5 March 2019
Cassie Barrett interviews Yael Hersham
March 8 marks International Women’s Day. First emerging from the labour movements across Europe and North America in the early 1900s, International Women’s Day today is celebrated in many countries around the world. It is a day to highlight the achievements and contributions of women – whilst acknowledging the immense work that is still required to achieve true gender equality.
This International Women’s Day, Team Leader of Healthy Communities Cassie Barrett sat down with women’s advocate and Jewish Care volunteer Yael Hersham to discuss her reflections from years of work at the frontline of women-oriented services.
You are an incredibly active and passionate volunteer, both within the Jewish community and more broadly. Tell us a little about your current roles.
I’ve been fortunate to work with some amazing organisations. At the moment I volunteer one day a week with WIRE, the Women’s Information and Referral Exchange, answering phone calls from women seeking support with a whole range of issues, from employment to financial violence to financial literacy. One day a week I volunteer at the Moorabbin Family Court as a Court Networker providing support, information and referral. As I am there on a day where family violence matters are being heard, I am mainly supporting those who are attending for intervention orders. I also co-chair Unchain My Heart alongside Susie Ivany OAM, which was set up in 2014 as a coalition of Jewish women’s organisations. Our purpose is to advance the social welfare of Australian Jewish women by promoting the successful resolution of agunot*.
And you still find time to volunteer at Jewish Care!
Yes! I recently completed Jewish Care’s Yesod program, which teaches governance foundations for not-for-profit organisations. Participants have the opportunity to sit in the monthly subcommittee meetings, which gives a great insight. I also volunteer with the Healthy Communities team, particularly around family violence education and capacity-building – I really enjoy being able to collaborate with you Cassie!
The majority of your roles relate to women-oriented spaces or advocacy. Was there anything in particular that drew you to this work?
Initially I was contacted by someone in the community to ask if I was interested in joining the Jewish Taskforce Against Family Violence. I thought it sounded interesting but I wasn’t sure exactly what I had to offer. In the past I’d volunteered with a range of organisations – in schools, parents’ associations and so on – but I found it quite daunting, as at the time I didn’t have a great deal of knowledge about family violence.
So to prepare me for that role I completed a training course at WIRE. And that was really the moment. That training – my eyes were just completely opened. To feminism, to gender inequality, the impact of violence. Issues that until then I had been quite protected from.
That training really brought up a lot of situations from the past that I had just pushed to the back of my mind. Quite nasty episodes that, now I had the language to describe them, I could frame in a different way.
It really brought me back to my younger years – to those experiences that I think a lot of women go through, without even necessarily realising it.
When I was an economist working in Israel, my boss just harassed me constantly. Initially I thought he was just overly friendly, a bit ‘sleazy’. He made me uncomfortable. I didn’t really have language to name what was going on. Over time it became more overt. Eventually it got to the point where – well, I used to travel daily from Jerusalem to Tel Aviv, and he would insist on taking me to and from work as he lived nearby. He would be driving the car, a senior colleague sitting next to him, and he would reach into the backseat and try to stroke my leg. He was the kind of man who wouldn’t miss davening mincha*, but didn’t think twice about making sleazy advances or trying to trick me into ‘visiting’ him at the family home on a ‘work-related matter’ while his wife was away.
I just didn’t know what to do. There was no one to complain to; my boss held a very high position in the bank (he reported directly to the Managing Director) and I didn’t want to lose my job. I loved my work, it was a great role with lots of responsibility – and I think he preyed on that. He knew he could keep me quiet. There were other men in the organisation who were complicit in this too – they would make sleazy jokes or exchange knowing smiles. Make comments that alluded to the boss’s “fondness” for me. It was this unspoken acknowledgement of what was going on. It was just revolting.
Eventually I started making up stories so I could avoid having to travel with him – I would lie and say I was staying over with friends in Tel Aviv, or walk to a particular bus stop even though it was much further away, because I knew he wouldn’t drive past. Anything to avoid having to sit in a car with him. The behaviour stopped only when I started dating my husband.
I had pushed all of this to the back of my mind but even now I can remember so clearly the feeling of powerlessness, of vulnerability.
A year after I married, we moved to London and I took an internship at Merrill Lynch. Sexism was very embedded there too. I was very skilled but mostly they had me do the photocopying.
So, none of the male interns had to do photocopying?
No! (laughs) Even though I was more qualified than quite a few of them. It was seen as “women’s work”. I didn’t last very long there!
It can be really hard to speak up in the moment, when those things happen …
Absolutely. If it were a girlfriend of mine who was experiencing this, I’d have been livid! But it’s really hard to know what to do in that moment when it’s you.
I think – I just always let the jokes slide. Always. You would fast get a reputation as a ‘killjoy’ if you didn’t. I didn’t want to be known as that girl who ‘couldn’t take a joke’.
Do you look back on that time differently now?
