Shoshanna, a 25-year-old modern Orthodox woman from Teaneck whose real name is not Shoshanna, knows about Project S.A.R.A.H.’s work firsthand. She feels that it has given her life back to her.
When she was 21, a senior in Touro College, she met a young man – he was “very sweet and very charismatic,” she said – and four months later they were engaged. She had led a “typical Orthodox life, very involved in my school and sports, from a really good family,” she said. And the young man, who was not from her community and not known to her circle, raised “no red flags.”
They got married, “and from Day One there was a complete personality change,” Shoshanna said. “He was very volatile; for three or four days he’d be normal and fun, and for the next three or four days he’d become a horrible person, who would yell and throw things at me. He was really abusive.”
He did not hit her, but he undermined her in every way, separating her from her friends and her family, convincing her that she was worthless, unloved, and unlovable. “He’d say I was a burden, that even my parents didn’t love me. It sounds crazy, I come from such a loving family, we are so close, but I started to believe it.
“I was living in an opposite universe. Yes was no, black was white, up was down.”
Shoshanna did not tell anyone about the fear with which she was living; instead, she made herself believe that her life was normal, because marriage is hard. Her husband used drugs, she learned, and he lied about it; that intensified her fear.
Once, when he began throwing crockery on a Friday afternoon, she took him to her parents’ house for Shabbat dinner. “He had a psychotic episode in front of my parents,” she said. It was particularly shocking for them because until then they had no idea that their daughter’s marriage was in trouble. “My mother called the police, and they came and said he needed to go to the psych emergency room. They put him in handcuffs.”
Her parents suggested that she leave him to live with them, but his parents flew in from California with what seemed to be a better suggestion, and took the two of them to the West Coast. “I went because I thought that he needed me,” Shoshanna said. “I was his caretaker. And you don’t just leave a marriage. I thought my parents were trying to separate us.
“I was so brainwashed.”
All of this is classic abuse-victim thinking.
Eventually Shoshanna and her husband returned to New York. “We were still living together, completely cut off from my parents and my friends,” she said.
“My parents were in agony.”
They were smart, though. They went for counseling and were advised to leave Shoshanna alone. If they tried to pry her out of her marriage before she was ready, she would blame and resent them for the rest of her life. As hard as it was, until she was ready – or until they sensed that the danger was both physical and imminent – they would have to wait by the phone for her call.
And then one day Shoshanna had enough. The marriage was over. “I went to the mall and got a pair of sunglasses, because I knew I’d be crying,” she said. “I didn’t want people to see. And then I called my best friend and told her everything. I hadn’t told her anything. She was like ‘I’m coming to get you right now.’ I said no. An hour later she was at my door. She said ‘Get in the car and I just got in the car. I left all my stuff there.
“Then she said, ‘Call your parents right now’ and I did. It was Mother’s Day and they were at a shul dinner. I got home and my family was there. And I never went back.
“It’s about having a good family and friends.'”
Shoshanna was able to receive a get in two weeks – when there is a rabbinic will there is a halachic way – and two years later her civil divorce came through.
This is the story of how she broke her life. The story of how she was able to put it together involves Project S.A.R.A.H..
“A neighbor had told my mom about it,” Shoshanna said. “So I called them up.”
At first, she went for therapy three times a week; eventually it became twice a week, then weekly, then every other week. After a full year, “I said that I didn’t need it anymore, and they said no, why don’t you stay with us to make sure that when you start dating again, you date the right person? So I stayed with them for another year.
“That was the most amazing thing,” she continued. Without Project S.A.R.A.H., “I definitely would have gone to therapy for six months, but it would have been expensive.”
With Project S.A.R.A.H., “I didn’t pay one cent for it. And today, I am really healthy emotionally. I attribute every ounce of my success to Project S.A.R.A.H.. Not only did they rehabilitate me, they educated me on domestic abuse.
“They said that you were a victim, you were abused – but that is not a reason not to trust people again.
“They told me that sometimes abusive men use religion against woman,” she continued. “We had two beds. One was queen size, and one was a twin. I wanted two of the same size, and I thought that was strange, but when I talked to the woman who taught my kallah [bridal] class, she said ‘That’s normal. You’ll get the queen, and he’ll get the twin.’
“And then we were married, and all of a sudden he takes the queen and makes me take the twin. He said, ‘I am the head of the house; I sit at the head of the table; I get the bigger bed.’ He used religion against me to manipulate me, to make me be subservient.”
Project S.A.R.A.H. helped her understand and get beyond that.
“They gave me the right tools to deal with post-traumatic stress, and they taught me to rehabilitate myself,” Shoshanna said. “I am not a victim forever. Something bad happened to me, and I learned to move on. Now I can judge situations for myself.”
Now, she said, “I am dating again. We were friends for almost a year before that, and he’s just wonderful.” She’s back in school, and she feels fully alive.
All thanks to Project S.A.R.A.H.