When Project SARAH (Stop Abusive Relationships at Home) held an event in Teaneck on Sunday honoring the attorneys who have served the group’s clients at no cost, it was acknowledging the importance of legal counsel in helping victims of domestic violence.
In a statement recognizing the contribution of lawyers who do pro bono work on behalf of abused women, organizers stated that "many women either have no access to money to pay for legal services or do not know what legal services are available to them. Giving women help with restraining orders, and clarifying legal rights in divorce proceedings or custody issues, empowers women by giving them options."
Project SARAH is a domestic abuse project funded by the New Jersey Department of Law and Public Safety Stop the Violence Against Women Grants Program in conjunction with Passaic County Women’s Center, the Jewish Family Service division of the Jewish Federation of Greater Clifton/Passaic, and the Association of Jewish Family Service Agencies of New Jersey.
According to the group, domestic violence affects diverse groups within the Jewish community. Not only was Sunday’s event held at an Orthodox synagogue, but the invitation included the reminder that "while many of us would like to think that Orthodox communities are immune to the problem of domestic violence, this is simply not true. In fact, Project SARAH provides emotional, psychological, and legal support to hundreds of women, including those within the Orthodox community, who fear for their own well-being and that of their children."
Six attorneys were honored at the breakfast, which was held at Cong. Bnei Yeshurun and featured opening remarks by the shul’s religious leader, Rabbi Steven Pruzansky. They included Dr. Jonathan Gordon, Rabbi Benjamin Kelsen, Chani Laifer, Leah Richter, Linda Spiegel, and Susan R. Wiesen. The Honorable Sylvia B. Pressler, who has served for ‘0 years as presiding judge of the NJ Superior Court, Appellate Division, delivered a talk entitled "The Courts: A Just Process for Women."
Rabbi Benjamin Kelsen, a lifelong Teaneck resident who maintains his legal practice in that town and received his semicha from Yeshiva University, has been an active supporter of Project SARAH for several years.
"I was asked by someone with the organization to speak with a client," he said, and he has been doing it ever since, working on "a handful of cases each year, some of them anonymous." While he speaks directly to clients, he said, he may not be given their real names.
Intending originally to use his rabbinic training to teach and provide religious counseling, Kelsen said he entered the law profession "sideways," finding that his legal training taught him "what to do" while his rabbinic grounding showed him "how to deal with people and be supportive."
The Teaneck attorney, who participates in the Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary’s Kollel l’Hora’ah, the YU program for training religious judges, said, given his training, he is able to synthesize both the halachic and the sociological implications of the issues involved. And, he said, he has not yet encountered a case where there was a conflict between the civil and halachic aspects of helping women escape abuse.
He noted that in cases where a woman is seeking a get (document of religious divorce), rabbis have been very receptive. In addition, he said, the civil courts "are trying hard to be responsive" to the abused women who come before them.
"My [first] responsibility is to help get a woman out of an abusive situation," he said. "Dealing with a get is the next step."
Kelsen pointed out that women who have tolerated abuse are not likely to have investigated the options open to them to escape it. Most likely, he said, those who finally call Project SARAH "have never talked about it before, or even mentioned the word ‘abuse.’"
Kelsen’s expertise lies mostly in criminal law, he said, although he was exposed to the practice of family law during his internship as a law student. "I mostly tell women about the kinds of protections available to them," he noted.
Attorney Chani Laifer, a resident of Teaneck, has assisted Project SARAH for three years. Laifer, who maintains a private practice and works as well at Heimbuch and Folimano in Hackensack, said she was looking to "volunteer time and give back to the community." Invited by a supporter of Project SARAH to attend the group’s meetings, she said it soon became apparent that what was really needed was legal counsel, "not just help with routine matters."
Laifer pointed out that women in abusive situations should first get a temporary restraining order to guarantee their safety. She noted that they can do this themselves or with an attorney. The next step may be to to seek divorce through the family courts.
"The most important thing for women to learn is that abuse is a cycle and they themselves can stop it," she said. "They can leave, and be in control of the situation."
Laifer said she recently worked with an abused mother of six children. "It was heartbreaking," she noted. "The husband, who was a real charmer, already had a girlfriend, and one of the six children was ill."
The attorney said it was particularly hard for the woman to seek a separation because she and her husband had married at an early age and they did everything together, even their business. Still, said Laifer, "she was strong and realized that this was what she had to do."
Laifer said she works on several cases each year, referred primarily by Jewish Family Service or by local rabbis. She noted that within the past two years, the group has been increasingly successful at getting the word out, holding parlor meetings and working with rabbis in an effort to educate the community and raise awareness about the issue of domestic violence.
In a letter to The Jewish Standard, Elke Stein, coordinator of Project SARAH, pointed out that "through our 10 years of experience working with this population, we have found that the more educated the public is about our work, the more apt people are to come forward and seek our help if it is needed."
Through the group’s "Many Voices, One Message" campaign, initiated last year, Project SARAH reaches out to rabbis and other leaders in the Jewish community and encourages them to incorporate at least one public program during the month of October in support of Domestic Violence Awareness Month.