April 23, 2024
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April 23, 2024
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Project S.A.R.A.H. Advocates for Abused Women

Teaneck and Clifton—Sixteen years ago, a group of women began to worry about Orthodox Jewish women who were victims of domestic violence or sexual abuse. Abused Jewish women had almost nowhere to go. The shelter system in New Jersey didn’t know a thing about kosher food or Shabbos, and the close networks of Jewish families made reaching out for help difficult, because the family’s privacy could be compromised.

There were no formal services at the time to assist Jews if they needed help in this way. A local rebbetzin told the group that if a victim presented herself to the rabbi, “We just took them in to live with us,” she said.

These women formed the New Jersey Women’s Consortium on Domestic Violence. It had representatives of Shelter Our Sisters in Bergen County, the Passaic County Women’s Center, representatives of Bergen County
Legal Services, Jewish Family Service, Jewish Women International (formerly B’nai B’rith Women), National Council of Jewish Women, and one of the founders of Tomchei Shabbos.

“These were all Jewish women that were aware that there were problems going on with domestic violence, but the services were not organized and were not designed to address these problems,” said Esther East, executive director of Jewish Family Service of Clifton and Passaic.

“Out of these monthly meetings Project S.A.R.A.H. evolved in 1999. The name stands for Stop Abusive Relationships At Home,” East explained.

Project S.A.R.A.H is today a statewide project with the central office in the Jewish Family Service in Clifton. The organization has three pillars: community outreach, direct services, and prevention. Its philosophy is to remove barriers to treatment.

“One of our original goals was not to create multiple services but to create one service for all the families in New Jersey. It works in the Jewish Family Service system throughout the state. For example, a woman in Cherry Hill can call JFS locally and say she needs services through Project S.A.R.A.H and she will get someone trained in domestic violence response to work with her,” East explained.

The small staff at Project S.A.R.A.H is led by Elke Stein, director of domestic violence and sexual abuse services at Jewish Family Service of Clifton and also Project S.A.R.A.H’s director. She is a licensed clinical social worker (LCSW), who works with a rabbi (who is also a social worker) who does rabbinic outreach, as well as three other clinicians who work on clinical services, outreach, and prevention activities.

“We provide a kosher kit, which is available at every women’s shelter in New Jersey at any time, which will provide enough non-perishable kosher food for 24-48 hours for a woman and three children until we can get better food to her,” said Stein.

The staff in all these shelters has now been trained to have understanding of the cultural and religious needs of Orthodox Jewish women. “If you can imagine for a moment that you are already in crisis and running away from a home into a communal living system, but the fact that the staff will have basic understanding of your need for Shabbos observance and kosher food will reduce the amount of trauma,” said Stein. “There was and is a tremendous amount of denial about the problem,” said Stein. “We had to address the issue by dealing with the denial, so we had to do a lot of community education. We are constantly involved in education and training,” she said.

“Denial exists at every level in our community, so that many women themselves are also in denial. Parallel to the project of working on denial—once we break through—we have to have the service available,” Stein said.

Abuse happens even in the most observant homes, even though we all know that Jewish law in theory should project people from this, that every person should be treated respectfully. Sexual abuse and domestic violence is the lack of respect for the integrity of another human being, Stein explained. “How can you be an observant Jew and do this, is a question asked very often,” said Stein.

All services in Clifton are free of charge. While every Jewish Family Service has its own policy in terms of services, many go to the Clifton location for anonymity, said Stein.

Project S.A.R.A.H created clinical services with mental health support and training. Dr. Cheryl Kramer, a nationally recognized expert in domestic violence trained the staff so they would be equipped to take these cases. Every Jewish Family Service in the state of New Jersey has been trained with Project S.A.R.A.H.

“We’ve added the prevention piece in the last few years. If we can prevent a woman or a man (we do have men who are victims) from getting into these situations, we can spare them years of anguish and heartache,” said East.

“We also have gone into the area of prevention of child sexual abuse, where we have brought the Aleinu Safety Kid program to schools in New Jersey. It is a national child sexual abuse prevention program, with three parts: a parent program, a teacher program, and a child program. We have brought it to many schools in the last few years, including Moriah, Yavneh, RYNJ, and BPY. And we’re going back to the schools a second time,” said East.

The Aleinu program was developed by Debbie Fox and the Jewish Family Service in Los Angeles. She came and trained Project S.A.R.A.H staff at the Hillel School in Passaic about four and-a-half years ago. “Since then we have been the provider of those services in the New Jersey area,” said Stein.

Types of services that Project S.A.R.A.H. provides are direct clinical services, support groups for men and women, psychiatric services, vocational counseling, and children’s services—both for children who have witnessed domestic violence and for those who are child sexual abuse victims. Project S.A.R.A.H beneficiaries also have access to pro-bono legal services.

The program started with a very small federal grant from VAWA, the Violence Against Women Act. “It identified Jewish women as an underserved group, because the barriers are religious and cultural, with a lot of shame and denial, because the community is so interconnected,” East said.

“Both the state and the federal government recognized that we needed specific services to reach this population. They provide the broad funding to keep us going. But it doesn’t come every year, and it’s restricted. So private fundraising fills in the gaps between what’s covered by services and what things actually cost us,” said East.

“We have a federal $100,000 grant now for outreach and prevention that is ending in September, and that grant is not going to be available anymore. So we’re going to be seeking private funding to fill that gap.

“As our outreach efforts have improved, the whole project has expanded because more people are taking advantage of the services. It takes an enormous amount of time for people to be able to move something in their lives, so they can walk out the door. It can take years, whether they stay in their relationship or not. We have built the services around each family. We have never turned anyone away,” said East.

“One of the reasons we have been able to do this is because of the generosity of the Bergen County community. The annual breakfast is the largest fundraising we do each year,” said Stein.

The annual breakfast is on Sunday, March 23, at Congregation Rinat Yisrael in Teaneck. The guest of honor is Senator Loretta Weinberg, the New Jersey Senate Majority Leader. Rabbi Neil and Andrea Winkler, Mollie Kidorf Fisch, and Sara Schlussel will be honored with service awards. The keynote speaker is Dr. David Pelcowitz of Yeshiva University. Sign up to attend the breakfast at http://projectsarah.org/.

By Elizabeth Kratz

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