Ahead of International Women’s Day on 8th March, JLife’s Evangeline Spachis spoke to Naomi Dickson, CEO of Jewish Women’s Aid about its vital work supporting Jewish women affected by domestic violence and abuse in the UK.
Hi Naomi! Can you tell us a bit about your connection to Leeds?
I lived in Leeds until I was 18 and then I went to university in Birmingham. My family have mainly all left Leeds and I have a couple of relatives there but my parents and siblings don’t live there anymore. I do sometimes go to the Jewish Women’s Aid volunteer group which is based there.
We hear that Jewish Women’s Aid (JWA) began in Yorkshire?
JWA’s roots are in Leeds. It was set up about 25 years ago by a group of social workers both in Leeds and London, and the Leeds group were very active in terms of establishing a helpline and we still retain a really strong core of volunteers who support us on our helpline and also do counselling and awareness raising for the organisation. Although we’re based in London, we’ve got a very strong support based in Leeds.
How did you initially get involved with Jewish Women’s Aid?
I started as a volunteer at JWA 17 years ago. My background is in housing and was managing large housing estates and supporting all the clients on the estates. I always had a caseload of women affected by domestic violence, so I phoned up JWA and asked if my skills would be any help to them and they said “yes please, come and help in the refuge”. It was fairly established at that point, and I supported from a volunteer point of view for a few years and then came to work at the organisation, managing the refuge.
After that I took over what was then called ‘awareness raising’ but then was developed into marketing and communications at the head office and since then I’ve been chief executive for just three and a half years.
So what are the JWA’s aims for 2018?
We’ve got two overall aims, the first one is to be here to support Jewish women and children affected by domestic violence and abuse, and the second is to educate and inform the community about domestic violence and abuse with the aim of preventing it happening in the future.
We are still seeing more and more women each year coming to us for support and two years ago we had about 70% sustained increase in women asking us for help and so we are busier than ever before. But what we’ve seen is an increased awareness in the community and an increased level of informed behaviour. Women feel more able to pick up the phone and that’s a national change.
It’s a highly pressured time for young people also. How do you support them?
We go into a lot of Jewish secondary schools regularly and talk to pupils about healthy relationships and we’ve been doing that for about 15 years.
In the last couple of years we reviewed what we had to offer pupils, students and young professionals and created what we call our ‘Safer Dating’ programme which aims at looking at abusive relationships and behaviour in the 16 to 25 age group, which we know has a higher than average probability of finishing up in abusive relationships. We work with JSoc, sixth forms, young professionals groups and chaplaincies to make sure we have programmes going into the right places.
What can we do to make sure these crimes reduce?
I think what is really vital for us is to reach everybody in the Jewish community and that they understand firstly that domestic violence and abuse does happen in the same proportions as the wider community and across the breadth of the Jewish community equally. Everybody that wants to should be able to access our training programmes and become better skilled at supporting and identifying women affected by domestic violence.
I would ask people to help us to encourage the community to be a place where it’s easy to come forward and seek support.
How important is it to have a domestic violence service specifically for Jewish women?
For a lot of the women we support, we find that their faith and Jewish culture is a source of comfort, and we would always make sure that we nurture that if that was important to the woman we were working with. The women who come to us often tell us that the fact that we understand their Jewishness is a real source of support.
Our priority is safeguarding and making sure that women are as safe as possible and that the risks they are facing are minimised. We work hand in hand with rabbis and leaders across the community and having women coming to us who have been ultra-orthodox or even women who might not be Jewish themselves but had a perpetrator that is Jewish so have a connection to the community.
What inspires you most about your job?
The bravery of women who are able to pick up the phone, sometimes after 20 or 30 years of systematic, controlling behaviour and abuse – that never ceases to amaze me, and it gives me goosebumps every time I speak to a woman who needs help. They’ve made the first, most important step and that’s a real testament to their bravery.
Do you think the #MeToo and #TimesUp campaigns will help your cause?
It’s early days yet. The conversation in the public is still happening and we’re still seeing things come out in Westminster and Hollywood. We’re [JWA] sitting here watching and waiting and my hope is that at the very least it gives women the strength to come forward.
If you have concerns, questions or would like someone to talk to, you can call the Jewish Women’s Aid freephone helpline on 0808 801 0500 for a confidential, sympathetic, non–judgmental discussion.