Trigger warning: mentions of rape, sexual violence and suicide
When Marva Zohar was a teen, she went on a spontaneous vision quest over Rosh Hashanah. “Frustrated and unable to find myself at synagogue, I went out to nature and yelled at the universe, ‘What am I here for? What is my purpose?’ but I didn’t get an answer for three days,” she told me.
On the third day of this quest, she awoke from a dehydrated stupor and envisioned creating a tent, which she later understood to be a version of Anita Diamant’s now famous “Red Tent.” That tent, which she put up in Nataf, outside Jerusalem, was a gathering place for women to come together and support one another. Still, Zohar felt pulled to find a sacred space for women in Judaism, one that was completely external to the patriarchal underpinnings of the religion.
Now Zohar, a poet, a public speaker and midwife, has founded AMEN: Land Where Women Heal, an eco-village where social workers and therapists provide holistic treatment to survivors of sexual violence. AMEN is more than a shelter: It’s a space that imagines how our society would look if everyone felt safe, regardless of gender. By creating space for survivors of sexual and gender-based violence to heal, AMEN hopes to heal the world.
AMEN grew out of that first tent Zohar erected. Now in its third year as a residential and outpatient facility, the organization is treating dozens of women who would otherwise be left without refuge. Zohar recently spoke with Hey Alma about recognizing the need for this movement, how it works and her vision for its future.
This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.
Can you describe your journey to creating AMEN: Land Where Women Heal?
It began with that initial gathering space. We had Rosh Chodesh gatherings, full moon gatherings, that kind of thing. Women came with all kinds of stories: fertility issues, painful sex, pregnancy loss or abortion, menopause. They were just being women. I was young, so I didn’t have any tools to help; all I could do was make them tea on the fire and listen. It was a beautiful space.
During that time, I was looking for a feminist Judaism to give me what I needed to be empowered and safe. I had a bat mitzvah, but my parsha was all about how women who are raped are either stoned to death or forced to marry their rapists. It left me feeling unable to see myself in the synagogue, in the traditional settings.
My journey to find what that meant took me around the world. I got certified as a doula, then as a midwife. I worked as a midwife in a Ugandan refugee camp, in the Amish community, in Colorado. I studied with Native American grandmothers, learning about indigenous healing practices. But it was only when I returned to Israel to attend university that it all came together.
Around that time, I had a boyfriend, and our relationship triggered my earlier trauma [of being gang-raped] as a child. I was experiencing extreme PTSD. I was still doing volunteer work, working, studying for two degrees at once, functioning at a very high level. But I was also completely falling apart. My life was in danger. I had dissociative episodes, was engaging in self-harm and eventually attempted suicide. At one point, I didn’t sleep for 21 days; every time I closed my eyes, I relived [that traumatic] experience.
During that time, I realized there were no places in Israel to help me, which was a slap in the face. Not only do we allow these atrocities to happen to so many people, but we also don’t make room for the pain. I was losing friends to suicide, friends who had also been hurt. One of my friends left a letter asking me to make sure that we had a place to heal, saying “this is what we need.” At that moment, I took a vow to do everything in my power to make it happen. I took my skills — activism, community organization, midwifery, crafting rites of passage — and began to create AMEN, the Land Where Women Heal.
What exactly is AMEN? How does it work?
Right now, the Land Where Women Heal is located in Kiryat Tivon, in northern Israel. It’s an eco-village where we host educational programs, rites of passage and healing circles. Within that, we have the residential trauma treatment program, which is a full-time residential program for people in acute crisis. These are women who would otherwise be institutionalized or dead. We accept all people who define themselves as women and are over 18 years of age. Some come with their kids. They can stay anywhere from three months to three years. It’s a pilot program, which is why we only have room for 12 women in the full-time residential program. There are 12 more who come for sporadic activities and 12 more in the graduate program, which is like a big sister program. The graduates connect with women who are beginning their process and help them through the phases of their recovery. Our pilot program has existed for three years. [During that time] we’ve had about 50 participants. At any given time, we have at least 200 women on our waiting list.
Why do we need an alternative way to treat survivors of sexual assault?
Part of my harsh education, and eventual disillusionment, was understanding the existing systems are actually in place to serve the existing paradigm and the dominant culture. Individuals within systems can be very kind and compassionate, but the system itself is really there to keep the wound silent — because once that wound [is recognized], the culture can no longer exist as it is today.
It’s important to practice believing that change is possible. Sexual violence, gender-based violence, these aren’t laws of physics. They’re not God-given. It’s actually insane to accept that we’re supposed to live in fear, afraid of our power, afraid to walk alone at night, afraid to go to public bathrooms alone. We can do better. I believe that it’s time for systems to change, to heal this wound.
I was admitted to a psychiatric hospital during the worst of my PTSD; there was no place like AMEN back then, of course. On my very first day, the nurse told me, “If you cry, we’ll put you in a closed ward.” My doctor said, “I have no choice but to physically restrain you.” I attended a group session where I was told not to discuss sexual violence because it wasn’t not appropriate. Why was I being threatened and treated with violence when my body, soul and psyche were just expelling the toxic waste of my deepest wound? Why was I removed from the community, put in a place where my credibility and sanity were in question?
At first, I thought my experience was anecdotal, but the more that it happened to me and to others, the more it became clear that this was systemic. I wrote a whole book of poetry about it and, during my writing, I saw how there was no place, no budget and no will to prosecute these crimes. The Minister of Health told me, “Surely you understand that I can’t work on this issue due to the immodesty of it”; the Minister of Internal Affairs told me that his budget is dedicated to national security. What does security even mean if my friends are committing suicide left and right, if we’re being raped and nobody is taking care of us?
How does your connection to Judaism inform your work?
During my journey, when I went around the world seeking wise women, I learned about the Celtic Wheel of the Year and the Native American Medicine Wheel. Some time later, I realized that there’s a connection between our four foremothers (Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel and Leah) and the four directions on the Celtic and Native American wheels. It all came together for me in that way [and remains] part of what we practice at AMEN. Spirituality is a huge part of what we do; it’s a huge part of what gives us resilience. Women who come to us may have lost trust in the universe, in the world, in their higher power. Rediscovering that trust is part of our program.
We take ancient wisdom and use it to create rituals and healing processes. Once, we held a grieving ritual in central Tel Aviv to make room for the grief and loss of the wounds of patriarchy and violence. People off the street joined us — moving through that grief and connecting to joy and community is so important to what we do and so inherent to our spiritual practice. When we, as a community, can connect to those higher parts of ourselves, we can have the resilience to go through the hardest moments of life.
This conversation is already changing people’s attitudes, perspectives, stories, conversations, language — I see it making a difference.
Now, we’re working on the next phase, which is a bigger village in Israel, but I believe every single state and province in the world needs a Land Where Women Heal. It’s a land where we’re healing from something, but also where we can go to heal the world of toxic masculinity. We’re learning how to take self-violence and turn it into sacred rage that can then move mountains. It’s alchemy: taking wounds and turning them into medicine, taking pain and turning it into power and leadership, taking that sword that you’ve swallowed and turning it into a pen. The wound of patriarchy is one of scarcity, separation and helplessness. We’re turning that into abundance, connectivity and the power to do something about it.