Project S.A.R.A.H.: Helping the Survivors and Preventing Sexual Abuse

by Elke Stein and Michael Bleicher

Avraham [name has been changed], a fifty-year-old man approaching his twenty-fifth wedding anniversary, was facing something bigger than an ordinary midlife crisis. Rather than anticipating this milestone with great excitement, Avraham and his wife were finally admitting reality: Their marriage was on the rocks and had been for some time. Their communication was poor, and Avraham was in a chronic state of distraction. His wife gave him an ultimatum: Call Project S.A.R.A.H. and seek therapy, or their marriage was over.

Avraham decided that he would try to address some of the issues that had persistently plagued his marriage. During his first session, Avraham disclosed that he was addicted to pornography. He couldn’t get through a workday without logging on when his colleagues weren’t looking. It became an obsession and completely distorted his perspective on sexuality. Before he got married, he had wildly unrealistic expectations of what life with his intimate partner would be like, and these only became more abnormal as his addiction grew more severe.

His therapist helped Avraham begin to conquer his addiction day by day, and he began to notice subtle but significant improvements in his relationship with his wife, his children, and his co-workers. As the therapy progressed, Avraham was able to confront a part of his history that he had never dealt with and that he had pushed away: His pornography addiction had begun when he was a child, at age 11, after he was sexually abused by a counselor in sleepaway camp.

Every day Avraham endured the pain of memories of the repeated abuse he had suffered during his childhood. Never before had he found someone trained and available to him as a listener. Avraham recalled that he had appreciated the extra candy his counselor gave him, the late bedtime he enjoyed, the extra time at sports, and many other privileges. Never before had he been treated so well. There was no one to tell him that the special prizes, goodies, and treatment were not fair exchange for the sexual abuse he suffered.

Trainings Offered by Project S.A.R.A.H.

The landscape of Avraham’s experience was shifting thanks to the efforts of Project S.A.R.A.H., an acronym for Stop Abusive Relationships At Home. This statewide New Jersey program provides culturally sensitive interface with the New Jersey victim service network, as well as statewide access to services through collaboration with Jewish Family Service agencies throughout New Jersey. Since its inception nineteen years ago, it has become a critical resource for prevention of domestic violence and sexual abuse.

Project S.A.R.A.H.’s extensive educational and prevention programs provide training for parents before summer camp begins, to equip them with the language and knowledge necessary to have frank conversations with their children about personal safety. Licensed clinical staff members facilitate small-group sessions in several communities throughout New Jersey. These groups, which meet in a cozy setting, help participants feel comfortable raising any questions they may have. The staff remain available throughout the summer to address any concerns that arise in day camps or sleepaway camps.

Trainings go beyond the home as well. For the past two summers, Project S.A.R.A.H. has trained more than 1,500 day camp counselors and staff in how to create a safe environment for themselves and their campers. After reviewing the chain of command in an emergency or crisis situation, the staff members are urged to take any concerns they may have about their campers or colleagues to the appropriate camp administrator. This is often the most helpful component of the training, as teenagers are often unaware of the nuances of emotional and physical abuse. The program empowers them to fulfill their state-mandated reporting responsibility and offers them concrete examples and real-life scenarios based on cases brought to the agency in previous years.

Training includes behavioral guidelines, intended to protect both campers and staff, that were developed in close consultation with each particular camp. They help staff eliminate situations in which abuse can happen, create a safe environment for children and adults, prevent well-meaning staff from being accused of inappropriate behavior, and, most important, send the message that potential perpetrators cannot hide behind “innocent” behavior. Training is designed to increase self-awareness among staff members. They learn to be aware of their own feelings about camp so that they can provide the outstanding care their campers’ parents expect. They learn to explore what their bodies are telling them when they’re stressed, to consider taking a break, and to speak about their challenges with their supervisor or member of the head staff.

For many day camp counselors, the training reinforces skills they learned in school through the Magen Yeladim curriculum. This award-winning program offered by Project S.A.R.A.H. is directed to day school teachers, parents, and their children from kindergarten through fourth grade. Alternatively, if the counselors are youth leaders in their synagogues, many will have already participated in Project S.A.R.A.H.’s synagogue youth leader trainings. In the past three years, Project S.A.R.A.H. has reached more than 3,000 teachers, parents, and students. The trainings are offered by licensed mental health professionals in addition to a cadre of dedicated and trained volunteers.

Key elements of the program remind the participants that the private parts of their bodies should not be touched, looked at, or spoken about by anyone who makes them feel uncomfortable. They learn the difference between secrets and surprises and are encouraged to seek assistance from trusted adults whenever something uncomfortable arises. Safety Kid, the central character in the presentation, helps children appreciate the benefit of always being with a buddy. Older students are encouraged to explore the Internet safely, never sharing personal or sensitive information online via the various forms of social media.

Parents are presented with an adult version of the presentation so that they can reinforce the lessons their children learn in the classroom, while teachers are taught what kind of behaviors constitute a red flag in their students and what behaviors or disclosures they are mandated to report to their administrators. As they work to create a safe environment for everyone in the school building, teachers are also asked to sign a conduct policy formalizing the training they receive.

Hotline for Victims and Mental Health Services to Survivors

In addition to these trainings in schools, camps, and synagogues throughout the year, Project S.A.R.A.H. collaborates with the Shalom Task Force in New York to run a 24/7 emergency hotline that answers calls from victims, rabbis, rebbetzins, mikveh attendants, camp directors, parents, attorneys, and mental health professionals. Project S.A.R.A.H. also provides an extensive array of services to survivors of domestic violence, sexual abuse, and stalking, including individual and group therapy, job placement, case management, and advocacy.

When Avraham was strong enough to tell his wife about his addiction and history of abuse, she felt comfortable reaching out to her rebbetzin for support, as both her rabbi and rebbetzin had received training from Project S.A.R.A.H. Together, Avraham and his wife entered couples therapy, where they continue to work on strengthening the frayed bonds that unite them.

Project S.A.R.A.H. is an important resource for the New Jersey Jewish community. Its professionals are available for training, consultation, and treatment of individuals throughout the state. Its services provide extensive outreach through synagogue adult education programs, campus Hillels, classrooms, and camp staff. In addition, Project S.A.R.A.H. works extensively with the service networks provided by the State of New Jersey for all victims, to ensure that Jewish families who enter the system will be treated with sensitivity to their cultural and religious needs.


Elke Stein, M.S., LCSW, a graduate of the Wurzweiler School of Social Work, is the director of domestic violence and sexual assault services at Project S.A.R.A.H.

Rabbi Michael Bleicher, LSW, is the outreach coordinator for Project S.A.R.A.H. and a psychotherapist at Jewish Family Service of Clifton-Passaic.

To learn more, to volunteer, or to use the services of Project S.A.R.A.H., call (973) 777-7638 or visit the website at www.ProjectSARAH.org.

 

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