To say that domestic violence and sexual abuse does not exist in our community would be foolish. It’s a sad reality, but reality it is.
Project SARAH knows well the pain and suffering that victims of abuse go through. They are fully aware of the lifelong trauma survivors live with.
This past Sunday night, Project SARAH held its first gala event as it continues to raise awareness within the Orthodox community about the very real tragedy of domestic violence and abuse. The fundraiser brought over 250 members of the community together to celebrate the success Project SARAH has had in saving the lives of victims of abuse: men, women and children. And the event highlighted the need for our community to support both victims and survivors.
The theme for the evening was “Take A Stand” and Shira Pomrantz, Project SARAH’s director, challenged the audience to tell three friends about the important work the organization does. By taking such a stand, the community is able to play an active role in protecting those amongst us who often don’t have a voice of their own.
Since its founding, Project SARAH has expanded its mandate to include prevention, not only of domestic violence, but of child sexual abuse as well. The organization conducts crucial prevention programming through their free, age-appropriate Magen Yeladim program to the schools in our community where they also train teachers and administrators to recognize the signs of abuse. Project SARAH also has programs for camp counselors and shul youth leaders about appropriate behavior and boundaries, and about recognizing signs of abuse.
The keynote address was delivered by Rabbi Gavriel Friedman, also known as Rav Gav, an educator and lecturer known internationally for his inspiring messages, dynamic style and sense of humor. Rav Gav described human beings as inherently selfish, but oddly described this selfishness in a positive light. He explained that when a person gets married, their “self” is expanded to include their spouse. When a person has children, that “self” expands even further. So, the notion of selfishness is not negative when we have expanded our “selves” to incorporate as part of us, our spouse and children.
Rav Gav also spoke about the bystander effect and noted that when an accident occurs on a highway, hundreds if not thousands of cars will slow down to look but no one seems to do anything to help. He explained that the natural assumption most of us make is that someone else has or will call for an ambulance.
It is incumbent on us, Rav Gav explained, to be selfish and express such love for our fellow human beings, that they become a part of ourselves, and because of that “selfishness,” we have an obligation to respond to a person in pain. The message is clear: If we know of anyone in our community going through the hell of an abusive relationship, we must help!
For the first time in its 26-year history, Project SARAH introduced the audience to a survivor of domestic abuse. Out of an abundance of caution to protect the anonymity of this survivor, she spoke on video with her face silhouetted. There was an audible gasp from the audience when this mother described how she used to sleep with a knife under her pillow for fear of her husband’s abuse. She also painfully described how, since she escaped from her violent marriage, her now ex-husband had completely brainwashed one of her children against her.
Project SARAH felt that it was profoundly important for the audience and our community to hear from a victim of abuse personally. The sad reality is that she could have been anyone in our community, but we simply don’t know what’s going on behind closed doors.
The powerful emotions of this woman’s story were heightened when well-known musician and composer Eli Schwebel sang “Stand for You,” his song about taking a stand for those who don’t have a voice. Schwebel’s lyrics “When it seems like hope is lost/When you don’t know where to go or who to call/I will stand for you” left the audience with a profound sense of duty to not only support victims and survivors but to recognize that this stark reality does indeed exist in our community and we have an obligation to one another to stamp it out. Schwebel’s performance was profoundly intimate with magnificent accompaniment of a cello and French horn.
The gala also honored Rabbi Andrew and Dr. Sara Markowitz, rabbi and rebbetzin of Congregation Shomrei Torah in Fair Lawn. Through his role as community leader, Rabbi Markowitz has helped many victims of domestic abuse and in their tribute video, both Markowitzes passionately described the dire need to be there for individuals and families going through this nightmare and constant cycle of violence.
While the Gala program ended at about 9:30 p.m., in time for people to get home and hug their kids before bed after an emotionally uplifting evening, dozens of guests lingered at the dessert reception, talking about the program and how crucially important Project SARAH is in our community.
Standing near the entrance of the Fair Lawn Jewish Center, where the gala took place, I was struck by the number of people who on their way out thanked the Project SARAH staff for highlighting the tragedy of domestic abuse. It was abundantly clear that the evening had hit its mark of not only creating much-needed awareness but also raising the necessary funds to prevent the abuse in the first place.
I echo Shira Pomrantz’s challenge to the gala participants: Gell three friends about Project SARAH! Take a stand with this profoundly important organization and be “selfish” in defending and supporting those in our community who simply do not have a voice!
Ryan Hyman served on the event committee for Project SARAH’s Take A Stand Gala event.