An alarming rise in family violence has been a tragic side effect of the Covid-19 crisis in many countries. Lockdowns intended to stop the spread of disease leave victims with little opportunity to escape their abusers.

The Israeli Foreign Ministry’s MASHAV Agency for International Development Cooperation reached out a helping hand with a live-streamed webinar, “How to Protect Women from Domestic Violence During the Coronavirus Crisis.”

MASHAV chose the all-female staff of one Israeli organization to present the webinar: Beit Ruth Educational & Therapeutic Village, a long-term therapeutic residence and school in Afula.

Beit Ruth houses up to 45 teenage girls removed from their homes by court order due to sexual, physical and emotional abuse.

About 100 participants from Africa (Ghana, Nigeria, Tanzania, and Uganda), Asia (Nepal, India, The Philippines and Myanmar), Latin America (Guatemala, Honduras and Ecuador) and North America learned how Beit Ruth strives to help each girl re-enter society as a caring, educated, independent and empowered young woman.

“The scars from rape and incest never go away,” says Executive Director Danielle Burenstein, “but we can help them lead functioning lives and break the cycle of abuse.”

Beit Ruth Director of Advocacy & Outreach and Special Projects Ronit Lev-Ari. Photo: courtesy

Beit Ruth accomplishes this in a warm, safe home-style environment providing a wide range of academic and therapeutic services, staff member Ronit Lev-Ari explained in the webinar. Lev-Ari is a leading expert in the field of gender-based violence and served as the government’s authority on women’s issues under two prime ministers.

“Since the webinar, we’ve gotten tremendous feedback from leaders of developing countries asking for more information on our program,” Burenstein tells ISRAEL21c.

The Ministry of Science & Higher Education of the Russian Federation invited Beit Ruth to lead a recent seminar – moved online due to the pandemic — as part of an international training program for Russian professionals dealing with family violence.

Sharing best practices

Burenstein says Beit Ruth is dedicated to sharing the village’s best practices in treating complex post-trauma.

Its advocacy and outreach arm interacts with educators, police officers, healthcare providers, lawyers, judges, social workers, psychologists and military personnel in Israel and worldwide.

“Last year, we had more than 1,800 stakeholders from nonprofits come to learn more about our best practices in our school’s Center of Knowledge,” she says.

Israeli police officers come to Beit Ruth to learn best practices in handling violence against girls and women. Photo: courtesy

The on-site Center of Knowledge partners with the Haruv Institute, the preeminent organization in Israel for training and research focused on ending child abuse and neglect.

“Beit Ruth’s staff leads sessions for Haruv, often with the participation of our girls,” Burenstein says.“Having our girls present at these learning opportunities is a feature of Beit Ruth that allows them to be seen as the experts of their own experience.”

Chutzpah and strategy

Iris Twerski, Beit Ruth’s managing director, tells ISRAEL21c that the village has been operating for 14 years, half of that time at its present and soon expanding site.

“It’s the fulfillment of a dream that started with our founders in New York, Susan and Michael Ashner,” she says.

The combination of Israeli expertise and American leadership is a happy marriage of chutzpah and strategy, says Twerski.

“We benefit from the flexibility and innovation of the Startup Nation on one hand and the American approach to long-term planning on the other.”

Beit Ruth girls celebrating Sukkot with Iris Twerski, Beit Ruth’s managing director. Photo: courtesy

The average stay at Beit Ruth is two and a half years. Twerski says that 211 of the 231 alumni are functioning in a healthy way in the community.

“Ninety percent of at-risk girls arrive at the village having lost more than a year of schooling; many have lost multiple years,” adds Burenstein. “Others lack basic reading, writing or math skills. Each girl reaches her appropriate educational level within less than one year. And 95 percent of our girls who stay at the village through the age of 18 earn their high school diploma.”

Last February, the Israeli Ministry of Welfare honored Beit Ruth as the best of the 35 schools it supports. “This is remarkable and exceptional considering where our girls have come from,” notes Burenstein.

Raz: From runaway to Covid-19 nurse

One alumna, Raz, is now a married mother of three. She works on the frontlines of the coronavirus battle as an emergency room nurse at Hadassah Medical Center.

Raz, a Beit Ruth alumna, works as an emergency room nurse at Hadassah Medical Center in Jerusalem. Photo: courtesy

Raz was born to a drug-addicted father and a young mother, who divorced soon after she was born. Her mom then married an abusive man. Raz ran away from home, living on the streets and abusing drugs while also being abused.

After several unsuccessful placements, Razwas sent to Beit Ruth.

“The first thing I noticed was the smell. It was like what home should smell like,” she recalls.

“I was cared for by women who wanted to see me succeed, heal, learn, and grow, and who saw my potential. And more importantly, they wanted me to see it too. From the first moment – and for the first time – I felt empowered and saw a future for myself that I could be proud of. Part of what Beit Ruth gave me was the desire to give back to the world.”

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