June 24, 2024
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National Council of Jewish Women Offers Safe Haven for DV Victims in Hackensack Courts

Hackensack—There is a new mechitza at the Bergen County Courthouse in Hackensack—but it doesn’t divide men and women. The waiting room separates victims of domestic violence and those they have accused while waiting for their trial to begin.

The waiting room was initiated by the National Council of Jewish Women Bergen County Section, a secular organization whose mission is helping women, children and families. The project was spearheaded by two past presidents, Joan Snider and Ina Miller-Silverstein,when they learned that there is a New Jersey state mandate for every county to have a waiting room for domestic violence cases in the courthouse but Hackensack didn’t have one. “It’s an old building and we were told there was no room and no money,” said Miller-Silverstein. “But we told them if you find the room, we’ll get it done.” The women persevered, got the space and embarked on an ambitious project of raising funds andsoliciting donations. They raised about $10,000 and got the furniture, flooring and paint donated at cost. The project took about two years to complete and opened in March. “We were discouraged at first,” Snider said, “But we did it. Private people can work in a coalition with government.”

There are about 10 – 15 cases of domestic violence cases a day in the Hackensack court house, and an average of 3500 per year, according to Tracey Andolini, Supervisor for the Domestic Violence Unit of Family Court. Domestic violence cases are heard Monday through Thursday.

About two-thirds of the victims are women but one-third are men. They come with lawyers or friends, and sometimes had to wait in the hallway, with their abusers nearby, often intimidating them. Now they have a waiting room which provides space and services. “There is always someone there from the group Alternatives to Domestic Violence. They counsel the women and men about whether to press or drop charges, and help them discuss their options,” Snidersaid.

Before you say, that’s nice but it has nothing to do with our community, consider this: domestic violence happens in Orthodox Jewish families and it happens in Bergen County.

Esther East, Director of Project S.A.R.A.H. and the Jewish Family Service of Clifton/Passaic, said nationally about 15 percent of the population are exposed to domestic violence and the figure is somewhat less in the Orthodox Community. Project S.A.R.A.H., an acronym for Stop Abusive Relationships at Home, works specifically with Orthodox victims of domestic violence.

“The Jewish Family Service has locations throughout the state, and they will help anyone, but we are especially available to the Orthodox community and understand their unique issues,” East said. “The Orthodox community needs a different clinical intervention – someone who doesn’t understand their concerns can create a dangerous situation or not be helpful.” Project S.A.R.A.H. has relationships with Rabbis and the Day Schools, even the mikvah ladies, who are in a position to help or refer. Project S.A.R.A.H. works with organizationsthat run safe houses for women, such as Shelter Our Sisters in Hackensack, and provides women with “kosher kits,” non-perishable food packages designed for onewoman and three children for 24 hours.

Project S.A.R.A.H. does not charge for its services. East said the women they work with frequently do not have access to money as using credit cards or health insurance will make husbands aware their wives are seeking outside assistance.

Women often take steps to seek help when a child is harmed. “Any situation you get used to, you get deadened, the next day you think it’s not so bad and you can ignore it. That’s how women survive, and they don’t notice the danger. But when something happens to a child, women act,” East said.

While there are no statistics about domestic violence in the Orthodox community, East said there is now universal recognition of the problem and women are no longer ashamed to come in. Women are also seeking help at a younger age and earlier in the relationship. “Sometimes a girl who has just gotten engaged sees something and comes to us. It’s better to break an engagement than come in later when there are children involved,” East added.

An Orthodox woman in an abusive marriage should make her first call to the Shalom Task Force, which runs a hotline for women in New Jersey and New York. “A woman should call us when she is in fear, or can’t handle her situation,” said Sharon Russ, Director of the Shalom Task Force Hot line. “We give women a sympathetic ear, a safe place to vent, and proper referrals. If they need a therapist, we refer New Jersey women to Project S.A.R.A.H.”The hot line is staffed 62 hours a week. When it is not active, there is always recorded information about where to get help immediately.

Volunteers who staff the hot line have undergone extensive training. They attend 12 weeks of consecutive training for three and a half hours each week.  The classes are given by Lisa Twerski, a renowned therapist, according to Russ. After completing the classes, volunteers are paired with veterans to observe for 8 weeks. When Russ feels they are ready, she assigns them to a shift.

East said the waiting room at the courthouse will benefit everyone involved in domestic violence cases. “Tensions are highest when a restraining order is filed. To have victims and abusers waiting near each other in the courthouse is untenable.”

By Bracha Schwartz

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