S.A.R.A.H. on a mission
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S.A.R.A.H. on a mission

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Project S.A.R.A.H.’s Aleinu teaches safety to elementary school students. Here, a S.A.R.A.H. staffer visits the Kaplen JCC on the Palisades in Tenafly.

Domestic violence is an issue most people don’t want to think about.

It violates everything we value most – the idea of home as refuge, the place where you don’t have to pretend, or act, or jump at sudden noises; the place where nothing lurks behind you in the dark.

And the people who share our homes with us should be the people who love us the most. We may argue with them, shout or sulk at them, but they always should represent safety, not danger.

For most of us, that is true, but for a significant percentage it’s not. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, about one in four women and one in seven men have experienced at least one episode of domestic abuse during their lifetime.

Jews suffer from domestic violence at the same rate as other Americans, social scientists say. We do not want to think about that, either – machismo generally is not a Jewish value, and raw hulking physicality is not a particularly Jewish look – but that does not stop it from being true.

Although Jews are physically, sexually, and emotionally abused by their partners at the same rate as other Americans, however, there are aspects to Jewish culture – and particularly to Orthodox ways of living – that demand special understanding on the part of the social workers, therapists, and other healthcare workers who would help them.

That’s where Project S.A.R.A.H. comes in. It is “a statewide program that was designed to identity the problem of domestic violence and sexual abuse in the Jewish community, to educate the community about the problem, and to provide treatment for victims,” said Esther East, the director of Jewish Family Service and Children’s Center of Greater Clifton Passaic, the organization that houses and oversees it.

The services Project S.A.R.A.H. provides to victims of domestic violence and sexual abuse are free.

Project S.A.R.A.H., whose name is an acronym for Stop Abusive Relationships At Home, is funded both by Jewish organizations, including the Clifton JFS, and by governmental agencies, including the State of New Jersey. This year, funding has come, as well, from a one-time grant from the United States Department of Justice.

That grant, East said, is aimed at “funding for culturally and linguistically specific populations.”

What does that mean? “We have identified Orthodox Jewish women as an underserved population, meaning that they cannot access the traditional array of services available to domestic violence victims because of their cultural and religious requirements,” she said. “They’re not comfortable talking to therapists who don’t understand their cultural issues. And they won’t go to a general shelter without special arrangements because if they did, how could they keep kosher? And they won’t take out a restraining order without talking to their rabbis.”

These issues have been addressed, one at a time. Project S.A.R.A.H. provides therapists who understand the rules by which observant women live, it arranges for kosher food and special emergency kits for Shabbat at shelters, and puts women in touch with local rabbis there. It also has worked with rabbis across the state to sensitize them to domestic violence.

Since Project S.A.R.A.H. was created about 16 years ago, it has created an awareness of the problem in the Jewish community.

“There was an enormous amount of denial,” particularly among rabbis, East said. In response, Project S.A.R.A.H. began a project called “Many Voices, One Message” about eight years ago. It is a print advertisement that rabbis across the Jewish world sign, and it connects them with educational services. “When we started, we had about 30 rabbis,” Elke Stein, Project S.A.R.A.H.’s coordinator, said. “They would say, ‘There is no case of domestic abuse in my community, and if you were to find one, I wouldn’t be so comfortable signing on anyway.’

“Now, they come knocking on our door, and they say, ‘Make sure my name is on that list. I want to be part of it. You’re doing unbelievable work.’

“This year, we have about 180 who signed on,” she said.

“We offer training to rabbis at least once a year on issues related to sexual violence, so they know what resources are available to them. They also learn what signs to look for, and what to avoid in terms of increasing the risk. If a woman would come to talk to the rabbi about problems at home, and he talked to the husband about it, that could make things worse.

“They don’t do that any more, now that they’ve had more training. They’re more comfortable calling and asking for help.”

Yosef Adler is the rabbi of Congregation Rinat Yisrael in Teaneck, the shul that is hosting Project S.A.R.A.H.’s breakfast this year, and he is the head of the Torah Academy of Bergen County.

He is one of those rabbis who greatly appreciates Project S.A.R.A.H.’s work.

“I’ve seen the care the help that they’ve given to people who have been the victims of domestic abuse and sexual abuse,” he said. “They have given us helpful guidelines in terms of handling situations, both in my shul as well as in school, where circumstances have dictated certain responses.

“They’ve been very helpful,” he continued. “They’ve helped us give guidelines to our youth leaders in terms of how to handle children in our youth groups – teaching what is appropriate and what is inappropriate. And Elke, particularly, has given me personally a lot of good advice in handling families, teenagers, and individuals who have been involved in some type of an abusive relationship.”

