To some women, fashion is a hobby. To others, it is a means of survival.
For a small group of Israeli prostitutes in Tel Aviv and Haifa, it has become a lifeline with the help of the NGO Turning the Tables, which has run a fashion school since 2011 that enrolls 100 such women annually.
The fashion school, Yotsrot Atid, which translates in English to “creating a future,” is designed to help women build self-esteem through creativity.
For Anya, an immigrant from Russia whose name has been changed to protect her privacy, learning to sew meant escape from her daily life as a prostitute.
“I didn’t know anything… I didn’t want to learn anything. I didn’t want to learn to sew,” said Anya, now 57, on her mental state when she first encountered Turning the Tables after hearing about it from a friend.
The organization’s founder, Lilach Tzur Ben Moshe, said most women find Turning the Tables through word of mouth.
Anya explained that economic downturn pushed her out of her home country. Once in Tel Aviv, with no family for thousands of kilometers, she fell into prostitution. After several suicide attempts, she enrolled in Yotsrot Atid.
“I was in the market and didn’t have another option. I said, I’ll try and we’ll see,” Anya said. “I feared God. I had no security.”
Sporting a bold bleached bob, bright blue eyeliner, and a genuine smile, Anya was one of the only women left in the studio after the Yotsrot Atid graduation ceremony last month, working overtime on matching sweat suits for her grandchildren.
Alongside Anya was Maryam, 27, adding the finishing touches to an asymmetrical denim dress. Maryam’s vision was to create the “dress of a Neanderthal,” she said. She was inspired by the combination of the modern and the old: a mass-produced material and a rudimentary, rugged style.
All of the Yotsrot Atid women recently worked on denim garments, a project that is a partnership with the sustainable fashion brand Comme il Faut, Tzur Ben Moshe explained. The women will present their denim pieces at a fashion show this fall, and the garments will be for sale.
At the graduation ceremony, dozens of women of varying ages and ethnic backgrounds packed the courtyard of the studio, where the Tel Aviv heat smelled of perfume and fresh food made by volunteers.
Tzur Ben Moshe called the names of the women in attendance, greeting each one with a diploma and a hug. Every woman called up was smiling from ear to ear, and every called name was met with cheers and applause.
A woman sat in the front row with a smiling baby girl in her arms, her long pink nails matching the bow in her child’s hair. Women from around the courtyard beelined to coo at the baby.
“We have women who are single women; we have mothers; we have grandmothers; sometimes we have a few generations,” said Leemor Segal, the organization’s resource development manager.
A stack of unclaimed diplomas at the ceremony’s end stood as a stark reminder of the difficulty of exiting the cycle of prostitution.
The struggle of exiting the cycle of prostitution
The Welfare Ministry counted 14,000 active prostitutes in 2018, a number that organization leadership said they believe barely scratches the surface. The same inquiry found that the average lifespan of a prostitute is 46 years old.
“I think we’ve seen about 3,000 women in prostitution,” explained Segal, a psychotherapist by training. “They have gotten into prostitution as a result of abuse, that was not only not addressed and treated, but many times it was twisted,” said Segal, adding that many women she has encountered have been indoctrinated to believe there is no alternative life for them but one as a victim.
TZUR BEN MOSHE was inspired to establish the organization after she spent time living in Tel Aviv’s Central Bus Station area, known as one of Israel’s hubs of prostitution. Segal called the neighborhood a “meat market.”
In the area, drug abuse runs rampant. Sleazy businesspeople roam the streets looking to take advantage of women in prostitution, thereby tightening the shackles of debt and taking women further from the financial freedom that would allow exit from the industry.
“A man comes, and in the trunk of his car, he has perfume and bags…. So she buys at the end of the shift. They’re waiting for them there,” Tzur Ben Moshe said, adding that shady street loans also play a role in perpetuating debt.
“We have women here who were abolished of debts of hundreds of thousands of shekels. This process, it’s not easy, but we don’t give up,” Segal added.
Turning the Tables helps women alleviate debts through regimented financial plans, a model established in collaboration with the Justice Ministry.
Only in 2020 did the government officially prohibit the use of prostitution services.
The current law text offers two punishments for its breach: fines, which double in amount for each repeated offense, or rehabilitative classes designed to prevent repeat offenses by addressing addiction to commissioning sexual services.
A weakened prostitution industry might be positive in theory, but it leaves some women without the only livelihood they know, however abusive, according to Tzur Ben Moshe and Segal. So, after pressure from NGOs, the government began to invest in anti-prostitution organizations.
One of those is Turning the Tables, which currently partners with the National Insurance Institute to provide prostitution victims with disability stipends, which they are eligible for due to widespread post-traumatic stress disorder, Segal explained.
Most of the 2020 law will expire after five years of trial, unless it is extended.
A study released in 2022 conducted by the Myers-JDC-Brookdale Institute examined public opinion and behaviors toward prostitution in the wake of the 2020 law. In a survey of 803 Israelis, both men and women, every other man (53%) said he knew someone who has paid for sex.
Out of 432 prior “consumers of prostitution,” 48% said they were not affected by the passage of the law, and it would not lead to stopping their habit of using the services of prostitutes.
As prostitution remains prevalent in Israel, and the area surrounding the Tel Aviv Central Bus Station remains riddled with it, Turning the Tables looks to rehabilitate the individual, downsizing the cycle one woman at a time.
Leadership cited plans to expand to Beersheba next, with the aim of aiding women in the Bedouin community.
There are several anti-prostitution organizations in Israel, but what’s unique about Turning the Tables is the self-esteem approach emphasized in Yotsrot Atid.
“There are many times where a woman would stand in front and she would say, I don’t know what to choose. I don’t know what color I like. Make the choice for me,” said Segal on the common mental state of many women entering Yotsrot Atid. “So, you know, [they’re in a] place where their choices are erased, where their whole relationship with themselves is erased.
“When she can look at her body and her femininity in the mirror and begin a new relationship with it… it should begin some kind of communication with her body. Then I understand that the transition is beginning,” Segal said.
“Many times, there’s an intake with a woman and she feels like she’s lost. And I’m like, listen to me: I see you, I hear you,” Segal said. “You’re smart. You’re talented. You’re funny. You’re beautiful. You are going to be in a different place a year from now. I know it.”
And often they are. The organization reported that about 70% of women who commit fully to the program, working in conjunction with mental health experts and social workers to stabilize themselves financially and mentally, make it out of prostitution.
The growth in self-esteem can be seen in women like Anya, who have grown creativity out of abuse.
She dreams of designing a boutique clothing line. “I want to make unique clothes, with nothing else like it. Two or three items for one design, and that’s it,” she remarked. “Now, I want to live,” Anya’s voice cracked. “And I know what I want to do.”
For more information, Yotsrot.org •