland and signing on to be part of the most ambitious project the Jewish community has undertaken in over two thousand years was enthralling.
But time seemed to pass more and more quickly and my life in America started falling into place. I released my first film and took it on tour, I became a speaker for Israel Bonds, and I spent two years traveling to communities across North America doing Jewish outreach.
But Skype calls to my parents and sisters just weren’t enough. So I started planning extended visits to Israel in 2012 and, rather than spending days on the beach in Tel Aviv or checking out the endless stream of cafes on Emek Refaim, it was important to me to find a meaningful volunteer opportunity.
This is how I discovered Bat Melech. (Or, technically, how my mother discovered Bat Melech!)
After one conversation with Noach Korman, the founder of Bat Melech, I had found my organization.
Bat Melech is the only kosher and Sabbath-observant shelter for victims of domestic violence in Israel, but more than a shelter, it is a home for Jewish women who have been disenfranchised and it is a place where they can begin rebuilding themselves and their families.
I have seen firsthand how women come to us broken and transform during their time at Bat Melech. If we could take a picture of a woman’s arrival and departure days, the stark contrast would be evident.
For example, Rachel worked in Israeli academia as a professor. You would think that someone of her stature could never become a victim of domestic violence, but her self-confidence as a professional, a mother, and a human being was systematically shattered through repeated insults, harsh criticisms, and violence.
When Rachel arrived, she thought herself neither worthy nor capable of taking care of her children and continuing her career. But after eight months of weekly therapy, counseling, and parental training sessions at Bat Melech, Rachel is back on her feet with custody of her children and is preparing her curriculum for the fall semester.
Many of our residents never had the chance to become the women they wanted to be. Most were denied the opportunity to work, to study, to parent in the manner they thought appropriate and to explore their own personal interests as adults. When they sought help, they were told that modesty, coping in silence, and working toward peace in the home trumped abuse. They didn’t believe they mattered. Bat Melech teaches them to advocate for their selves, be strong, and self-confident. And we’re doing this for over 1,500 women and children each year.
This past winter, I was brought onboard as Bat Melech’s director of North America and Overseas and the first English-speaker in our office! This clinched my decision to make aliyah. Though I was motivated to move to Israel to be near my family, it was the opportunity to make a positive difference in the lives of Jewish women – that clinched the deal.
I know that we have our work cut out for us, but every day strengthens my belief that the work we do is not just chesed (kindness), but tzedek (justice).
So, how did my first week as an Israeli feel?
It’s a mixed bag.
There’s the excitement of receiving my teudat zehut, Israeli identity card, and feeling like I truly belong here, and the giddiness of walking into my first day at Ulpan. There’s also the challenge of planning my wedding in Israel (my fiancé proposed on the last week of my pilot trip this Spring!), and the striking difference between customer service in Israel and in America. (Let’s just say that the customer is not always right in Israel.)
I’m not quite sure that I feel like an Israeli just yet, but le’at le’at – one step at a time, with gratitude, with mindfulness, and with appreciation.
Amy Beth Oppenheimer is Bat Melech's Director of North America and Overseas. Amy will be visiting North America in November 2014 and Spring 2015 to speak about healthy relationships and develop awareness about Bat Melech's work.
To learn more about Bat Melech visit www.batmelech.org or Facebook