Lili Ben Ami, founder of the Michal Sela Forum, was in Vancouver last month to talk about how the forum works to save lives and combat domestic violence. (photo by Sid Akselrod)
“As Uber disrupted the transportation sector, Airbnb disrupted the tourism industry, and Facebook disrupted telecommunication, the Michal Sela Forum is disrupting the field of domestic violence,” said Adi Sofer Teeni, chief executive officer of Facebook Israel.
The Michal Sela Forum (MSF) is an Israeli nonprofit “dedicated to saving lives and combating domestic violence through innovation and technological solutions.” After Michal Sela was murdered by her husband, in 2019, Michal’s sister, Lili Ben Ami, founded MSF with the goal of saving the life of the next Michal.
Ben Ami was in Vancouver last month. She spoke on June 13 at an event presented by CHW (Canadian Hadassah-WIZO) at Beth Israel Synagogue.
“Michal was like a butterfly. No one could tell her what to do,” said Ben Ami. This resilience is symbolized by the butterflies in MSF’s logo, and through the organization’s core principles of out-of-the-box thinking, personal entrepreneurship and public awareness, she said. MSF’s goal is to achieve zero femicides per year and Ben Ami is confident that “it’s going to happen,” despite the primitiveness of current systems to fight domestic violence, through the application of available technological capabilities.
Ben Ami said that “in Israel, domestic violence support is characterized by old world tools,” highlighting the reliance on shelters, law enforcement and welfare centres – tools that have remained unchanged for 70 years. These reactive solutions do not break the cycle of domestic violence, agreed CHW chief executive officer Lisa Colt-Kotler. In her introduction to Ben Ami’s presentation, Colt-Kotler emphasized CHW’s shift away from immediate crisis support towards empowering victims with financial independence. CHW’s Safety Net program provides essential services such as counseling, resumé building and essentials kits for women. They also run holiday and summer camps for children of domestic violence survivors, providing women with an opportunity to continue working while their children are cared for at the camp.
In her talk, Ben Ami stressed that Israel has the technological capabilities to save lives, and that these capabilities must be applied to fight domestic violence. Each year, on Michal’s birthday, MSF organizes the Safe at Home Hackathon, a three-day-long technological event that brings together more than 600 software engineers to develop startups aimed at preventing domestic violence. Selected teams from the hackathon are invited to the Michal Sela Startup Academy, a three-month professional mentorship program in collaboration with Google. This program enables entrepreneurs to elevate their innovations and work towards implementing them.
Facilitating the creation of startups is a key focus of MSF – “we need 100 startups on the shelf for investors before we can reach our goal,” said Ben Ami. MSF aims to secure a venture capital investment of $10 million to expand and enhance their programs.
One such program is Michal Sela Canines, which provides women at high-risk of intimate partner violence with a dog for physical and emotional protection. The dog becomes a permanent part of the woman’s family and is given to her for life. The idea was proposed to Ben Ami by a local dog trainer who believes that, if Michal had had a dog on the night she was murdered, she likely would have been protected.
The canine project not only offers protection, but also aids in trauma healing for both women and children affected by domestic violence. Ben Ami reminded the audience, “all the women we protect are mothers.” By the end of 2023, 12 women and 48 children will be part of this program, she said. CHW recently funded a canine, named Maple, and they aim to fund at least five more dogs.
Michal’s Watch, another initiative, currently offers 130 women a security package designed to safeguard them from intimate partner violence. Developed in partnership with Israeli security experts at Shin Bet, Michal’s Watch equips women with a security camera, a panic button connected to emergency services, 10 self-defence lessons, and a cease-and-desist letter from a law firm against their attacker. Ben Ami described Michal’s Watch as an “iron suit” for women.
In addition to technological solutions, MSF is dedicated to educating the public on recognizing and addressing domestic violence. Ben Ami reflected that, in Michal’s marriage, although there was “never a black eye,” nor any visible signs of physical violence before the murder, there was emotional violence.
“The language of domestic violence is universal,” both for the victims and the aggressors, said Ben Ami. MSF collaborated with the best domestic violence experts in Israel to develop five international signals of identifying domestic violence. These signals apply to victims and aggressors, as well as friends and family of victims, and include behaviours such as obsessiveness, maintaining two-faced relationships, gaslighting, and intense overreacting. Graphics detailing these warning signs are publicized around Israel and on social media.
Ben Ami attributes MSF’s expansive growth and impact in only three years to Michal’s spirit – to “people who knew and loved my sister and wanted to help,” she said.
At the event was Ehud Lehavi, a Vancouver Jewish community member who knew Michal from a Scouts program in Israel. Lehavi has been involved with MSF since its early days. When asked, “Could you believe that, in three years, MSF has accomplished all this?”, Lehavi answered, “With any other NGO, no. But, with Lili, yes.”
Ben Ami said she has always been an activist, throughout her background in education and TV broadcasting. Colt-Kotler described her as a “trailblazer, a rockstar and a disrupter” and shared a story of taking Ben Ami to Costco upon arriving in Canada. At the store, Ben Ami was recognized and stopped by a woman who told Lili, “You saved my life.”
For more information, including on the warning signs of domestic violence, go to msf-global.org.
Alisa Bressler is a fourth-year student at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ont. She is an avid reader and writer, and the online director of the arts and culture publication MUSE Magazine. Bressler is a member of the Vancouver Jewish community, and the inaugural Baila Lazarus Jewish Journalism Intern.