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Pageant with a purpose

Believed to be the first Jewish Miss Australia finalist, Nicola Di Bona is helping sexual assault survivors to connect and heal together.

Nicola Di Bona. Photo: Seed + Salt Photography
Nicola Di Bona. Photo: Seed + Salt Photography

WRITTEN in Nicola Di Bona’s Instagram bio are the words “Wannabe Eshet Chayil”.

She has embraced the title as a “public expression of my Jewish identity and a reminder to myself of what I want to be”.

From the Book of Proverbs, Eshet Chayil – most commonly translated as “woman of valour” – is sung at the beginning of Shabbat.

Although enumerating mostly domestic qualities that the “ideal wife” possesses, the song also praises virtues including generosity, work ethic, and optimism – and has often been re-contextualised through a contemporary, feminist lens.

Aspiring to lead a life guided by the kindness, bravery and strength that a “woman of valour” embodies, Nicola – a Port Macquarie local studying ancient history by distance through Macquarie University – is leveraging her status as a finalist for the Miss Global Australia and Miss Intercontinental Australia competitions to champion causes close to her heart.

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A post shared by Nicola Di Bona ???? (@nicchava) on

Offering guidance, support and facilitating mentoring opportunities for survivors of sexual assault – a trauma Nicola says has affected her personally – is at the core of her efforts.

Relaying her own alleged ordeal, Nicola says she was the victim of an abduction and sexual assault at the age of 15.

Four years later and now supporting survivors, her alleged trauma is often not far from her mind.

“It’s one of those things that you see in a movie or in a crime show, except it really happened. You never think you are going to be that person … There are so many questions you have, so many unanswered things that you wish you could have answers to. 

“It eats away at you, it really does … Is it something that I am completely over? It’s not, and I don’t think I ever will be … but it’s something you feel so much better [about] over time,” adding that her involvement in an open criminal case often “just breaks you down”.

Nicola established her initiative, Chayah, in June last year, with her Instagram page proving to be the main platform through which she receives enquiries.

Devising an anonymous survey to better understand survivors’ needs for a safe, supportive, welcoming platform, Nicola said the “resounding answers were to not clearly mark the purposes of Chayah on the contact pages, the reason being anonymity; many survivors are afraid, and are either subject to shame or threats or fear.

Photo: Seed + Salt Photography

“I worked so hard on Chayah’s publicity and the clear preference and desire of almost all survey respondents was, ‘We, the people who need Chayah, know its purpose; a more nondescript layout feels less confronting and scary to approach’.

“It’s very private because of the nature of what we are dealing with … If someone comes to me, I am happy to point them in the direction of not just resources, but other people and that is how they grow together. People speak to each other, people who have had similar experiences,” she explains.

She’s hopeful that her growing presence on a national scale will further launch Chayah into the public eye, and into the hearts and minds of survivors who may need guidance and support.

Finals for the Miss Australia competitions are scheduled to take place towards the end of this year – and with 22,000 Instagram followers and counting, Nicola has a strong base of supporters.

“I like to make [my Instagram] very personal about my life, about things I care about … I collaborate with other Jewish people, and with sexual assault survivors.”

Equipped with an understanding of the court process, Nicola provides other alleged victims with support as they navigate the criminal justice system.

“I’ve heard a lot of people say to me – which is also what Chayah is about – that the legal process is its own kind of trauma and that is also what my organisation is meant to help with.”

In the immediate aftermath, many victims are unsure where to turn or seek help.

At that point, she has a simple message to convey: Report the crime.

“At least get something like a rape kit done, get some kind of physical evidence if that is possible,” she urges.

Nicola Di Bona with her parents.

Down the track, it can be more difficult for men and women who haven’t undergone that process. “There is so much more that needs to be examined. You need to relive it so many times, you need to find a different source of evidence,” says Nicola.

“Justice is a hard thing to fully describe or put a finger on. Not everyone will – in a legal sense – see what they consider justice … It’s more about that closure. That closure is not something any legal entity can give you, it’s something that you have to find for yourself whether that be through a relationship with God, whether it’s through your values and the life you’re leading.”

