Awareness that domestic violence exists in the Montreal Jewish community and must be dealt with has grown dramatically over the past two decades, says Diane Sasson, as she prepares to leave her post as executive director of Auberge Shalom pour Femmes after 21 years.
However, there is still resistance among certain haredi rabbis in particular, and she believes women in that community remain reluctant to seek help as a consequence.
Sasson was reflecting on her years in the forefront of combating the abuse of women in conjugal relationships after a farewell party in her honour was held recently at Le Café des Amis at Beaver Lake.
Auberge Shalom, founded in 1989 by the National Council of Jewish Women’s Montreal branch, is a shelter for battered women and their children. In 2002, it added an off-site counselling and resource office, also at a confidential location.
The shelter is kosher and observes Jewish traditions, but is open to everyone. In recent years, with longer stays, about 75 women and 40 children pass through the shelter and 130 seek counselling annually.
Approximately 10 per cent of those taking refuge are Jewish, while over 40 per cent of those going to the counselling office are Jewish, said Sasson. There is also a 24-hour help line, which receives some 350 calls a year. She estimates 30 per cent of clients overall are Jewish.
More recently, a program for children and teens exposed to domestic violence was added.
The creation of the counselling office led to a sharp increase in the number of Jewish women seeking help, she said. “It fills a niche for women who are uncomfortable with or can’t pick up and go to a shelter.”
One of the counsellors is Orthodox, and services are tailored to the specific sensitivities of that community, she said.
In the mainstream community, recognition of domestic violence has become normalized. “When we ran a purple ribbon campaign two years ago, the rabbis were on board; we didn’t have to convince them,” she said.
With regard to haredi rabbis, Sasson said today “they will talk with us, and they can be supportive, but they are reluctant to advocate against domestic violence and will not necessarily comply with what we want for the woman.”
Sasson said this greater understanding of domestic violence may be measured by the growth in financial support for Auberge Shalom, which is dependent on private fundraising. That generosity enabled the shelter to relocate to a bigger house in 2013.
More than 200 people attended the party for Sasson, which was a benefit as well. Father and son, Herb and Lloyd Liverant, announced that they have established an endowment in Sasson’s name to support the work of Auberge Shalom.
Their late wife and mother, Roslyn, who died in 2009, was a dedicated volunteer. In the past seven years, father and son said their respect for Auberge Shalom has only been enhanced.
In addition to administering its services, Sasson – who came to the job with no background in social work – has been active in forming alliances with other shelters and women’s advocacy groups in Quebec to share best practices, raise public awareness and lobby for improved legislation.
“No matter how far we have gotten, it is still very scary for a woman to come forward. There is still a stigma,” Sasson said. “We hear from clients that they waited a long time.”
Sasson officially leaves on July 30. Sarah Rosenhek has been appointed as her successor.
Rosenhek is described as a feminist activist with over 10 years of experience fighting for women’s human rights through research, resource mobilization and capacity-building work.
For the past year, Rosenhek has been working as an independent consultant supporting women’s rights groups with their research and advocacy efforts, including indigenous women.
From 2005 to 2015, she was program director at the Association for Women’s Rights in Development, an international feminist membership organization committed to achieving gender equality and sustainable development.
D’Arcy McGee MNA David Birnbaum commended Sasson and Auberge Shalom for combating “the silence and, let’s call it what it is, the complicity surrounding spousal abuse,” thereby literally saving lives.
Sasson’s three daughters – Vanessa, Audrey and Erika – spoke of their mother as a role model.
Vanessa cited her “unrelenting pursuit of justice,” Audrey described her as possessing “great humility” and wanting “zero fanfare,” and Erika praised her “work ethic and unshakable sense of fairness.”
The evening’s chair, Nancy Weiss, who was Sasson’s right hand for many years as volunteer co-ordinator, said Sasson typically put in 60-hour weeks.
Sasson said the staff and volunteers are “the true heroes – walking with our clients every step of the way however long it takes.”
She said that from the women who have come to Auberge Shalom, she has learned what courage means.
Sasson paid tribute to founding president Miriam Charron. “She had the vision and courage to open a shelter when domestic violence was still a taboo subject and a very private affair.”