When a small group of Jewish women set about to establish a shelter for victims of conjugal violence, the common response was domestic assault didn’t happen in our community.
The shame was so great it was only whispered about, even among those who admitted it did.
Thirty years after Auberge Shalom pour femmes opened, the denial and stigma have not disappeared, even though the shelter is always full and demand is high for professional counselling at an off-site location, which includes specialized services for Orthodox women.
The anniversary was celebrated on May 15 with mixed feelings as Auberge’s founding president Miriam Charron said they had hoped that there would be no need for the shelter three decades on.
Sarah Rosenhek, Auberge’s executive director, was heartened to see some 400 people from across the community attend the awareness and fundraising event, held at Congregation Shaar Hashomayim.
Twenty of the founders or their descendants were present, including Dorothy Reitman, who was president of the National Council of Jewish Women, which initiated the project. Conjugal violence was not talked about in those days in the Jewish community, she said.
The impetus had been the murder of a young Jewish mother by her husband in 1984 on the West Island.
“We wrote a letter to every single rabbi,” remembered Charron to get them onside.
It took three years to raise the over $1 million needed to start a shelter. Leonard and Bina Ellen donated the first house. Auberge is now in its second, larger home.
Auberge is the only kosher (MK certified) shomer Shabbat shelter in Canada, said Rosenhek, but is open to women and children of any background and celebrates its multiculturalism.
The shelter is located in a house with 12 beds at a secret location in the West End. Women and their children stay there for an average of six weeks to two months.
More than 700 women were served last year through the shelter, counselling and advocacy, support groups or the 24/7 help line.
President Natalie Amar feels Auberge is still not well known and many more women could be helped if it were.
She noted that awareness of domestic abuse continues to be lacking in society generally. Although the #MeToo movement has brought sexual assault out of the shadows, “we are still not talking about what goes on in people’s homes.”
Abuse is not only physical, she said. It can be psychological, financial or any form of control or manipulation by a partner that undermines a woman’s self-worth.
It takes courage to seek help, Rosenhek said. Women may fear for their or their children’s safety, be financially dependent, or have never lived on their own.
The Quebec government covers 60 per cent of Auberge’s annual budget whose services are free. The $150,000 netted that night will cover six-week shelter stays for approximately 35 women and 70 children.
In a video, clients spoke of how Auberge changed their life for the better. They talk about how the shelter does not fit the stereotype: it’s clean and attractive, the activities and food are wonderful; and there is a family atmosphere
“Taya” says Auberge provided the bridge that allowed her to “make the jump across a scary river” to a new life.
To her surprise, she found the shelter a pleasant experience. “I thought it would be like a soup kitchen, but it was more like a bed and breakfast.”
It was important to her to carry on a Jewish lifestyle, such as the weekly Shabbat dinner.
Another woman is thankful that, even six years after she left the shelter, a counsellor still sees her and she is invited to shelter activities such as painting, baking and movies.
“Maude,” who spoke at the event, said Auberge made it possible for her to graduate from high school at 59 and enter Concordia University at 60. “I can say I am the happiest woman in the world.”
Lloyd Liverant and his father Herb have continued to support Auberge as benefactors and volunteers since his mother Roslyn, a dedicate volunteer, died 10 years ago.
The Liverants established an endowment when Diane Sasson, Auberge’s executive director for 21 years, retired in 2016. Sasson has since been appointed a member of the Order of Canada for her activism on behalf of abused women in Quebec. She was instrumental, for example. in having the province’s Civil Code amended to allow victims of spousal violence to terminate their residential lease without penalty.
A special mention was made of Rabbi Michael Whitman for his activism on this issue and for providing spiritual support to Auberge’s clients, staff and volunteers.