‘Imagine being quarantined with your abuser’

‘Imagine being quarantined with your abuser’

Project SARAH’s virtual breakfast will raise funds to help solve very real problems

Shira Pomrantz and Elke Stein
Shira Pomrantz and Elke Stein

It’s a myth that Jewish families are immune to abuse; that Jews never engage in the kind of physical or emotional violence that scars and sometimes even kills.

Jews are just like everyone else when it comes to abuse. Some Jews are abusers.

Project SARAH, a Passaic-based social service agency that provides help, free of charge, throughout New Jersey, not only to the Jewish community but to everyone else who asks for it, knows that very well.

During normal times, SARAH works with victims of abuse; it has a hotline and offers therapy, and it helps its clients figure out for themselves whether to stay in a relationship, a home, a marriage, or to flee it. If they decide to leave, SARAH helps them figure out when, where, and how to go, and what to take with them. It also offers proactive preventive programming, like teaching children about keeping themselves safe and teens about how to recognize, create, and maintain healthy relationships.

That was then. This is the terrifying new now.

In this astounding new world, victims are stuck at home with their abusers.

In this astounding new world, the organizations that help them, and that need support if they are to continue to offer that help, cannot ask for help in person. So Project SARAH, which raises much of the funding it gets from private donors at an annual breakfast — it’s supported as well by the Jewish Family Service & Children’s Center of Clifton-Passaic, and by state agencies — has gone online. Its virtual breakfast is set for this Sunday, May 17. (See box.)

As the breakfast drew near, Project SARAH’S director, Shira Pomrantz of Clifton, and its longtime director and now its clinical supervisor, Elke Stein of Teaneck, both of whom are licensed clinical social workers, talked — by Zoom, of course — about the new realities.

First, they wanted to explain the organization’s name. SARAH is an acronym; spelled out, it’s Stop Abusive Relationships At Home. It’s not named after the matriarch, Sarah Imeinu, nor is it the name of a donor or a victim. (The organization uses its own convention to spell its name S.A.R.A.H.; we at the Jewish Standard do not.)

Then they got down to business.

“Whenever there is an increase in tension, we unfortunately expect to find an increase in violence,” Ms. Pomrantz said. “Stress and tension build in the home. People now need to find ways to manage it.

“Project SARAH has been continuing to let people know what their options are in these difficult times, to encourage people to do as much self-care as possible, and to manage stress in the best ways possible, to minimize the amount of tension that leads to violence.”

When the shelter-at-home orders began, the group got fewer calls. That’s not because the emergency brought out the best in everyone, though. “People don’t have access to their phones all the time, and they don’t have as much privacy and freedom to make calls,” Ms. Stein said. “We were getting a lot of calls later at night, when the abuser or the kids were asleep.” Now, the number of calls has gone back up.

“The majority of our callers are women, but some are men, and some are family members who are concerned about others,” Ms. Pomrantz said. “Some calls come from outside New Jersey” — they’re referrals from out-of-state agencies.

What are the options for victims of physical, emotional, or mental abuse, now that it’s much harder for them to leave their homes? “It may be how to placate the abuser, or how to defuse the situation in order to stay safe,” she said.

“Also, a lot of our clients want to know about what’s open. Are the courts still open?” Yes, although they conduct business virtually, and they’re very backed up. “And the police? Will the police come if they’re called? Because for some people, calling the police is part of their options for safety.

“The police still will come if they’re called,” she said.

One thing hasn’t changed. Each caller, every client, is treated based on her or his own needs and circumstances. “Each case is different,” Ms. Stein said. “Every one has a different situation and the level of abuse is different; it could be physical or emotional or even digital, where someone is checking somebody’s phone for their caller history, or their calls are being monitored. And the issue of emotional abuse comes up a lot.”

And something else also remains true. “The options may have changed, but people always have options,” Ms. Pomrantz said. “There always is help.”

This isn’t the first time that Project SARAH has changed or expanded its focus in response to the world around it. “For many years, we were only a domestic violence organization, but about eight or nine years ago we began to realize that many of the cases coming to us also had some history of sexual abuse as well,” Ms. Stein said. “We noticed a strong correlation between domestic violence and sexual abuse, whether it’s a child or an adult who has dealt with sexual abuse in the past.

“And now, people are living in such different circumstances that different emotions are coming up,” Ms. Pomrantz added. “People are being triggered in different ways, and we are finding that some traumas from the past are coming up now in the present, as the world shifts.”

“We are all being traumatized now,” Ms. Stein said.

Ms. Pomrantz wants the community to know that “we are there for them as a resource, not necessarily for themselves, but for family or friends or someone they may be acquainted with who is in that situation. We want people to know what the resources are.

“We provide a wide range of educational services for the community,” Ms. Stein added. “Right now we are doing more crisis work, but we continue to work on developing our educational resources; we’ve had our programs in schools, shuls, camps, and youth programs.”

SARAH still does much of the work it had done before the pandemic; not only does it field hotline calls, it also provides therapy, which lasts for as long as the client needs it. The difference is that now it’s done by phone or online.

“We have an internet safety and cyber-bullying prevention program,” Ms. Pomrantz said. “Kids are using the internet even more than ever now, to stay connected with friends, family, and school, and it’s very important for parents to remind their kids to be as safe as possible.

“It’s a time when parents need to be aware of their kids, who have a lot of unsupervised free time now, and spend a lot of time in their rooms,” Ms. Stein said. “Parents need to be there; they need to keep an eye on what is going on in order for everyone to stay safe.

“We’re working on ways to give our prevention programs virtually.” That includes a fact sheet about how to keep kids safe — it’s always a good idea to start by paying attention to them, listening to them, and noticing what they say and do, and how they say and do it. (To find Project SARAH’S resources for kids, go to its website, jfsclifton.org/projectsarah, and click on the covid-19 link at the top right.)

This all sounds like grim work. “It can be grim,” Ms. Stein agreed. “But I always feel when I hang up the phone that I have helped someone remain safe.”

Who: Project SARAH

What: Holds its virtual breakfast

When: On Sunday, May 17, at 9:30

Where: On Zoom, and also streaming on Facebook Live and YouTube

Why: To raise the funds it needs for its more-necessary-than-ever services

To register: Go to jfsclifton.org/projectsarah