Mission of Israeli activist: Helping marginalized women
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Mission of Israeli activist: Helping marginalized women

Israeli organization provides vocational training and other help to former prostitutes and other victims of gender-related abuse

Iris Stern Levi (Photo courtesy of Iris Stern Levi)
Iris Stern Levi (Photo courtesy of Iris Stern Levi)

Iris Stern Levi knows what social isolation feels like. The women’s rights activist, winner of the 2021 Rappaport Prize for women generating change in Israel, spent her first 18 years living on an island off the Australian continent.

“I grew up as the other,” said Stern Levi. Hers was one of the only Jewish families in Tasmania at that time. “I was different.”

Later in life that marginalization helped her relate to abused women — a group she has served for the better part of the last four decades. Today, she helps run Her Academy, a vocational school that helps rehabilitate former prostitutes and victims of gender-related abuse.

Stern Levi spoke on April 19 during a virtual session with the Rayah Fund, a program created by Barbara Burstin, a longtime faculty member in the history departments of the University of Pittsburgh and Carnegie Mellon University, that connects Israeli women and Israeli ideas with a Pittsburgh audience. Judy Hale, from the Pittsburgh Women’s Center and Shelter of Greater Pittsburgh, also spoke.

Stern Levi said her work in women’s advocacy started during the war in Bosnia and Herzegovina, while she was living with her partner in Amsterdam.

“Since the ‘90s, I’ve been talking about [women’s issues],” Stern Levi said. “I found people did not know of the war’s rape camps. The EU says 50,000 young girls were being kept in these camps.”

Israel presents a unique case when it comes to sexual abuse and prostitution, Stern Levi said. Prostitution was not made illegal in Israel until 2020, and she said the country had a high rate of sex trafficking in the 1980s. Things changed, albeit not as quickly as some would like, Stern Levi said, when the U.S. threatened to withhold aid if the sex trafficking continued in such numbers.

When prostitution was legal, Stern Levi spent nearly 20 years working for the Tel Aviv Sexual Assault Crisis Center. Welfare officials at that time estimated that one in three Israeli women had been raped, and one in five or 10 were incest survivors, she said.

“It’s mind blowing — why do we not hear these voices?” Stern Levi asked the Pittsburgh women attending the virtual session.

“At the bottom of the ladder, the women least being addressed … are women in prostitution,” Stern Levi said. “The #MeToo movement allowed women to say, ‘I am part of the statistics.’ But no one says, ‘I work in prostitution to pay the rent.’”

The group Her Academy allows abused women — trained by volunteers from various industries — to choose their own career paths, whether that’s secretarial work, bike maintenance or graphic design, Stern Levi said. It also dovetails its work with rehabilitation groups like Alcoholics Anonymous. Stern Levi says those who she meets through the organization are often indomitable.

“The women I meet are amazing — they’ve lived through these horrors,” she said. “Once you’re caught in this spider’s web, it’s very hard to get out.

“To be able to survive 10 to 30 clients a day — then, of course, you start with drug abuse or alcohol, etc.,” she added.

The daughter of a Holocaust survivor who was rescued through the Kindertransport, Stern Levi said she feels “all of us are traumatized” by the way the Jewish world was shaken by World War II. That also informs her unique perspective — and her sense of marginalization.

“We’ve all been brought up watching films of the Holocaust every year, seeing bodies being thrown into mass graves,” she told the Pittsburgh group. “Being the only person in my surroundings [in Tasmania] who was ‘one of them,’ I can understand the issue of being the other.”

Following the event, Burstin emphasized to the Chronicle how Stern Levi is such a “passionate defender” of marginalized women.

“She stressed that we must understand these women don’t do it because they want to, but because they have to and have no other means of making a living,” Burstin said. “Many enter prostitution at the age of 12 or 14, before they’ve really lived. She humanized these women and girls and sensitized us to their problems.” PJC

Justin Vellucci is a freelance writer living in Pittsburgh.

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