Q&A with Raffi Bilek from Project S.A.R.A.H.: Fighting the Good Fight Against Domestic Violence in the Jewish Community

Raffi Bilek is the Outreach Coordinator for Project S.A.R.A.H., an organization based in New Jersey, and dedicated to ending domestic abuse, specifically within the Jewish community, where, although we would all like to believe it doesn’t exists, it does.  Raffi has therefore taken on a critical role, one that requires broad shoulders.  A graduate of Brown and Yeshiva Universities, as well as Machon Shlomo and Yeshiva Atlanta, Raffi has been a practicing therapist in Israel and the United States, and currently resides in Passaic, New Jersey.  Raffi has been generous with his time in answering my questions about the “slings and arrows” as well as the successes he has experienced in his work:

Please describe Project S.A.R.A.H. in terms of its mission and purpose, constituent base and area of operation, variety of services offered.

Project S.A.R.A.H. (Stop Abusive Relationships At Home) was created 15 years ago specifically to serve the needs of victims of domestic violence in the Orthodox community. We are a statewide program and field calls from all parts of New Jersey, although most of our clients come from North Jersey, which is where we are located. While we serve the entire Jewish community, and, really, anyone who walks through our doors, our target population is the Orthodox community, which has a specific set of needs and cultural/religious barriers to accessing other general services. In the past few years we have expanded into the area of sexual abuse as well and have begun serving clients who have been victimized in this way, as well as offering educational prevention programs to parents and schools.

Among the services we offer are the following: direct counseling, including free individual counseling for victims, art therapy and play therapy for children, a women’s group and a men’s group; a hotline, in conjunction with New York’s Shalom Task Force; Kosher Kits for local shelters (which contain enough kosher food for a woman and three children for 24 hours); and education to a wide range of groups, including law enforcement, physicians, rabbis, mikveh attendants, school administration, parents, and students.

Our mission is that no Jewish victim of domestic violence or sexual abuse should remain a victim because s/he is unaware of the resources available to him/her.

What is your role at Project S.A.R.A.H.?

I am the outreach coordinator. I was brought on by a federal grant to expand the services of Project S.A.R.A.H. Thus, I coordinate and deliver many of the trainings and other initiatives that we do, maintain contacts with rabbis across the state, seek further relationship-building opportunities, and dabble in social media.

How well-integrated is the organization within the community?

Project S.A.R.A.H., as part of the local Jewish Family Service, is an accepted and supported cause in the Clifton-Passaic community and much of North Jersey. The Clifton-Passaic community runs a yearly community appeal that brings in a lot of support from local residents; we also have an annual breakfast in Bergen County that was particularly well-attended this year. The Frisch High School in Paramus adopts us from time to time as a designated charity for the students’ charity competition – the students have in the past raised upwards of $10,000 on our behalf!

Many people have heard of us and know what we’re about, though it’s not everyone – it still is a sensitive topic and not something people are accustomed to go talking about in casual conversation.

Has there been success raising awareness of–and combatting–domestic and sexual abuse within the community?

There certainly has been a lot of success. We’ve come to a point where it is no longer common to suggest that these problems don’t exist in the Jewish community. There is still a lot of education that needs to be done, but the cause has come a long way. There are still people who would rather not discuss these issues, apparently on an out-of-sight-out-of-mind approach. Similarly, parents often ask us why they should agree to send their children to our safety workshops and “ruin their innocence.” The truth, in fact, is that children do not lose their innocence as a result of these workshops (which are in fact quite fun and light-hearted), and research shows that education is the best way to keep kids safe. Much in the same way that we teach kids to call 911 in case of emergency, we need to teach them what to do in case they find themselves in a sexually dangerous situation.

Still, things are better than they were. Thank G-d, there are places for Jewish victims to turn for help. There is an awareness among rabbis out there that this is a problem and that resources exist to help them deal with it. And there is a slow move away from the stigmatized view of victims towards acceptance and help.

What have been significant challenges facing the organization? How has this been handled?

There is still some resistance out there that we struggle with from time to time, such as a rabbi who “doesn’t get it” and who inadvertently makes life harder for a victim. And there are communities out there that one might call more “right-wing” that still take a hush-hush approach to dealing with these issues, which harms victims and abets perpetrators. These kinds of situations pain us, but at the same time strengthen us to keep fighting the good fight.

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