When women come to Project S.A.R.A.H. for counseling, it doesn’t necessarily result in the breakup of their marriages, East said; instead, sometimes the situation can improve when families learn the skills necessary to deal with the problems they face. It is not unlike substance abuse, she said; “people deny they have these problems because they are ashamed, but they have to break through the shame in order to get help.”

A few years ago, Project S.A.R.A.H. “expanded into sexual abuse,” Stein said. “We saw that a lot of the victims of domestic violence had a history of sexual abuse, as well, either recently or when they were children. It came out in therapy that they had never told anyone before.” It was not until the history was acknowledged that it could be addressed.

Project S.A.R.A.H. also has developed a program for young people “of dating age,” East said. “The material helps them get more comfortable with saying that the fact that this guy is jealous and possessive doesn’t mean that he loves me.” Instead, they learn, it is a warning sign, something to which they should pay attention.

Project S.A.R.A.H.’s child safety program, so far taught in nine local day schools, “has three components,” East said. “Parents, teachers, and children. It gives parents language to use, gives teachers a code of conduct and things to look out for, and we talk to the children on how to keep themselves safe.” The program, called Aleinu, is now for kindergarteners through fourth graders; a fifth- through eighth-grade program is being created.

Project S.A.R.A.H.’s staff – three full-time employees, two students, volunteers, and its board, which provides hands-on work, as well as advice and financial support – finds great satisfaction in its work. “I worked with a woman who had been in an abusive relationship for a long time,” Stein said. “She said to me that, although it was hopeless, she’d lock herself in the basement and say tehillim” – psalms – “for things to be better. She same to see me and said to me, ‘Elke, I want you to know that you have saved my life. At least I know that it’s not my fault, and I have someplace to go, someone to talk to, something to think about, a way to make things better for myself and my family.

“‘I want you to know that you have saved my life.'”

Although, in many ways, domestic abuse is the same across American subcultures, institutions particular to a group often offer specific challenges and opportunities.

Take the mikvah.

Married women who follow the halachah of family purity – in practice, that means most Orthodox and some Conservative women – go to the mikvah seven days after their menstrual periods have ended, to cleanse themselves ritually and so to ready themselves to resume a physical relationship with their husbands.

To abused women, that is a mixed blessing.

Project S.A.R.A.H. has a breakfast every year. This year, the event will honor Elke Stein; it also will honor mikvah attendants, and its keynote speaker will be Dr. Jay Sweifach, who is an associate professor of social work at YU’s Wurzweiler School of Social Work.

Sweifach’s recent research has focused on mikvah attendants; “mikvah ladies are the only people other than their husbands who would see physical abuse,” he said. “So my coauthor and I started to contact different mikvahs, asking if we could come and interview attendants to know what they see and hear.”

It turns out that sometimes they do see and hear, but there are no rules to help them decide what to do with that knowledge. Sweifach hopes to change that. “The goal is to develop a protocol. Then every mikvah attendant could be armed with this tool, to know exactly what to do when they see a woman who comes in with bruises.”

It is a difficult situation, he said, because “abuse is not accepted, but in some communities it is covered up, so there is more of a stigma attached to doing something about it than there is about abusing, because you are exposing yourself as a person who has been abused.”

The abuser often twists the situation to reassign guilt to the victim. “Because the idea is how could a religious person, who upholds all the values and laws of Jewish life, possibly abuse someone?” Sweifach said. “So somehow they end up creating a story to make it seem like this is part of what we should be doing, because otherwise why would I be doing it? And a kind of distortion takes place, so the women don’t do anything about it, because they feel the person who is hitting them has a legitimate reason.”

Abuse victims are particularly vulnerable in the mikvah, for a number of reasons. First, and most obviously, they are naked, literally and metaphorically. And then, Sweifach said, “being in the mikvah is a very special time, a time between a woman and God. It’s a time of spiritual connection, and a time when they can contend with things that they usually repress. They open themselves up, and that’s when these things come out.”

It is also a time of increased danger. “Unfortunately, a lot of husbands will abuse their wives the day after they go to the mikvah,” Sweifach said. “It’s a whole month before they come back. It’s enough time for the bruises to fade.

“So it’s a time of real fear.”

Esther East reported on the flip side of that fear. Sometimes, she said, women do not go to the mikvah. “They think, ‘I won’t go – because then he won’t touch me.'” At times, those women are right; “that in fact keeps them safe,” she said.

Sweifach said he hopes that the mikvah attendants will be able to break that cycle. Now, some of them ignore what they see, some offer help finding referrals, and some engage more actively with women who clearly are in pain.

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