Experts on domestic violence counseled members of Edison’s Orthodox community to look for signs of spousal abuse in their midst.
“The problem in the Orthodox community is the same as for the rest of the world,” said Rabbi Raffi Bilek, outreach coordinator for the Clifton-based Project S.A.R.A.H. “One of four women will fall victim.”
Bilek and Esther East, founder of Project S.A.R.A.H, spoke at Congregation Ohav Shalom in Highland Park in a Feb. 11 program moderated by Alan Silver, an assistant prosecutor in the Union County domestic violence unit.
Their talk was sponsored by the Orthodox Forum of Edison/Highland Park in conjunction with area Orthodox rabbis.
The program followed a rabbinic training session held in the community last summer by Project S.A.R.A.H. (Stop Abusive Relationships at Home) at the request of its Orthodox rabbinate. The organization combats domestic violence and sexual abuse in Jewish communities throughout New Jersey.
East said in its 15 years, the organization has reached out to the Orthodox community, where women often feel compelled to stay with abusive husbands out of a sense of responsibility to keep “shalom bayit,” or peace in the home. Others fear being shamed within the community or revealing a “shanda” — shame — to outsiders. Women also worry their children will not be able to find a marriage partner if it becomes known they come from a “problem” family.
Moreover, many women are in an environment where couples overwhelmingly are the norm and would feel out of place if they separated from a partner.
“I had a case of a woman whose husband was arrested, and she asked her rabbi to go bail him out of jail because they had to go to their day school dinner that night,” said East.
Bilek said spousal abuse is not necessarily physical but often involves “a pattern of controlling behavior.” Such behavior, often worse than hitting or slapping, robs a woman of her self-esteem and undermines her relationship with her children. Some victims suffer from anxiety, depression, and post-traumatic stress syndrome.
“To use children is a form of child abuse,” said Bilek, adding that many men who engage in such behavior toward their wives are also emotionally abusive toward their children.
Often the abuser is a respected member of the community, someone active in his synagogue and in business, whose behavior is totally different outside the family, said Bilek. Their wives often question their own judgment and blame themselves for the abuse.
East said Project S.A.R.A.H trains rabbis and mikva attendants in recognizing signs of abuse and counseling women, runs community forums, and conducts sensitivity training for law enforcement personnel. It also has gender-separate educational videos and programming for day schools and yeshivas.
Abused women can call any Jewish family service in the state and receive free counseling using only a first name, he said, allowing those concerned with anonymity to use a family service outside their community.
East said Project S.A.R.AH. has also developed a relationship with every domestic violence shelter in the state, all of which can provide an observant woman with glatt kosher food.
“If a haredi woman goes to a shelter on a Friday afternoon, she will be given a ‘kosher kit’ with Shabbos candles, a siddur, and tehillim,” said East.
Project S.A.R.A.H. also has formed an alliance with the New-York-based Shalom Task Force Hotline for domestic violence. Its staff is versed in NJ law.
Each October, during national Domestic Violence Awareness Month, the organization has asked NJ rabbis to include their names in an ad in the Anglo-Jewish press pledging to speak about abuse. East said the first year, 30 rabbis signed. Last year the number rose to 180.
“Can you imagine what that means to a woman when her rav speaks from the pulpit in her shul?” asked East. “She knows other people in the Jewish community are supporting her.”
After the meeting, Rabbi Eliyahu Kaufman of Ohav Shalom, a therapist, said the evening carried an “important message to which everyone should be sensitized.”
Contact Project S.A.R.A.H. at 973-777-7638 or firstname.lastname@example.org; for the Shalom Task Force domestic abuse hotline, call 888-883-8323.