Dorit, 45, who has turned to prostitution on and off since she was a teenager, knew she needed to find a new apartment. The massive amount of clothing and household appliances that she splurged on with the fast cash she made on the street hardly left enough room for her bed.
But without supportive family members or friends, the task of clearing out and selling these items — plus moving her stuff to a new place — seemed physically and financially impossible. But she knew that getting away from this baggage was key to continuing a rehabilitation course — one that taught her job skills and confronted her psychological issues.”
Dorit, who lives in Tel Aviv, Israel, asked that her real name not be used due to the sensitive nature of her story.
In December, a woman from Dorit's rehabilitation program worked with her on a Facebook post asking for assistance with the move. Within hours, several people Dorit had never met offered to lend a hand, and a few days later, these strangers were packing alongside her, transporting her things and painting her new rental.
“I really don’t know what I would have done without them,” Dorit said recently, adding that she's been able to make a fresh start, and so far, she has stayed out of prostitution.
The volunteers who came to Dorit aid are part of an Israeli, Hebrew-language Facebook group made up of women currently, formerly or trying to get out of prostitution, and other people who simply want to help. The group, called Lo Omdot Mineged, Hebrew for “Not Standing By Idly,” was started up jointly by Naama Goldberg, a self-described feminist, college instructor, doctoral candidate in gender studies, and a mother of three boys who lives near Tel Aviv, and Atar Artzi, a landscape architect and fellow feminist activist.
The group, now registered as a nonprofit organization, has provided support to hundreds of women — fulfilling requests for everything from groceries to clothing to raising money for an abortion when a woman got pregnant by a client. Most find out about the group through word of mouth.
“We don’t tell these women what to do; if someone wants help, she gets help, that’s it. ... We are all about action.”
“We don’t tell these women what to do; if someone wants help, she gets help, that’s it,” Goldberg explained. “We are all about action.”
Goldberg got the idea for the group after posting a request for donations on her personal Facebook page to help with university tuition payments for a former prostitute she met at a women’s rights rally in Tel Aviv. Within hours, the money was raised. So, Goldberg created Lo Omdot Mineged, thinking it would be a small forum for people willing to contribute in whatever ways they could. Now, it has more than 11,000 members all over the country.
“We never imagined it would be like this,” Goldberg said.
Israel's 'revolution' in managing prostitution
The group has grown at a time of stepped-up efforts in Israel to reduce prostitution and provide assistance to the 12,000 people in sex work across the country — 95 percent of whom are women — according to a recent government survey. In December, the government passed a long-awaited law criminalizing the buying of sex, imposing fines on those who hire prostitutes but not punishing the prostitutes themselves.
This makes Israel the 10th country worldwide to embrace this so-called Nordic model, which originated in Sweden, where it has been credited with reducing prostitution, although experts are still divided on its effectiveness. In 2014, the European Parliament also passed a nonbinding resolution backing the Nordic model, saying this approach gives dignity to women in prostitution.
Along with the bill, the Israeli government earmarked about $30 million to be spent over three years for increased social and rehabilitative services to help people leave prostitution and for educational programs for those caught hiring prostitutes.
“We have seen a complete change in the last decade in the way the government and society relate to this issue.”
“We have seen a complete change in the last decade in the way the government and society relate to this issue,” said Flavia Sevald, chief executive of the Jerusalem Institute of Justice, a nongovernmental organization promoting human rights and a member of the Coalition Against Prostitution in Israel, a group whose lobbying efforts have been credited with helping create the new law.
In a politically fractured country, the issue has also been one of few that unites the right and the left.
“We all put our egos aside and worked as a group,” said Idit Harel Shemesh, founder of the nonprofit organization Mythos, which raises public awareness about prostitution.
Even though the law does not come into effect until 2020, a drop in demand for paid sex has already resulted, and more women have contacted organizations to help them leave prostitution, as they see a threat to their source of income, Shemesh said. While these are widely seen as positive developments, she adds, some in prostitution also fear that their only source of income will be gone.
She says that more efforts are needed to help people transition out of prostitution, which is often a long and difficult process. The industry generates more than $300 million a year in Israel, according to a recent government study.
“It’s quite amazing to be part of this revolution in Israel,” said Reuma Schlesinger, former director of the Task Force on Human Trafficking and Prostitution, a project of the nonprofit Justice Works and a local law firm, which is also part of the Coalition Against Prostitution in Israel. “But it’s also more complicated than it seems when you go into the details.”
Transgender people are especially vulnerable, she says, as there are few social services aimed at them — and transgender prostitutes aren't as welcome by many nonprofits and charities that help females in sex work, according to Schlesinger.
Leaving prostitution takes 'enormous effort'
To get out of prostitution, it almost always requires addressing issues like mental health, including post-traumatic stress disorder, addiction and emotional challenges, in addition to often not having job skills or social and familial support needed to make a living on their own, said Lilach Tzur Ben-Moshe, founder of Turning the Tables, an Israeli nonprofit organization that teaches sewing, design, business and life skills to women who have left prostitution.
Many of the women in her program ended up in prostitution after a long chain of other challenges, including poverty, childhood abuse, addiction and estrangement from their families, all of which need to be addressed, she said.
“For these women, to leave prostitution, it’s like going from one world to another,” Tzur Ben-Moshe said. “It takes enormous effort.”
Groups like Turning the Tables have increasingly relied on Lo Omdot Mineged to find supplementary support like food and clothing for women they are helping. They see the Facebook group playing an even bigger role once the anti-prostitution law comes into effect, leaving many women with no choice but to seek help.
“It’s such a simple idea, but really a genius idea,” Tzur Ben-Moshe said. “And it has helped so many women in my program remain strong enough to stay in my program.”
Goldberg and her 12-member volunteer staff vets and approves each request for help, often posting it on Facebook under their names after getting private messages both from women in prostitution currently, or previously, and social workers or program representatives. In most cases, the volunteers and women in need don’t meet face-to-face. Instead, Lo Omdot Mineged makes anonymous arrangements to deliver food or other items.
“I need to make sure I protect the privacy and safety of both sides,” Goldberg said. “So, it’s usually a ‘Secret Santa’ type of transaction.”
Sometimes, however, face-to-face meetings occur when volunteers help people move or make a hospital visit, for instance.
“We have developed deeper relationships with many of them, and over time, they begin to open up and ask for more serious help, help in getting out of prostitution altogether,” Goldberg said.
One former prostitute recently credited the group with providing the support she needed last year to stop seeking clients in Tel Aviv’s central bus station. Knowing that there were people who would bring her food and listen to her gave her the strength to get sober.
“Thank you to everyone in the group, this is the first time in my life that I don’t feel scared. I know I always have a listening ear and that there are good people in the world."
“Thank you to everyone in the group, this is the first time in my life that I don’t feel scared. I know I always have a listening ear and that there are good people in the world,” she wrote, after describing how a violent sexual attack and attempted robbery was the incident that finally pushed her to reach out to her doctor and begin to change her life.
She also included a note to those in the group who are still in prostitution: “To anyone who reads this and wants to get out of the cycle, just say so, and you will be wrapped in love.”