Oh, yes. WIRE just opened up my mind completely to what I had experienced – I could name it, give language to it. It helped me make sense of things I had witnessed others experience in terms of their relationships. It really struck a chord with me – thinking of people I knew, husbands who were really controlling or spoke dreadfully to their wives. I had always known it didn’t feel respectful or okay but now I had a framework and a language to understand it.
It’s really empowering. I’m not scared of being that girl anymore. To sit and feel very comfortable in your skin, to feel confident and at ease calling out poor behaviour when you see it – it’s so empowering. It really fired me up.
From there it opened up a whole new world and I wanted to keep learning, to soak up all this knowledge. I would be drawn to certain things on social media – feminist websites, articles and books and so on. I did some more training with organisations such as the DVRC (Domestic Violence Resource Centre) and CASA (Centre Against Sexual Assault), the Women’s Legal Service, which all had a really strong gender lens.
And from then volunteering as a phone support worker at WIRE, actually sitting on the calls with women and listening to their experiences – starting to understand just how many women were out there, just trying to get through the day – living in or trying to escape a violent relationship. Or those who hadn’t even been able to identify yet that what they were experiencing was family violence. They just knew they didn’t feel safe.
What is it like, when you’re able to help a woman to name that for the first time?
It’s a really powerful moment. I was struck by how many women had engaged with the system – they’d been to a family lawyer, to a counsellor or mediator – and yet no one had ever used the words ‘family violence’.
A lot of women will minimise it. Like at Court when someone rolls up their sleeve and shows me the bruises, and brushes it off with “oh, it wasn’t so bad this time.” It’s heartbreaking.
It’s opened up a whole world of understanding about the complexities of human relationships. It’s not black and white. You can’t just say “you need to leave him” when there are so many factors – financial abuse, worrying about the children, the risk of violence escalating if she tries to end the relationship.
Working at WIRE has really impacted me. I love being part of this community of women – it’s a whole organisation who are just there to help other women, in a range of different ways. It’s a really great space.
There’s something special about that feeling of women supporting other women, isn’t there? It’s so powerful.
Unchain My Heart is the same. It was set up as a coalition of Jewish women’s organisations; I initially came to it via the Jewish Taskforce. In the early days I didn’t realise the extent of issues relating to agunot. I knew of some women who had been through the experience of having to go to great lengths to get a get*. Well – it was extortion, really. Being denied access to children, having to pay enormous amounts of money, etc. – all so their ex-partner would finally grant them a religious divorce.
Again, for me, it’s the power of the women in the committee that is so impactful. There’s no agenda, no ego; the only aim is to help women. They are all focused and united on the end goal. I love that.
Do you notice a difference in the dynamic in women’s-only leadership spaces compared to mixed-gender groups?
I think it depends on the group. The Yesod program gave me a glimpse of Jewish Care leadership at the board level, for example, and it felt very equitable. Men spoke to women equally. Women’s input and participation was valued. Everyone’s voice was heard. It was great.
But I know there are other spaces where it’s not like that – where women are barely visible, or included only in a very tokenistic way.
Or mansplaining abounds?
We had some guest speakers in Yesod who talked about gender equity at board leadership level, applying a feminist lens to the workplace – I think that was really important.
Speaking of feminist …
International Women’s Day was first celebrated in the early 1900s. We’re well over a century on from the early women’s rights movements, from first-wave feminism – and yet for many it still seems such a loaded term.
I know a lot of older women who really proudly and firmly state that they’re not a feminist.
Not just older women – I know plenty my age and younger who happily declare they aren’t feminists.
Honestly, I don’t think they understand what feminism means.
What does it mean to you?
To me, it’s basic. It distils down to women having the same opportunities – in the workforce, in life – as men. It’s about acknowledging the barriers that exist to women accessing those opportunities in the first place.
It’s about equality. It’s about looking at your daughter and your son, and believing that they both have equal right to pursue whatever it is that they want to achieve.
Speaking of daughters and sons – you have two of each.
For years I found it hard to identify as a stay-at-home-mother. I struggled with that and almost apologised for it when I was introduced to new acquaintances. We had three kids under 18 months at one point – twins – and then our fourth. I felt like – like my personality had been diminished in some way.
Our children were born overseas, we were in a new country, and suddenly I wasn’t known as Yael anymore – I was ‘David’s wife’. I identified myself as a wife and mum, and my role and my importance were defined by my relationship to them. And I feel very happy looking back at having spent that time with my children, I feel a great sense of accomplishment knowing I was there for them – but throughout that time, who I was had really taken a backseat. That whole awakening of going to WIRE was the start of getting ‘me’ back.
When you’re in the thick of it, the parenting of small children – it’s hard, it’s really hard. I heard a wonderful speech by Dr Tovah Lichtenstein where she talked about the ‘double-bind’ and that really resonated for me. I know there were sacrifices – certainly in terms of my professional life – and it wasn’t something we really discussed; it just happened. But knowing there would be a time that would come where I could engage with my passions and do things for me – that was important.
