Alarm Bell! Emma out to stop abuse

JEWISH Women's Aid executive director Emma Bell raises awareness of domestic abuse within the Jewish community.

"A lot of women who talk to us will not have told anyone else and in many cases it is courageous to come to us as a first step," Emma said.

"We listen, we believe her, we understand her and accept her. We then work out their needs."

JWA runs a refuge for up to eight women and their children of every background and level of religious observance.

"Sometimes refuge is what they need most acutely to flee a situation," non-Jewish Emma said.

"On other occasions they will not be ready to leave a relationship, but talk through a situation they are facing.

"Then there are times when a relationship is not working over a period of time so we guide them through the legal process, and can offer help with benefits advice and housing.

"We can also help in the process of obtaining a get (Jewish divorce) as we have a rabbinical advisory panel for halachic guidance. We tailor services to each woman."

Emma, who grew up in north London, is the daughter of Sir David Bell and Lady Primrose Bell.

One of three children, she read history at Cambridge.

"My dissertation at A-level was on how women were treated on the home front during the First World War and I also wrote about the Suffragettes," she recalled.

"The Pankhurst sisters were inspiring in terms of the work they did on winning the vote.

"You could not imagine women now not having a vote, but at the time it was an issue that rocked the country."

Emma also studied the Nazi period.

"It made a great impression on me and I visited Poland," she said.

"I grew up with young Jewish people and my husband, Andrew, is from quite an Orthodox Jewish background.

"We met at university so I became more knowledgeable and aware of the issues through his family who were fine about him 'marrying out'.

"Neither of us are religious in any faith, but we are culturally aware of Jewish festivals."

Emma had taken a different route to many pupils at A-level by studying Russian and in years to come, her 'hunch' would herald a career path.

Prior to that however, her passion for women's rights developed as Women's Officer in her university days.

After graduating, Emma highlighted domestic violence in the former Soviet Union and eastern European countries for the Soros Institute in America before completing a fast track NHS management training scheme followed by a return to Russia with Medecins Sans Frontieres, where women's issues were again at the fore.

Three years on Emma returned to the UK where she campaigned on Russian human rights with Amnesty International.

After 18 years together, Emma and Andrew married, and had their first child. And a change of direction followed when Emma joined JWA.

"The job combined an interest in the Jewish community, a desire to provide a service that is specific and a broader issue I'm passionate about," she said.

"Domestic violence is not spoken about as it ought to be, given the numbers of women affected so it was a perfect opportunity."

A volunteer for National Domestic Violence, Emma was acutely aware of the issues from her work in eastern bloc countries.

JWA began through volunteers in Leeds with a national helpline for Jewish women facing domestic violence in the 1980s prior to becoming a national charity in London in 1992.

"We speak out to make people realise this should not be brushed under the carpet," Emma said.

"We have targeted work funded by BBC's Children in Need for children of clients who are often reeling from the impact of abuse on them.

"Even if children are not physically harmed they have seen the breakdown in their parents relationship so work through their feelings.

"This work is hugely appreciated by children and parents."

She added: "People say, we understand it's an issue for the rest of the country, but surely not in the Jewish community.

"And if you speak to a secular group, they say, surely it's just the Orthodox. It's only a problem for the charedi community. But the charedi community say, it's not our problem, it's Jews that are more assimilated.

'Everyone is trying to look for other people who have the issue, and that's a natural thing, but domestic violence cuts across every community."

All is not lost, however, as domestic violence is recognised in the Jewish community at the very top.

"Chief Rabbi Lord Sacks for the last few years on the International Day for Elimination of Violence against Women (November 25) has done a powerful Dvar Torah on the issue of abuse in Jewish homes," Emma said. "He has always been massively supportive.

"His kind of leadership helps people think this is not something we should hide. Domestic violence can only be tackled if it's out in the open."

Emma added: "Each year we see more women coming to us for help. In one way that is difficult because we don't want to think this is something that is getting worse.

"I firmly believe it is not getting more prevalent but it is encouraging people feel more able to seek help. There is increased awareness.

"My aspiration is that everyone experiencing a level of abuse in a relationship feels able to talk to a professional organisation and get support they need."

Jewish Women's Aid 0208 4458060. Free Phone Helpline 0808 8010500.

© 2013 Jewish Telegraph