Protection and empowerment were the cornerstones of each presentation as a panel of speakers tackled the topic of safety at a seminar hosted by Temple Emanu-El’s Sisterhood.
Addressing the event at the Reform synagogue in Westfield on April 7, they explored gun violence, domestic abuse, forced marriages, and human trafficking. As widely as their topics varied, their goals were the same, to engage community support in urgent action.
Event chair Gloria Brown opened the sisterhood’s major annual advocacy program by saying, “No one needs to wait a single moment more to begin improving the world.”
One place to start, she suggested, is with the fact the mayor of Westfield isn’t a member of Mayors Against Illegal Guns, the organization for which the first speaker, Brian Levinson, serves as coalition coordinator. He also works in the administration of New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, a leading gun control proponent.
Levinson described gun violence as “awful, insidious, and preventable,” with “gaping, deadly loopholes” in the laws on gun sales. New Jersey has stronger regulations that most of the country, but guns flood in from other regions.
He urged those present to “hold your leaders accountable,” especially when people like Reps. Leonard Lance, Rodney Frelinghuysen, and Frank LoBiondo aren’t supporting control measures called for by their more conservative colleagues.
The second speaker, Michelle Bobrow, previously served as the NJ state public affairs chair for the National Council of Jewish Women and as an activist with the Rachel Coalition. Describing the battle to halt domestic violence, she quoted Hillary Clinton’s statement: “Fighting for women and girls isn’t a luxury; it’s a core imperative.”
“Eventually, people learn that we’re all in this together,” Bobrow said. Domestic violence goes on “in our own backyards,” affecting the Jewish community and all others, “across the board.”
Backing Levinson’s message, she pointed out there has been an increase in gun violence, but she noted also that progress has been made. The state is at the forefront of laws dealing with domestic violence. “Word is getting out,” Bobrow said, “that you don’t kick the ones that are down. And the status of women is getting a little stronger, and more respected.”
Fraidy Reiss is founder and executive director of Unchained At Last, a nonprofit that seeks to help women wanting to escape from arranged and forced marriages. She told her own story of being brought up in an ultra-Orthodox family and being married off at 19 to a man she barely knew, who turned out to be violent.
It doesn’t take physical force to trap a woman in marriage, she said. Lack of financial freedom and community pressure can be just as powerful.
When she sought help to get away from her husband, she was told, “Your husband is a good person. If you’re nice to him, he’ll be nice to you.” Eventually, she said, “I realized that if I didn’t leave, my husband would kill me, and no one was going to help.” Armed only with funds she had squirreled away from her housekeeping allowance, Reiss managed to get a degree (cum laude) from Rutgers, a job, and eventually a civil divorce.
So far, through her volunteer-run organization, she has helped about 40 women — most Orthodox Jews — make a fresh start.
Special agent K.I. Davis deals with entrapment of a different kind. Davis, who asked not to be photographed to protect her work with the FBI’s Newark Division, discussed “human trafficking in our communities.”
The problem includes the thousands of people — most from abroad but some Americans — compelled to work through force, fraud, or coercion. They range from young sex workers to people trapped in domestic servitude. “Watch out for odd staffing arrangements,” she said. People like that can also be found sometimes in places like nail or hair salons or working in fast food restaurants or massage parlors and strip clubs. “Each one teach one,” she urged.
But, she warned, don’t take direct action. “Contact law enforcement,” she said, and urged suspicious community members to go to NJhumantrafficking.org or PolarisProject.org.