jlink
Sunday, January 21, 2018

Members of the Rachel Coalition Steering Committee with Joshua Safran at the Rachel Coalition Women to Women Luncheon last fall. (Credit: JFS MW)

Suzanne Groisser, Coordinator of Rachel Coalition Legal Services, receiving the NJ Crime Victims’ Rights Award. (Credit: JFS MW)

2014 Run for Rachel participants Andrea Bier (Rachel Steering Committee past President), Joseph DiVincenzo (Essex County Executive), Robin Polson and Sheri Wolfson (current Rachel Steering Committee President) (Credit: JFS MW)

(Part 4 of a series)

Florham Park—One of the primary goals of Jewish Family Service of MetroWest (JFS MW) is meeting the ever-changing needs of the communities it serves. In the mid-1990s, JFS MW mental health professionals began identifying more and more clients, mostly women, who were victims of domestic violence. This inspired the agency to find a way to better focus its services, enabling its social workers to not only identify these clients, but help them in a more significant way.

Addressing the issue of domestic violence was a more complex task than managing many of JFS MW’s other services, as it necessitated extending beyond its own borders and interfacing with various other organizations and agencies.

“These were not issues for JFS MW alone, but for the entire community. We needed a community-wide response,” commented Reuben Rotman, Executive Director of JFS MW.

JFS MW got its community response, and it was huge. By partnering with outside agencies, and incorporating legal services and community education into its already solid clinical services, the Rachel Coalition was born.

Rachel was a Biblical heroine known for looking after her children. “She cries over her children” is a well-known Biblical phrase describing the Jewish matriarch. Similarly, the Rachel Coalition was created for the express purpose of looking after the women and children of the community. Additionally, as a somewhat generic “Jewish name,” Rachel allows women to refer to the organization by its first name only, thereby allowing them to maintain anonymity.

Initially partnering with three outside agencies, Rachel is now truly a “coalition,” creating programming in conjunction with nine organizations. These include JFS MW, Women’s Philanthropy of Jewish Federation of Greater MW, National Council of Jewish Women (NCJW—Essex County Section), NCJW (West Morris Section), St. Barnabas Medical Center, The Rabbinic Cabinet of MW, Hadassah (Northern NJ Region), Jewish Women International (North Atlantic Region) and JCC MW.

Shari Bloomberg, Clinical Coordinator of the Rachel Coalition, manages both individual and adult group counseling for the division, with services provided mainly in the Livingston office. There is a twice-weekly psychoeducational support group offered for women, with babysitting available at the evening session and children’s group sessions concurrently offered several times a year. The group sessions are often a powerful experience for the victims because they help the women realize they are not to blame and, perhaps most importantly, are not alone.

“Imagine a room full of women who, in any other setting, would have nothing in common. Here they are united by their common trauma,” commented Bloomberg.

“Our clients are not all ‘stereotypical victims’ of abuse,” she continued. “They are not all physically abused. In fact, we see many more women who are suffering in ‘high-conflict relationships’—dealing with emotional abuse, threats, intimidation and belittling. We see women of all backgrounds—all religions, economic levels and cultures. We are here to help everyone. Domestic violence does not discriminate.”

Rachel does not discriminate either, with services available to all. Payment is taken on a sliding-fee scale and most insurance is accepted. While there is a sensitivity toward the Jewish community, the division is nonsectarian and clinicians are available to all women.

“We work with people. We are not looking to turn anyone away,” said Bloomberg.

Prior to Rachel, there were no services for victims of abuse in Suburban Essex County at all. Several years after beginning the clinical program, the division found that there was a great need for legal assistance for domestic violence victims. These women were unaware of their rights and were forced to wait in the public courthouse waiting rooms, where even a sideways glance from their abusers would be enough to completely unnerve them.

In 2003, Rachel’s legal program began, with attorneys directly representing the victims in family court. Most of the legal services assist women in obtaining final restraining orders against their abusers, but also include help with child support, mortgage payments, financial support and safe child visits.

Suzanne Groisser, Coordinator of Rachel Coalition Legal Services, commented, “You cannot be safe unless you have financial support.”

Rachel Coalition attorneys mainly work pro bono, and are trained and mentored in understanding the psychology of domestic violence victims. Their goal is to avoid revictimization through the legal system. In addition to the attorneys, Rachel has a team of volunteer Court Advocates who assist the victims in the court waiting room, explaining the court procedure, providing referrals, discussing safety planning and providing emotional support. These volunteer attorneys, as well as anyone else within the system who deals with victims of domestic violence, undergo special training to ensure their services are provided in a non-intimidating manner. Since 2006, Rachel has been offering 40-hour training sessions to its volunteers and others working within the system.

“The state standard is that to work with domestic violence victims you must have 40 hours of training. It wasn’t available in Essex County prior to 2006,” said Groisser.

