By Susan Josephs
October is Domestic Violence Awareness Month. Observed since 1987, DVAM sheds a still much needed spotlight on the plight of battered women and children while celebrating the advocates who have dedicated their lives to eradicating domestic violence. Since the 1970’s, Jewish women have played pivotal roles in this movement. Jewish Women International and Jewish Woman magazine salute four of these women who continue to make important and innovative contributions to the work of preventing domestic violence and aiding its victims.
In 1980, Esta Soler secured a federal grant to start her own organization called the Family Violence Prevention Fund. Since then, she’s been tirelessly committed to “finding the cure” for domestic violence. “This kind of behavior doesn’t have to be part of the human experience,” she says.
Now called Futures Without Violence, Soler’s San Francisco-based organization is widely recognized as one of the leading domestic violence agencies in the country and offers a comprehensive array of education and training programs for women, men, teens and children. The organization’s public awareness campaigns, health initiatives and partnering with policy makers to influence legislation have led to groundbreaking accomplishments such as Congress’s passing of the Violence Against Women Act in 1994.
“You’re always looking at what’s the problem, what’s the most effective way to deal with it and then measure whether you’re having an impact,” says Soler of her ever evolving vision for her organization’s success. “I’m also never satisfied with simply treating a problem. I want to change things so that the problem disappears. I want a different world.”
Currently working on mobilizing congressional support for the International Violence Against Women Act, which would significantly increase U.S. aid to women around the world, Soler credits her persistence and drive to growing up in a family of activists. “We were part of a Jewish community that was all about giving back and I was always really clear on what I would do with my life,” she says. “I knew I would work for the empowerment of others because everybody deserves a good life.”
While working as the director of sales and marketing for a hotel chain, Naomi Berman-Potash had an epiphany one day in 1989 after reading an article about women who had no place to go after fleeing from abusive partners because of limited resources or lack of access to shelters. “There are always empty rooms in hotels and I kept thinking about these women who were homeless,” she recalls.
Two years later, Berman-Potash launched “Project Debby,” named for her older sister who died in her 30’s from multiple sclerosis, and which offered domestic violence victims temporary shelter in complimentary hotel rooms. Since then, over 400 hotels in some 30 cities have participated in the project, which Berman-Potash runs in grassroots fashion with her husband from their home in South Florida. Once Berman-Potash secures arrangements with a hotel in any given city, she tries to partner with local agencies that can oversee the process of safely checking domestic violence victims into their rooms.
“There are always women in trouble but never enough hotel rooms,” says Berman-Potash of her project’s challenges. “But whenever I get another phone call for more rooms and I think, ‘this is a lot of work,’ I think about my sister who was really involved in the women’s movement and I think about the women who are being helped.”
A recent law school graduate, Berman-Potash hopes to soon pass the Florida Bar so she can “do even more” for domestic violence victims as a newly minted attorney. “It’s a tough world,” she says. “And I’m hoping I can be more compassionate and on point for some of these women who might not get the help they need if they walked into the average law office.”
After escaping her own abusive marriage more than three decades ago, Toby Myers vowed to help others afflicted by domestic violence. Since 1977, when she helped establish the first battered women’s shelter in Houston, Myers has made it her life’s work to insure that domestic violence victims and survivors have adequate resources both locally and nationally. Aptly called “the mother of the Texas battered women’s movement,” by the Texas Council on Family Violence, she has served on the boards of numerous domestic violence organizations, created a thriving private practice as a clinical social worker and became both a sought-after university lecturer and expert in working with men who have been abusers.
“I always think about that movie Pay It Forward,’’ says Myers of helping others the way strangers had assisted her all those years ago, such as the representative from a credit bureau who helped her get her own credit card despite her husband’s debt. “This person didn’t even know me but did something wonderful for me.”
Currently, Myers serves as vice chair of the National Center on Domestic and Sexual Violence and volunteers with the Houston-based teen violence prevention program “Love Shouldn’t Hurt.” She also devotes much of her energy to working with attorneys on domestic violence cases and training others to become expert witnesses. “Women are still getting convicted for defending themselves against their batterers and I hope we can find some way to intervene before battered women are charged,” she says. “This is my current passion.”
Beth Klein knew she wanted to be a lawyer at age 10 when she watched the biggest kid in her class bully one of her friends. “I was the smallest kid in our class and I stood up as tall as I could and said, ‘I’m gonna sue you,’’’ she recalls.
Klein went on to forge a prominent law career in Colorado dedicated to fighting all types of bullies, particularly those involved in human trafficking, slavery and prostitution. In 2010, the State of Colorado passed a law that she wrote which allows prosecutors greater powers to crack down on prostitution rings. Klein’s legislative prowess has attracted international attention, including from the Israeli government and currently, she’s representing young women and girls who were trafficked in Baghdad’s Green Zone. What keeps her passionate and motivated, she says, “is seeing kids that have been pulled out of trafficking who are [now] extremely strong and productive. That is, seeing and being a part of how lives are forever bettered.”
Recently named by More magazine as one of “50 Women You Want on Your Side,” along with Michelle Obama, Hillary Clinton and Oprah Winfrey,” Klein credits her fierce determination in fighting for women’s rights to having the mantra of “no fear. Most of us feed our fear and it keeps us from leading an extraordinary life,” she observes. “Two of the biggest fears I have had is looking stupid or not being good enough. When I quit thinking about how I look or worrying about being a loser…things change.”
Susan Josephs is a freelance writer based in Venice, Calif.