Sunday, September 24, 2017

(credit: brendascouch.com)

Earlier this week, life began to return to normal. The Passover pots and pans were put in their proper places in the pantry in preparation for next year. Bread, cereals and flour returned to the shelves of our kitchens. Employees returned to their desks and students filed into their classrooms enthusiastic to discuss their Pesach experiences with their friends and teachers.

Yet, in Ruth’s classroom, things simply could not return to “normal.” Prior to the Passover break, Ruth had been a model student who regularly aced her exams and was a well-adjusted social butterfly. Today she seemed to be a different person. She went to the bathroom every 45 minutes. When her teacher refused her request to leave a fourth time, she became belligerent and uncharacteristically began screaming at the top of her lungs. In the afternoon, when her teacher called on her classmate even though Ruth’s hand was raised high, Ruth threw her pencil across the room in anger and frustration. During recess, Ruth’s classmates kept coming over to their teacher and reporting how bossy she was; the last one said Ruth pushed her. The school psychologist invited Ruth to her office to check in but Ruth wouldn’t talk much; she said everything was fine.

Her younger brother, David, had a similarly challenging first day back. He had an accident in his kindergarten classroom in the afternoon and his teacher became concerned when she noticed a drawing in his notebook during journal time. David didn’t draw his afikoman present or the trip he went on with his family. He drew his family seated around their Seder table with his Dad towering high above him, red in the face, screaming, with steam coming out of his head. To his left, his baby brother was crying in his high chair while his mother appeared to be shrinking in her seat. Ruth was running out of the dining room with tears streaming down her face.

David and Ruth’s teachers weren’t used to this type of behavior and called their house that night. They asked if everything was okay at home. Leah was embarrassed by the teachers’ reports. She thanked the teachers for calling and managed to softly explain that Pesach was “complicated in our house” but that she would speak to the children and see if they were okay.

Leah hung up the phone and broke down crying. She knew things weren’t okay. She wasn’t okay and she knew her children were definitely not okay. She knew that her husband came from a home where he didn’t always feel the care, love and support he needed to thrive and that he was emotionally and physically abused by his parents. The more he behaved and sounded like his father, the more often Leah mentioned Project S.A.R.A.H.’s weekly therapy group for men like him, a place where he could learn how to make better choices for himself in his interpersonal relationships.Her husband’s pride wouldn’t let him admit that this was something he needed to address.

Spending five days with her husband over Yom Tov and Shabbos Chol Hamoed had taken a terrible toll on the family. Rather than experiencing the holiday as a time of freedom, Pesach in their house was filled with fear and terror. The children witnessed their father throw the corkscrew across the Seder table at their mother when she brought out the “wrong” bottle of wine. They’d almost gotten used to the verbally abusive language he hurled at her every other day, if the same words hadn’t reappeared in their nightmares. By the last day of Yom Tov they were eagerly anticipating going back to school. Once they were back in school, they finally had a chance to begin to decompress and relieve all of their pent up aggression.

Shira actually had a great first day back in high school.  She was at the top of her class, and was always eager to please her parents, siblings, teachers and friends. Despite what happened at home over Pesach, she proudly told her friends what a meaningful and uplifting Yom Tov she had. When things got chaotic, Shira was adroit at burying her head in her school books. Her sole expression of her feelings was in her personal journal where she described in words what her brother, David, depicted in his drawing. Unlike her younger siblings, she seemed to outwardly be able to keep her life in order while chaos regularly reigned around her. Through her silence and smiles, however, was her own quiet cry for help.

The impact of the pain and trauma felt by members of a family like this reverberates throughout the community. Obviously, Leah and her children are struggling to cope with an abusive husband and father. Leah already informed her rabbi that they couldn’t host guests visiting the community for Shabbos for the foreseeable future. Their donations to communal organizations have ceased. The children  began distancing themselves from their friends to avoid discussing details of what’s going on at home.

The impact of their husband and father’s abuse extends beyond the walls of their home. The children’s teachers try their best to adjust to their respective student’s exceedingly disruptive behavior. Research shows that if one student in the class is having a rough day it influences the rest of the children in the classroom, too. That’s because the disruptive behavior demands the teacher’s attention, interrupts the learning process as well as the flow of the day. Later, during recess and lunchtime, those classmates aren’t quite sure how to react to their longtime friend: constantly exerting effort to maintain the friendships is exhausting and, over time, many of them find it easier to just exclude these friends entirely.

At work, Leah’s colleagues and supervisors notice that she hasn’t been dressed as elegantly as in the past, that she hasn’t been spending as much time schmoozing at the office water cooler and that the quality of her work has declined.  They’re uncertain about what’s ailing her or how to help.

Each family member reacts to the domestic abuse they experienced over Pesach in their own way. Leah didn’t know of the 12 free individual therapy sessions that Project S.A.R.A.H., an organization that has been serving the needs of the New Jersey Orthodox Jewish community for the past 22 years, offers to victims and survivors of domestic violence and sexual abuse. Had she called the office for herself or her children, she would have learned about the free individual therapy as well as separate therapy groups for men and women that have benefited 135 victims and survivors in the past year alone. She might have benefitted from the case management, the psychiatric evaluations and treatment, and the material and vocational support the program offers, all in a confidential and culturally sensitive environment.

As a community member, if you know someone who may be in pain from abuse offer them your care and support. As the honoree at our organization’s upcoming breakfast, Dr. David Pelcovitz, often says, help them “name the monster” of abuse so that they can begin to address it. Remind them that no one deserves to be abused. Encourage them to speak to our community’s supportive rabbis like our rabbinic honoree, Rabbi Yaakov Neuburger. Tell them about the comprehensive array of culturally sensitive resources the dedicated and licensed staff at Project S.A.R.A.H. offers to help them through this tough time. Share the support and strength they need to break through the darkness and reach out for help. Offer your volunteer involvement as Peggy Danishefsky has. She developed a mother’s day breakfast project to support Project S.A.R.A.H.  Other volunteers coordinate prevention programs on behalf of Project S.A.R.A.H. and help spread the message to camp counselors, youth leaders, mikvah attendants and other community leaders.  By shining a light in the darkness you’ll help sweep away the social stigma associated with seeking therapy in our community, especially when it might save someone’s life and enhance their mental health.

Join Project S.A.R.A.H.’s at its 11th annual breakfast honoring Dr. David Pelcovitz, Rabbi Yaakov Neuburger and Peggy Danishefsky from 9:30-11:30AM on Sunday, April 30th at Cong. Keter Torah, 600 Roemer Avenue Teaneck, NJ 07666. Dr. Pelcovitz will deliver the keynote address entitled, “The Power of Connection and Community in Healing From Trauma.” Free reservations are appreciated and can be made online, at www.ProjectSarah.org, by phone at (973) 777-7638 and via email at [email protected]. Checks can be mailed to Project S.A.R.A.H. 925 Allwood Road Clifton, NJ 07012. Free babysitting is available upon request and walk-ins are welcome.

Rabbi Michael Bleicher, LSW is a therapist and outreach coordinator for Project S.A.R.A.H. and the rabbi of the Elmora Hills Minyan in Elizabeth, NJ.