Bergen County’s two rabbinical organizations gathered last Thursday night for a joint training session about identifying and responding to child abuse and neglect.
More than 20 rabbis from across the Jewish spectrum heard a presentation by Lisa Fedder, director of Jewish Family Service of Bergen and North Hudson, at the agency’s Teaneck office. Project S.A.R.A.H. (Stop Abusive Relationships at Home) was represented by Esther East, director of Jewish Family Service of the Jewish Federation of Greater Clifton/Passaic.
The joint training session reflected a desire for cooperation by both Rabbi Randall Mark, president of the North Jersey Board of Rabbis, which is made up of Conservative, Reform, and Reconstructionist rabbis, and Rabbi Rabbi Larry Rothwachs, president of the Rabbinical Council of Bergen County. Both bodies were well represented at the session.
“We were specifically looking for something we could do positively together,” said Mark, religious leader of Cong. Shomrei Torah in Wayne, when Rabbi Amy Bolton of JFS suggested the joint training session.
“I think it’s a great precedent,” said Bolton, who is herself a member of NJBR. “Problems like child abuse and domestic violence and illness – the sort of issues JFS deals with – are cross-denominational problems.”
“Bringing the RCBC and NJBR together, sharing our thoughts and insights, was a very positive and worthwhile experience,” said Rothwachs, religious leader of Cong. Beth Aaron in Teaneck. “I look forward to participating in such events in the future. The energy at the meeting was positive and will hopefully open the door for future programming as well.”
Fedder presented a definition of child abuse and neglect: Any failure to act on the part of a parent or caretaker that “results in death, serious physical or emotional harm, sexual abuse, or exploitation.”
Legally, rabbis – and everyone else – are required to report suspected child abuse or neglect to Division of Youth and Family Services of New Jersey’s Department of Children and Families. The state hotline is 1-877-NJ ABUSE (652-2873).
“Statistically, you will find it in your community,” said Fedder. “It is all around us.”
Much of the conversation revolved around what Fedder called “the gray areas” of abuse that may or may not rise to the level of “serious.”
“Is emotional abuse a mandatory reporting situation?” asked one rabbi. “There are some parents who, unfortunately, scream too much.”
Fedder’s response: “I don’t think screaming alone is reportable. But screaming can be a part of a much broader pattern of emotional abuse, which although reportable, is much harder to substantiate.
“In general, situations tend to escalate to a peak,” she said. “The ideal is to intervene before it goes up the mountain, before it reaches the point where it is clearly child abuse and neglect. That’s when the community response is really important, when JFS or a rabbi or a school can make a difference.”
Fedder stressed that Jewish Family Services, as well as DYFS, have resources to help struggling families. “If you call DYFS in a borderline case, where the child’s not really at risk but it’s not a good situation, then DYFS will try to put supports in place, such as classes in parenting skills,” she said.
“You have an opportunity, when you see problems early on, to get involved,” she told the rabbis.
This week’s training session marked a milestone in formal cooperation between Bergen’s two rabbinical bodies, but the two sets of rabbis have individually promoted awareness of domestic violence and sexual abuse under the auspices of Project S.A.R.A.H.
Both rabbinic bodies are promoting Project S.A.R.A.H.’s fifth annual breakfast on March 27, at Cong. Bnai Yeshurun in Teaneck. The event will recognize eight physicians who have partnered with Project S.A.R.A.H., and will feature Dr. Susan Schulman, a contributing author in a new book, “Breaking the Silence: Sexual Abuse in the Jewish Community.”