At this stage of my life I’m finding this really satisfying. Really satisfying. I have so many tools at my disposal, things I’ve learned through the WIRE model and training for Court Network. I love getting to use them, being able to open up conversations. There’s always something to learn, and I love that.
And what a wonderful thing to be able to show your children – that parents can have a life and passions beyond their role as ‘Mum’, and that it’s okay to pursue that.
For me, continuing to learn from our Jewish texts was very important. I missed that, I missed the sense of accomplishment that comes from acquiring new knowledge. Finding a shiur* group was really important – I study weekly with a group of women under a wonderful teacher, Michal Kaufman, who is head of the Midrasha at Mizrachi. We meet every week and dedicate time to learning.
Some of us went recently on a learning trip to Israel, and it was so liberating. People were flabbergasted that I could go away and leave my husband and kids to fend for themselves (laughs). It felt very selfish. Actually, no, it felt decadent – it was liberating each morning knowing that there was a whole day ahead of us focussing purely on religious study. It was a privilege to meet and study under women who are the current trailblazers in Jewish textual study – until more recently that space was solely a male domain.
If I want my children to go on learning, to see it as a lifelong pursuit, then I need to role-model that – just like their father does. It’s important. When we look around the world and see how under-represented girls are in education, when we see how many miss out on that opportunity… it feels really important to me, to keep learning throughout life – irrespective of age or gender.
What do you hope for your daughters, going out into the world as women?
I’d love for them never to experience discrimination on the basis of their sex. I’d love them never to be the butt of a smutty joke. I’d love them never to think they should just let something go because it might reflect badly on them to call it out. I don’t want them to be afraid to be ‘that girl’. That girl is great.
For them to be comfortable in who they are. To find partners who respect them no matter what their choices. I hope that they’ll have healthy and loving relationships. And for my boys, I want exactly the same.
In the push towards gender equality we talk a lot about empowering women, but there are opportunities in how we treat boys too.
How we construct masculinity in our society – the rigid narrow view we hold around what it means to be ‘a real man’, it’s so problematic. You only need to look at the reactions to the recent Gillette advertisement to see that.
Do you think it’s important to raise feminist sons?
Absolutely. It’s so important to be conscious of what we are teaching our sons. Being mindful of the language you use in the household. How we as parents model equal and respectful relationships. I’m constantly checking my sons’ language, making sure that the way they talk about people is respectful.
And letting them know that it’s okay to be sensitive too! That it’s okay to express one’s feelings, to understand the power of conversation with friends, to share our burdens… We let boys down when we tell them that being tough and strong is the only acceptable way to be a man.
What do you think are the greatest challenges facing women today?
The under-representation of women – in politics, in leadership, in board positions, in CEO roles. Greater inclusion of women’s voices – that’s what we need. I hope to see the day when the idea of women in leadership is entirely unremarkable – it’s just the norm.
Do you see any particular barriers or challenges for the Jewish community?
I believe there is such an important role for women in our community. Often women are in the frontline volunteering and/or in low paid jobs where their opinions aren’t given the same consideration as men in the very same organisation. Women will often defer to men as the ‘experts’ even when the men’s decisions are impacting on the way they conduct their daily lives.
There are strong messages in our community on how ‘good girls’ should behave – so much so that for example a girl who is subjected to sexist comments by an older male often won’t know how to deal with it. She has been brought up to respect her elders from a young age and lacks the vocabulary to call out the misogyny.
I hope to see more women in leadership roles and mentoring younger women just as in the wider society. Looking through the family violence lens, I wish for anyone to have the ability to ask for assistance within our community without fear of judgement or stigma. I hope for a time where the issue of Agunot will be an historical issue, as solutions will have been found.
Finally, if you could talk to your younger self what would you say?
I’d tell myself to use my voice. To have the confidence to assert myself. To stop saying ‘sorry’ so much. You don’t need to apologise for taking up space in the world.
Yael Hersham is a volunteer with the Healthy Communities team at Jewish Care and a recent graduate of the Yesod board foundation program. Yael has extensive experience working in sectors related to women’s advocacy and family violence, both within the Jewish community and more broadly. In addition to her role at Jewish Care, Yael volunteers with the Women’s Information and Referral Exchange providing telephone support and as a Court Networker at the Moorabbin Family Court. Yael is also the co-Chair of Unchain My Heart, a not-for-profit organisation who advocate for and support women affected by get refusal.
Agunah: a woman whose has been refused or denied a divorce by her husband, and under Jewish law remains “chained” to her marriage
Davening mincha: Jewish afternoon prayers
Get: a Jewish divorce document, which must be presented by the husband
‘Mansplaining’: a colloquial term used to describe the explanation of something by a man, usually to a woman, in a way that is regarded as condescending or patronising
Shiur: a lesson/study session focused on Jewish learning.
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