Sara came to Israel from the Netherlands and married an Israeli non-believer. He abused her for many years, but the Messianic congregation she attended wouldn’t allow her to get divorced. She and her children suffered for many years. It reached a point where one of her three sons committed suicide. She started to suffer from psychosomatic diseases because of her difficult situation. Six years ago she turned to the Messianic organization “Machaseh” who helps battered women. They helped her to get out of the situation and get divorced. Many years later, she met a man who was caring and loving and wanted to marry her and help her heal. But her Messianic congregation forbade her to remarry. She married the man, anyway, and many of her old friends cut contact with her, labeling her a sinner.
I am hearing this story from Lena Levin, the CEO of Machaseh, as she shares this and many other gruesome stories that she has encountered within the body of Messianic believers in Israel through her work. “Why did this congregation feel that it was necessary to add to her suffering?” she laments. “This woman had been suffering years of physical and sexual violence. She lost one of her sons to suicide. Then, when she finally finds this one glimmer of hope, the congregation tries to take it away from her.” Lena looks me in the eyes and says, “Sara wrote a letter to the congregation, expressing her pain and suffering, and there was one sentence that stood out to me there.”
“We have turned ‘the Family’ into an idol.”
Levin speaks with a passion about the work of her organization. There is a problem, maybe even a type of “honor culture” within the Messianic society, she says. If someone suffers, we often care less about them and more about the nice facade. We want them to be the perfect happy family, and we ignore evidence to the contrary. We are afraid of anything that can hurt our image. This is why these subjects are so taboo. “Yet, these things happen. We have dealt with hundreds of cases,” she says.
In one case, a leader in a Messianic congregation had been sexually abusive, and driven his wife to contemplate suicide. He replied to the accusations that “she is my wife, her body belongs to me.” In another case, someone beat his wife and broke furniture when she asked to separate, because she didn’t “have any right to separate from him.” The woman who experienced this didn’t even have anyone to turn to, as the Messianic congregation backed the man, since “God hates divorce.”
But despite all these stories, Levin also says that she sees changes. Most leaders in the congregations have a heart to help. “Many leaders try to keep the problem within the walls of the congregation. They send warning letters and try to deal with the issues internally, but they often lack the training. It just adds to the culture of silence. Yes, as believers we are called to forgive, but when we forgive unrepentant perpetrators, we are hurting their victims. Many women and children have left the faith because they feel that no one listens to them. They have no one to turn to. That’s why pastors and leaders need to learn to take the side of the one who suffers. Praise to God, we have seen great progress in that field during the past few years. Pastors have started to turn to us for help when they have difficulties dealing with a situation.”
Machaseh was founded by Levin in 2005 to help battered women in Messianic congregations, but they have also expanded their work to the wider society. They also work within the Arab and Palestinian sector, as well as with the Jewish ultra-orthodox. The state-funded social services will sometimes send people to them that are not eligible to receive state-funded help. Sometimes they are not citizens, and their residential status is depending on the violent spouse. A divorce in that case could also mean deportation.
In 2019, Machaseh and Caspari center started “the taboo forum,” a discussion panel intended to address topics we often prefer to avoid. The first panel was in November 2019 and dealt with domestic violence. The next one will take place on January 28th and will deal with suicide. On February 25th the topic of divorce in the congregation will be broached.
One goal of these discussion forums is to have leaders in congregations hear these stories, discuss them, and have plans of action. “Ultimately,” Levin says, “we want congregations to take the side of the victim in these situations, so that people in Sara’s situation will be helped rather than condemned by their congregations.” The forum included a Catholic priest and Messianic leaders, both charismatic and less charismatic, to discuss these topics that occur in all congregations, no matter the theology.
Machaseh also organizes meetings for women called “Girls of Jesus,” where women come from different backgrounds and cultures. There they can share their own truth, without any kind of spiritual pressure or theological bias. “Because often,” Levin says, “what we see on the outside is not what’s happening on the inside. And what prevents us from being free is the silencing and the taboo culture surrounding these topics.”
Machaseh also has training programs for congregations, as well as secret apartments for battered women. “Just today we have a woman and her five children moving secretly to one of these apartments,” Levin says. “It’s on the other side of the country from where she lives, because it is dangerous for her to stay home.”
Machaseh has published a book which they have sent out to forty congregations in five languages. Hebrew, Arabic, English, Russian and Amharic. One Messianic leader said that his eyes were opened when he read the book.
Long-term, silence is never good,” Levin notes. “Jesus says that the truth shall set us free. We need to tell the truth as it is, without fear. At the forum in November, one pastor said something beautiful – he said that we must dare to expose the truth even if it hurts our reputation, or the way others perceive us. Problems will not go away by silencing them.”
(Names and some details in the stories have been changed to protect their privacy).