Armed with a grant of $2,355 from The Partnership for Jewish Learning and Life’s Iris Teen Tzedakah Program, the Jewish Family Service of MetroWest is seeking to expand a program to train teenagers as peer counselors for victims of domestic abuse.
Since April the program, called In Their Shoes, has trained four sets of high school students in how to recognize and lend a sympathetic ear to other youngsters who may have been exposed to situations of abuse or violence in school or at home.
Two student groups from Millburn High School held sessions at private homes in Millburn and Short Hills, one from Rae Kushner Yeshiva High School at its campus in Livingston, and one on the Aidekman campus in Whippany for teens involved in the J-Serve program run by the Partnership, the Jewish identity-building organization of the Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest NJ.
Their instructors are social workers affiliated with the Rachel Coalition; founded in 1997 as a JFS division, the coalition provides services and support for domestic abuse victims; it has nine partner agencies in the Jewish community.
“We thought, ‘What a great idea if we could train teens to understand signs of high-conflict relationships at their age level?’” said JFS marketing manager Kimberly Colchamiro. Even in couples who are not married or living together, “there can be abuse in dating relationships,” she said, “so the thinking was, we want to train teenagers to be the volunteers who run training for their peers.”
“We want to get the word out to as many teens as possible, in and outside the Jewish community,” said Shari Bloomberg, a social worker who is clinical director of the Rachel Coalition. “The mission is to start prevention when kids are at an earlier age, as young as middle school,” she said.
“Hopefully as they grow they will be able to make healthy choices for themselves as well as for people they know who may be involved in abusive relationships by recognizing the signs of abuse.”
There is a growing need for such educational programs, Bloomberg told NJ Jewish News.
“The rate of dating violence and sexual abuse on college campuses is staggering. We are looking to start a program in the fall dealing with intimate partner violence on campuses. It’s huge. But if we can get to these kids when they are still in high school, they will have the knowledge and ability to help. We want to reach out to teens who might be potential victims, but we also want to reach out to others” who may witness situations.
Estee Wagner and Joe Amster, both from West Orange and juniors at Rae Kushner Yeshiva High School, took part in a training session at their school on April 13.
“I had never been exposed to anything about domestic violence before,” said Joe. “It was very interesting to learn about the diversity of people who are affected by domestic abuse. It can happen to anyone of any religion.”
In some of the scenarios the teens examined, Joe discovered, “people were afraid to say anything about being abused. So we were taught to keep an open mind and an open eye and watch out for the signs and be open for people to talk with you about what happened to them. It could really save someone’s life.”
Estee told NJJN she has always wanted “to get involved more in fighting domestic violence.
“My mom is a lawyer who worked with domestic violence cases,” Estee said, so when she heard about the In Their Shoes program, she was “very interested. It seemed like an innovative idea to act out different situations and learn about the decisions people would make. It was very eye-opening to learn how people got into these situations, and how they got out — or didn’t get out.”
In addition to those taking part in the sessions, two other students are in the process of being trained to be peer facilitators who will lead discussions with fellow teens.
One is Bloomberg’s daughter Alyssa, a junior at Kushner who lives in Elizabeth and has already undergone four training sessions. She believes she and others her age can make a difference in young people’s lives.
“I realize how much of an issue domestic violence has been for adults, but there is a lot of ignorance among teenagers who are not aware of how important and dangerous it can be,” Alyssa said.
“Teenagers find it difficult to sit through a speech where they are told there are people you will date or be very important to you who will do terrible things to you,” she said. In Their Shoes is a valuable program, she said, because “it is important for teenagers to learn from another teen as opposed to an adult who is a lot older. It feels more personal if someone is closer to you in age and is in the same mind meld.”
Although she is too young to fully commit to social work as a career, “it is something I am definitely looking into,” Alyssa said. “It is a profession I would be good at.”
Although no training sessions for teens are scheduled between now and September, “there is a lot of interest in programs for the fall,” Bloomberg said, adding that if there are teens over the summer who want to put a group together, “we are more than happy to do it.”