Courtesy of the author and SVIVAH

What I Saw at the White House

Most everyone knows that I live in Washington DC. But in all my years living here, I’ve never been to the White House. Outside, sure. But never inside.

This week, for the first time, I went inside, at the invitation NCJW and the Office of the Vice President, to attend a hearing on conflict-related sexual violence and to watch a special screening of the 10/7 documentary, “Screams Before Silence.”

There were many spectacular people in that room. The Vice President. Global leaders and human rights activists. Leaders and advocates in the Jewish community. Experts in sexual violence and gender equity. Ambassador Deborah Lipstadt. Sheryl Sandberg. I got to spend the day with Dr. Guila Benchimol, one of our incredible educators and the fiercest advocate for survivors of gender harm.

But there were two people in the room who I couldn’t take my eyes off of. Two women, they happened to be dressed in white. A mother and daughter. And the daughter – I knew her face immediately like I would recognize a childhood friend. I saw her and felt I knew her.

Amit Soussana. One of the hostages who returned in November. Who publicly shared some of her experiences of sexual abuse while in captivity in Gaza.

For 259 days, these hostages have felt so horribly far away. Their distance at the root of our despair. And here I was, standing next to one of them! She was home! Alive! With her mother!

But seeing her in person – I don’t know why – it broke me. She was real. Really real. She was my height and she tapped her foot when she was nervous. I overheard her laugh about the DC weather. And her mother would not let her out of her eyesight for an instant. And all at once – everything I read, or watched, or heard about these hostages became realer than ever. My grief and fear was no longer for people far away, but for someone standing in front of me. It was so palpable, it was overwhelming.

“Slikhah,” I said. Excuse me. “Giborah shehlanu.” Our hero. Our brave one. And I put a hand on my heart.

I could only manage to get three words out to Amit before getting so choked up that I had to stop and walk away.

And that word felt so small and so wrong for everything that she is and was and went through and is doing now. And because it’s not who she wants to be. She just wants to be Amit. She doesn’t want to be “Amit Soussana, Survivor. Hero.” The one who is sharing her horrific story over and over and over again. “My recovery depends on the rescue of my sisters and brothers who are still there,” Amit said. “My wounds cannot even begin to heal as long as their suffering continues.” So she speaks. For them. Despite and because of what she went through, she speaks for them.

I sat behind the director, Anat Stalinsky, and watched Amit watch herself onscreen speaking in the “Screams Before Silence” film while Sheryl Sandberg put an arm around her and hugged her close. I watched Amit’s mom cry through the entire thing, eyes wide in pain. The realness of it all was, is, just too much.

This happened on Monday. It took me until now to be able to find words worth sharing with you.

We need to do something. All of us. It’s not enough to just be sad or angry. I need to have said something, done something, yelled something, anything. We owe it to them. We owe it to all women, everywhere and anywhere women are used as a tool of war. We have to speak up for them. Because they are us. Women victimized in conflict are targeted because they are women. And women are still being victimized today, right now. In Gaza and in so many places around the globe. This isn’t about politics. This is about women standing up for women, for ourselves. To not permit the world to use and abuse women as a tool of war.

One of the reasons why sexual violence in conflicts is so effective as a weapon is that it destroys the fabric of community. Through the shame of the victims. And guilt of family, friends, and community for not stopping it. And fear that it could be us next. It tears us away from each other – leaving us rattled and distant — at the precise moment we need each other most in order to heal.

That was me. My three silly words. And then I had to pull myself away. I pulled away when my heart knew it wanted to lean in and hug and hold and cry together with Amit, with her mom, with everyone around her in that room. But, I pulled away.

We cannot let this weapon work. We have to lean in and lean closer. We have to hold the survivors. We have to speak for the victims. We have to look around us in our own communities and support the survivors of prior traumas who are being retraumatized every single day.

So I’m going to ask you to lean in. I will, too. But we have to do something. It’s hard to feel like there’s any way to be useful, but we just have to find something and do it. Some (very) small suggestions:

🔹If you can handle it, watch the film, “Screams Before Silence.” I won’t lie. It’s hard. It’s very, very hard. So do not watch it if you can’t. Watch the trailer. Send it to someone else. Post about it on your social media to raise awareness of it. But bearing witness is something we can do. Telling their story so that they don’t have to; that’s something we can do.

🔹Read these two powerful articles from Dr. Guila Benchimol. This first one is directed at survivors in Israel. The other addresses survivors across the Jewish community who are feeling more alone than ever and who are reliving their own trauma in response to the new testimonies coming out, the news coverage, and the global denial that is taking place. Dr. Benchimol calls us all in – reminding us that survivors truly need community in order to heal. We have a role to play in the healing of others. This, too, is something we can do.

🔹Follow the work of NCJW and JWI in the area of advocacy against sexual violence as a tool of war, including JWI’s campaign #IBelieveIsraeliWomen

🔹Follow the work of Cochav Elkayam Levy and the Dinah Project and Professor Ruth Halperin-Kaddari who are working tirelessly to preserve the testimonies and evidence of the sexual violence that took place on 10/7.

🔹Support your local Jewish sexual violence resources. They are holding so many people right now. And they are understaffed and under-resourced. Help them do their sorely needed work. I’ll lift up JCADA, Za’akah, and Shalom Task Force – but there are others. Find them. Support them. Because they are supporting people we can’t.

6) Write, call, advocate – let people in positions of power know you care that this violence is ongoing and it needs to end – they need to come home. Let’s help Amit – help all of them — try to begin to heal.

Vice President Harris ended her remarks with a call to action that I’ll hold myself to. “We cannot look away and we will not be silent.” This is the opposite of that shame, guilt, and fear that are the weapons that destroy community. We must lean closer, we must hold each other, we must speak up for each other. Because the saying is true – violence against women is violence against all women. I am ashamed that it took this happening to women in my own community for me to wake up and realize how much more I need to do.

For the survivors I know. For the ones I don’t. For those of you who are reading this. For Amit. For those who are still in captivity. For survivors everywhere. I owe you more. Because I want to believe – no — I need to believe. That showing up, leaning in, speaking up, and reaching out with love and support plays some tiny part in healing this awfulness.

Thanks for listening, friends. This was hard.

Ariele Mortkowitz is the Founding Director of SVIVAH, an online Jewish women*s community reimagining what Jewish learning and pastoral support can look like.