by Harvey Shepherd
In 21 years as executive director of the Auberge Shalom pour femmes, Diane Sasson did much to transform the mission of the centre and public understanding of conjugal violence from a narrow focus on physical violence to something broader and deeper. Sasson retired early this year.
Auberge Shalom was founded in 1989 by the Montreal section of the National Council of Jewish Women in the aftermath of the killing in Dollard-des-Ormeaux of Donna Kertzer Rose, whose commitment to traditional Jewish values is thought to have deterred her from seeking help from existing agencies.
For her efforts and those of the centre on behalf of abused women of diverse cultures and religions, Sasson was one of seven people or groups whom the YMCAs of Quebec honoured with Peace Medals on September 21, an International Day of Peace, as “exceptional people who are making our society more peaceful.”
In the words of the YMCA: “For the last 21 years, Diane Sasson has been at the helm of the Auberge Shalom as it transitioned from a shelter for women who are victims of domestic violence to a centre offering a range of programs that aim to stop the intergenerational cycle of abuse and to heal wounds that violence has inflicted on children, women, families and communities.
Diane Sasson has also worked closely with governments, public and para-public agencies, the police force, media, religious communities and many other groups and organizations to raise awareness and educate people about the impact of domestic violence on women and children.”
The centre keeps the location of its shelter and an associated counselling centre confidential. The postal address is a box in the Snowdon post office. The website has a special icon you can click to exit quickly if your abuser is about to enter the room. The shelter helps arrange other resources for women who live nearby,
considering a chance encounter with an acquaintance or even an abuser to be too high a risk.
The shelter and its four counselling staff remain a key part of the Auberge Shalom. The shelter, which takes in about 80 women and their children a year (67 women and 43 children in the year ended last March 31). The average stay is 36 days.
Most of the the women were referred by SOS Violence Conjugal, an umbrella hotline, or other agencies. Nine women last year found the centre themselves, perhaps with the help of its website aubergeshalom.org or hotline 514-731-0833. Fifteen of the women eventually went back to the men they fled, while five were still in the Auberge on March 31. The other 38 found alternative housing.
“Violence can be emotional, physical, psychological, sexual, financial. A victim can be put down, isolated, insulted and trapped,” Sasson said. “Over 20 years we have developed different services to help women go ahead from being put down with no self-esteem. At first they just need justice but farther down the road they need to move to a new concept.”
The newer focus is reflected by a counselling centre, with four counsellors, that opened at its confidential location in 2002, seven years after Sasson arrived. In the year ended last March it counselled 106 women and 23 children, including 21 women and seven children who had been in the shelter. Forty-seven of the women were born outside Canada in any of 26 countries, although by the time they came to the counselling service all but about 20 were among the 85 Canadian citizens counselled over the year. Ninety-three of those counselled were Anglophones and five Francophones and the other eight had other first languages.
The origins of Auberge Shalom and its roots in the Jewish community have a big, but subtle, effect on it, even though only a minority of those who seek its help are Jewish.
Jewish women represent 20 per cent of the residents of the shelter and 40 per cent of the clients for counselling, Sasson said, although most of the residents of the shelter were Jewish at the time she retired.
Sasson said there is a strongly observant counsellor on the staff who pays special attention to issues facing Jewish clients, including those with strong religious commitment.
The counsellor works to build trust with rabbis and other orthodox community leaders, who are often inclined to think family difficulties should be ironed out within the community. Sasson said this is something traditional Jewish communities have in common with other traditional religious and ethnic communities, also represented among the women served by the centre.
But she said the actual abuse reported by Jewish women is similar to that reported by other women. She said the same is true of Muslim women. But religious
traditions in general have no monopoly on abuse; the stories of secular women abused by secular partners can also be harrowing.
Rabbi Michael Whitman of the Hampstead Orthodox synagogue Adath Israel advises the centre on questions regarding Judaism. Among other things, he helps oversee the kashrut of the home (the regulations regarding kosher food). All food at the shelter, for residents whether they are Jewish or not, is kosher. He also is available for residents and other clients interested in obtaining a “get,” the religiously required consent of the husband to divorce required if a woman is to
remarry within Orthodox Judaism.
Sasson’s term as executive director was also marked by the development of counselling services for the children of shelter residents, to ward off the danger that what they had seen could lead to the girls’ becoming victims and the boys’ becoming abusers in later life.
In her last message in the Auberge Shalom annual report, Sasson said the centre had set out some priorities including adjusting clinical services to serve more diverse needs, such as a new support group for adults who witnessed conjugal violence as children.
“We have dreamt of where we want to go and of what we want to accomplish with the ultimate goal of offering our support and care to all women and children who have made the courageous choice to end the violence in their lives,” Sasson said.