Helping others find some degree of closure is woven into Nicola’s work – including her hope to establish a support group for Jewish women who have survived sexual assault – believing that the “shared background and shared experience” would provide a comforting and restorative space.

Voicing her support for Nicola’s concept, Dassi Herszberg, founder of Miriam’s Voice, an urban adventure therapy peer support group for survivors of sexual abuse, commented, “Nicola’s idea for a Jewish support group for survivors of sexual assault is incredible, and I think we could complement each other.”

Referring to Miriam’s Voice, Herszberg said, “It is really invaluable to have a safe supportive space, a third space, for women where they don’t necessarily have to speak about their experiences. There’s an unspoken recognition – we all come from that place of suffering and that is okay.”An alleged child sexual abuse survivor herself, Herszberg established Miriam’s Voice after sitting through the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse where she was struck by the strong emphasis on “the experiences of males in the community … that’s when the idea of Miriam’s Voice originated”.

Though temporarily on hiatus during the pandemic, Miriam’s Voice offers a safe space for new experiences.

“It is not uncommon for survivors of sexual assault to be averse to new experiences, especially when it comes to physicality. The tendency is to try and find a comfortable space where we feel a semblance of control over our bodies. This stymies the ability to attempt new things which narrows the scope of enriching experiences.”

Alleged sexual assault abuse victim Dassi Erlich, who attended Miriam’s Voice, said a beneficial part of the program was “this sense of a shared experience that didn’t need to be explained … We could all come to that space together”.

In the meantime, Nicola is already witnessing powerful friendships unfold between survivors whom she has connected, bringing to mind one particular friendship that has stayed with her.

“One [survivor] was from Sydney and I connected her with someone from Port Macquarie … They are both the most bright, exuberant people you will ever meet. They are so kind and loving and full of life,” says Nicola.

Behind their smiling faces, one would not suspect the horrors they have been through, she adds.

The women have grown together – a testament to the healing, eternal growth and love that Chayah, by virtue of its name – encourages and celebrates.

“Chayah is one of the many variations of [the Hebrew word for] life … It can often be used in a context to do with growth … That’s what made it so much more meaningful to me because it not only means life, it’s not only connected to my Hebrew name [Chava], it is so beautiful in terms of every place that it is used. It is about growth and something better and brighter and happier ahead.”

Linking the initiative with her Jewish identity was additional motivation in an effort to address misconceptions about Judaism, and negative stereotypes that Nicola says she has been subjected to.

Antisemitic hate speech often went hand-in-hand with offensive comments relating to the alleged sexual assault, she relays.

“I received messages saying, ‘You are trying to expand Jewish interests by playing the victim’, even though I wasn’t even open about the assault at that stage … At school it was like there was some link between them. People saying almost that I was fabricating something to get sympathy for the Jewish cause.”

More recently in her modelling career, Nicola says a company retracted their deal with her based on religion.

The Star of David in her Instagram bio was enough to make them look the other way, conveys Nicola.

“They said it was a hate symbol,” she recalls. “I said, ‘No, it just means I am Jewish’.

“They said, ‘Well, we weren’t aware of that when we were in talks with you, so we are going to have to drop you’.”

The confrontation hasn’t jolted Nicola’s commitment, but strengthened her resolve to celebrate her Jewish identity publicly.

She says she was encouraged by some companies to remove the Star of David.

“I said, ‘No, I’m Jewish and if they can’t accept that then they probably shouldn’t be working with me because that is something I am not going to deny. I am not all of a sudden going to renounce being Jewish.”

The Star of David remains on her Instagram bio, as do the words “Wannabe Eshet Chayil”.

And the public expression of Judaism is likely to increase as Nicola continues her Hebrew studies.

“I am going to start [writing] more Hebrew on my account as soon as I am better at it,” she says. “I find it so important to be openly Jewish because if it’s hidden then it gains in mystery and antisemitism will rise that way. I truly believe that.”

Nicola may be the first Jewish Miss Australia finalist – and a proud and vocal one at that.

Nicola’s Instagram page is @nicchavaIf you or someone you know needs help, contact 1800 RESPECT on 1800 737 732 or Lifeline on 13 11 14. If you are in immediate danger, call 000.

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