Stopping domestic abuse
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Stopping domestic abuse

Project S.A.R.A.H. honors locals, brings awareness to Jewish community

Project S.A.R.A.H. (Stop Abusive Relationships At Home), a statewide Jewish program providing domestic violence and sexual abuse services, is honoring state Senate Majority Leader Loretta Weinberg of Teaneck and four other Bergen County residents at its eighth annual breakfast, set for March 23 at Congregation Rinat Yisrael in Teaneck.

“The only way this works is if we have a network of support, because domestic violence is a complex problem with many levels of impact,” said Esther East, executive director of the Jewish Family Service and Children’s Center of Clifton-Passaic, where the program has been based since its inception 16 years ago.

“We honor people who support those different elements. One of those is funding, and Loretta Weinberg has always helped us. Last year, we didn’t get one of the grants we usually do, but she found a way to get us funding through a line item on the governor’s budget.” The senator also has sponsored several laws protecting domestic violence victims.

Project S.A.R.A.H. will present a community service award to Rabbi Neil and Andrea Winkler of Fort Lee; the Aleinu Hero award to Mollie Kidorf Fisch of Teaneck, and a volunteer recognition award to Sara Schlussel of Englewood. Dr. David Pelcovitz, a well-known Orthodox psychologist specializing in parenting and child mental health, will be the keynote speaker.

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Clockwise from top left, Mollie Kidorf Fisch, Rabbi Neil and Andrea Winkler, Loretta Weinberg, and Sara Schlussel

Ms. East said that community rabbis are often a first point of contact for victims, and Project S.A.R.A.H. holds regular training sessions to sensitize them to the problem. The group urges them to speak about it from the pulpit, so congregants know they have someone to whom they can talk.

“It helps break the denial,” she said. “We hear often that someone was doing something abusive in a household and didn’t realize it until they learned about it from the rabbi, so the rabbi provides vital social services. Rabbi Winkler has spoken about domestic abuse from the pulpit, and has participated in the training we’ve done. Andrea was part of the original group of Project S.A.R.A.H. founders, and she has never stopped being involved. She was instrumental in getting our educational prevention programs into the [Jewish] high schools.”

Four years ago, Project S.A.R.A.H. franchised a school program called Aleinu Safety Kid from the Jewish Family Service of Los Angeles. Geared to children in preschool through fourth grade, as well as to their teachers and parents, Aleinu builds awareness of red flags for domestic violence and sexual abuse and also strengthens the school’s ability to spot a problem and intervene appropriately with the help of Project S.A.R.A.H. Nearly every day school in Bergen and Passaic has hosted Aleinu presentations, and the program is starting to reach schools in Morris County as well.

Ms. Fisch, a semi-retired consultant to the pharmaceutical industry and a Project S.A.R.A.H. advisory board member since 2005, answered a call for volunteers to help develop an Aleinu program for students in the fifth, sixth, and seventh grades. She worked with Rabbi Raffi Bilek (who is no longer with the project) to fine-tune lesson plans teaching children how to protect themselves from predators, both in or outside their families. Following a successful test run at the Jewish Educational Center in Elizabeth, the program for fifth- and sixth-graders is ready to roll out.

“I love kids and teaching, and it just grabbed my interest because it’s a very important topic that the Orthodox community needs to raise people’s consciousness about,” Ms. Fisch said. “These are universal problems, and though we hope being Torah-observant makes us all moral and ethical, some people have appetites that are not easily controlled, and parents and teachers need to be aware of this.”

Volunteer awardee Sara Schlussel is “a great advocate for Project S.A.R.A.H.,” Ms. East said. “Many families with domestic violence issues are experts on putting on a great front, so you need people talking about this issue and making themselves accessible, and Sara is certainly one of those people.”

About 100 domestic violence and sexual abuse cases are handled without charge every year in the Clifton agency’s office alone, and its clinical staff – under the direction of clinical social worker Elke Stein, who also is director of Project S.A.R.A.H. – provides training and consultations across New Jersey for rabbis and rebbetzins, teachers, Jewish premarital advisers, youth leaders, camp counselors, mental health professionals, law enforcement officers, and mikvah attendants. Rabbi Michael Bleicher of West Orange is in charge of rabbinic outreach.

Even students at Hackensack’s Parisian Beauty Academy got a training session, because women often confide in their hairdressers, according to Ms. East. In addition, a weekly group meets for women involved in difficult relationships or who have been touched by domestic violence.

“Our particular agency works specifically in the Orthodox community by design and by funding, though we will see anyone,” Ms. East said.

Project S.A.R.A.H. has a $300,000 annual budget, partially funded by the New Jersey State Office of Victim Witness Advocacy as part of the VAWA federal funding stream, as well as the Justice Department’s Office on Violence Against Women, the New Jersey Division on Women, and private donations.

“We are always in jeopardy because so much of the money is grants,” Ms. East said. “We currently have a federal grant for $150,000 ending in September, so we’re facing a crisis.”

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