It takes courage to reach out for help after suffering a sexual assault. And you can only take that step if you know where to turn and if you feel safe going to that place.
For many survivors and their families and friends in Bergen County, that safe place long has been HealingSpace at the YWCA Bergen County in Hackensack, the only sexual violence resource center of its kind in the county. Its free services include a 24/7 crisis intervention hotline (201-487-2227) in addition to support, advocacy, counseling, and other resources. HealingSpace staffers also offer preventive education, volunteer training, and awareness programs for the larger community.
Recently, HealingSpace welcomed two Orthodox women to its staff: clinician Simi Lichtman and clinical intern Alyssa Reiner. Their presence enables the YWCA to provide culturally and religiously sensitive services to Orthodox victims of sexual assault in Bergen County, and prevention education tailored for yeshiva day schools and synagogues.
“We always try to make connections for clients if they need specialized clinicians,” said Helen Archontou, chief executive officer of the YWCA of Bergen County.
“Now we have Simi and Alyssa to help members of the Orthodox community navigate through healing more quickly and provide a comfort level we couldn’t before. It’s such a gift to have the two of them on staff and bring this opportunity to the Orthodox women and men of Bergen County. We hope to weave this aspect into all aspects of our programs so we can best serve the Orthodox community in many areas.”
Ms. Reiner and Ms. Lichtman said that Orthodox Jews generally prefer to seek help only from clinicians or therapists familiar with their cultural and religious norms. The reasons range from concern about portraying the Orthodox community in a negative light to “outsiders” to the need for guidance grounded in an understanding of halacha, Jewish law, in regard to sexuality.
“We have experience in this type of trauma and can understand the halachic side of relationships in the Orthodox community,” said Ms. Reiner, who lives in Teaneck and is working toward a master’s degree in social work at Boston University. Before joining the Y’s clinical team in the fall, she worked as an advocate and hotline adviser with HealingSpace.
Confidentiality and anonymity also are of utmost importance for members of tight-knit Orthodox communities. That gives an advantage to the YWCA, which is at 214 State Street, because Hackensack is near many Orthodox population clusters in Bergen County but does not have its own Orthodox community.
“You won’t see anyone you know when you come in,” Ms. Reiner said. “I think that really speaks to people.”
Ms. Lichtman said she looks forward to warm cooperation with the staff of the statewide, government-funded Project Sarah (Stop Abusive Relationships At Home).
“Project Sarah is located in Passaic, and although it does offer services to all New Jersey Orthodox Jewish victims of domestic violence and sexual assault, we felt it would be helpful to offer our services in Bergen,” Ms. Lichtman said. “We’ve spoken to some people involved in Project Sarah and they seem very receptive to working with us and referring people to HealingSpace.”
Ms. Lichtman, a clinical social worker training to be a licensed sex therapist, also is spreading the word about HealingSpace to referral agencies for Orthodox Jews seeking free mental health services in the New York and New Jersey area.
Colleagues she spoke with at the annual conference of Nefesh: The International Network of Orthodox Mental Health Professionals, expressed strong interest in HealingSpace. “The response from clinicians and agencies at the Nefesh conference was incredible,” she said. “Everyone wanted our information.”
Ms. Reiner said she also has received a positive response from Bergen County rabbis and yoatzot halacha (women certified to advise other women on the intricacies of Jewish laws pertaining to sexuality) when calling to offer fliers and brochures for distribution in synagogues. She has been working with the HealingSpace programming coordinator to plan culturally appropriate prevention programs in local Jewish high schools.
“The YWCA’s mission is eliminating racism and empowering women, so this moves us forward in a really important direction,” said Marie Aronsohn, the director of development and communications for YWCA Bergen County, while noting that men are supported by its services as well.
HealingSpace sponsors yearly awareness-raising events including the Bergen County Clothesline Project, Denim Day, and an exhibition of poetry and artwork by survivors of sexual violence.
General questions or requests for prevention programs from HealingSpace may be directed to Ms. Lichtman (Simi@ywcabergencounty.org) or Ms. Reiner (Alyssa@ywcabergencounty.org). Anyone who is looking for counseling for sexual violence experienced either recently or at any time in the past should call the 24-hour confidential hotline, (201) 487-2227.