Each municipality in the state is mandated to have a Domestic Violence Response Team (DVRT). Rachel oversees training for all Essex County municipalities. Currently, it is training over 10 Court Advocates, along with over 50 DVRT members. These volunteers will “graduate” on June 9.

In addition to its court-based volunteers, Rachel has a volunteer Legal Committee, which drafted a Legal Handbook entitled “Surviving Domestic Violence: Your Legal Rights.” It clearly defines women’s rights in abuse situations, and is published in both English and Spanish.

In its ever-expanding role in the realm of domestic violence, Rachel was instrumental in creating a Safe House for victims in Essex County. Access to the Safe House provides women with a place to go when they might otherwise remain in dangerous situations because of a mistaken belief that there was no other place available.

On May 8, Rachel held the first-ever Domestic Violence Public Policy Round Table, co-sponsored by the Community Relations Committee of the Jewish Federation of Greater MW, Partners for Women and Justice and the NJ Coalition for Battered Women. Attended by state legislators and state leaders in the area of domestic violence, its goal was to ensure the proper laws are in place to aid and protect victims.

Of the many tools in Rachel’s arsenal, none is more important than community education. “People are still in denial,” commented Rotman. “They can’t believe this goes on here. They think it’s an urban issue or for ‘other groups.’” Like many other JFS MW services, the need for community education was identified as a result of counseling sessions with victims.

Community Education takes many forms. Rachel runs a program called “In Her Shoes,” which allows participants to step into the ‘shoes’ of a domestic violence victim, making decisions as a victim and managing the consequences of those decisions. This program has been taken to college campuses, corporations, halfway houses and anywhere else it is requested.

“This is interactive. You are in the shoes of the victim and have to decide things like who and how to tell, and what to say. Once you go through this experience it will always stay with you,” commented Sylvia Heller, Community Education Coordinator.

Bloomberg added, “It’s like the ‘Choose Your Own Path’ books. Each choice leads to additional, different decisions to make.”

There are other programs designed to educate the community as well. Rachel Shabbats are events where the synagogue rabbi or an outside speaker discusses an issue related to domestic violence. The “Cut It Out” program helps educate hairdressers, who are often uniquely situated in victims’ lives to be the recipients of their need or desire to share their pain. “Mikvah ladies” are also trained, to recognize not only signs of physical abuse, but emotional abuse as well. Education is brought to schools and hospitals so that those on the front lines are able to have the proper sensitivity to deal with any issues that might arise, physical or otherwise. Men and boys also receive education, in the hope of preventing certain issues before they even begin. Rachel sponsors Orthodox Outreach programs as well, tailored to the specific needs of that population.

Perhaps the biggest community education effort is the annual Run for Rachel, held this year on May 17. The Run, and its counterpart for children, the Children’s Run, is intended as a forum to get the message out to the public in a safe, nonthreatening and fun manner. The Run not only serves to educate, but is a major source of fundraising for the Rachel Coalition as well.

Rachel’s fundraising arm is vital in ensuring its continued existence and success. Together with the volunteer members of the Rachel Coalition Steering Committee, currently led by Sheri Wolfson and formerly by Andrea Bier, Heller works to keep the fundraising efforts fresh each year.

“We need to be creative and innovative,” Heller said.

“We always need to have our thinking caps on,” added Wolfson.

There have been fashion shows at Saks Fifth Avenue in the Short Hills Mall, private fundraising events in people’s homes and yearly women’s luncheons where guest speakers discuss relevant issues. In fact, Heller was thrilled to announce Rachel’s major 2015 fundraiser, to be held on October 18 of this year. In an event cosponsored by, and held at, Temple Beth Ahm Yisrael in Springfield, the Rachel Coalition will be hosting “A Conversation with Mariska Hargitay.” Best known for her portrayal of Detective Olivia Benson on NBC’s hit series “Law and Order: SVU,” Hargitay has merged her “reel” and “real” lives in her position as Founder and President of the Joyful Heart Foundation, an organization dedicated to eradicating domestic violence and sexual assault.

“A revolution always begins from within. This one begins when you decide how you will hold the issues of sexual assault, domestic violence and child abuse within you, and how you live out that decision,” said Hargitay on the Foundation’s website.

Between the state, institutional and private grants, client fees and fundraising, Rachel is able to be self-sustaining. However, there is always more work to be done. While there is a core group of long-time volunteers, newcomers are always welcome. To find out more about what Rachel does, how it can help or how you can help, visit www.rachelcoalition.org.

“Because Rachel is embedded in a family service agency, rather than being an exclusive domestic violence agency, our services can be much more comprehensive,” said Rotman. “This has to be a community issue and we have to get out there and spread the word. If we just sit back and wait for the phones to ring, we will not be effective in helping people, which is our main goal. Everything we do starts with the client.”

If you or someone you know is a victim of domestic abuse, call Rachel in confidence at 973-740-1233. She is there to help.

By Jill Kirsch