“Listen, Believe, Respond—to those among us who have experienced the trauma of abuse as children, adolescents or adults.”
A unique service, coming just days before Rosh Hashanah, will bring hope, validation and healing to the survivors of domestic, sexual, physical, verbal and all forms of abuse.
This community gathering is scheduled for Sunday, Sept. 13, beginning 7:30 p.m., at the Weinberg Park Heights Jewish Community Center, 5700 Park Heights Ave.
Co-sponsored by the Shofar Coalition, CHANA, the Baltimore Board of Rabbis, Jewish Community Services, the Associated: Jewish Community Federation of Baltimore and the BALTIMORE JEWISH TIMES, it is open to all survivors, family members and friends, mental health and medical professionals, clergy and educators. The healing service is open to Jews of any and all denominations, affiliated or not.
The service will place its emphasis on the voices of the survivors. There is a feeling among many survivors that their struggles have sometimes fallen on deaf ears. This is an opportunity for the community to learn about their struggles and respond to them.
“Whether you know all about this issue, or nothing about this issue, it is an event for everybody,” said Rabbi Amy Scheinerman, spiritual leader of Beth Shalom of Carroll County, a Baltimore Board of Rabbis officer and a member of the service’s planning committee. “I would like those who had experiences of abuse and trauma to know they are being heard, that people care and that people listen to their stories, believe their stories and are prepared to respond to those stories.”
Elaine Witman, Shofar Coalition director and a key planner of the service, said it is her hope that the community and its leaders will hear the message brought forth by trauma survivors; and that there are consequences to being silent.
“There are consequences to the victim and to the community,” she said. “Historically we as Jewish people know all too well the consequences of silence in the face of human suffering. I am hoping that this event will be the beginning of reshaping and rebuilding a community that is informed, educated and responsible.”
“I would like people to come away with a feeling that the rabbinic community would like to take more responsibility for the healing that needs to take place, and that the rabbinic community will take a lot more seriously the allegations that have been brought forward and will not put them under a rug,” said Rabbi Elan Adler, who is also on the planning committee.
“I’d like people to feel it’s a situation we’d like to turn around as a group of rabbis, to take allegations more seriously and to follow through more carefully, and to be thought of as a body that is part of the solution as opposed to as part of the problem,” he added.
Rabbi Dana Saroken of Beth El Congregation said she anticipates that people will come away from the evening profoundly moved.
“Listening to the stories of those who have been abused will be both enlightening and incredibly disturbing,” she said. “Those who participate in the evening will be reminded of just how real and just how close to all of us these tragedies are. My hope is that people will come away with greater insight into the experience of abuse: what it feels like to be a victim of abuse and how hard it is to heal and to go on living. My prayer is that the exposure and insights shared throughout the night will make a difference in the way we approach and think about abuse.
“I am also hopeful that the people who have suffered and are suffereing from abuse will take some comfort in knowing that they are not alone and that people care. This is an opportunity to make sure that our community knows that angels like Elaine Witman and a team of special therapists are now in place in our community to respond to their calls and their cries, so that others won’t have to endure their suffering alone. “There is so much un-metabolized trauma in our community. Being forced to keep silent about abuse deprives survivors of the acknowledgment, validation and empathic support that is so vital to healing,” said Lisa Ferentz, a clinical social worker who is on the planning committee. “This meeting can have an important impact. It’s a beginning way for the community to say, “We hear you, we believe you, and we care enough to want to acknowledge your experience.”
An important sample of those voices was on hand in the comfortable Sudbrook Park living room of Leslie, a survivor, who agreed to allow her first name to be used. Others agreed to use a first name or chose a fictitious first name.
Survivors spoke of the challenges of validation they have encountered. They want this event to be an opportunity for the community to learn from them. Some of their feelings were raw and angry. Most, however, were hopeful, believing that this is a chance for the Jewish community to grow from their pain.
“I have a lot of anger,” Hillel said. “The rabbis hopefully will listen to what we have to say.”
Hillel’s sentiments were supported by Esther, who, after her molestation, went for help to three different rabbis, all of whom did nothing to help her. “Nobody,” she said, “should be treated that way.”
The planners, however, have made the evening’s goal that of anyone who has encountered abuse to be “embraced in an understanding way by anyone to whom she turns: parent, friend, teacher, therapist or rabbi.”
Rachel, another survivor, said she sees the upcoming healing service as an opportunity, a chance for the community to be educated from the involuntary “experts,” the victims.
Dr. Nancy Aiken, director of CHANA, told the group that Judaism teaches us of our obligation not to stand idly by.
“Can we challenge ourselves and ask, have we done everything we could have done?” she said.
“I’d like to see the community mimic the strength of the survivors,” said Dr. Aiken of her goals for the healing service. “As much as they have had to do the hard work of recovery, we, as a community, need to find the same strength. We need to pull ourselves through the pain and guilt and shock and denial and grief these issues have created. We need to pull ourselves through so that we can move towards reconstruction of our response, working through the flawed response that we’ve had, so that we can get to a place of acceptance and hope. If we don’t prevent the abuse, we’ll go a long away in preventing the re-traumatization that sadly occurs after the initial incident after molestation, abuse or incest.
“This is the community saying: It did happen,” she added. “We are Jews, but we are human, and at very sad times this happens, but our merit is in our response.”
Back in Leslie’s living room, Jen added, “Before you are a rabbi, you are a person.” The youngest person in the room, perhaps, came up with the evening’s most wise, most important comment. “You have to be the difference. You can’t wait for someone else to do it. You have a human heart. You have to share it with whoever you’re with.”
Randi added that, “When you help another person, there is no greater reward.” She said, though, that what the community needs to learn is that too many times survivors who do seek help feel judged.
Leslie told the group of a profound lesson she taught a friend. She had gone to see “Doubt” with the friend. (This is a production about a molestation inside a Catholic school.) Leslie told the group that when she and her friend were leaving “Doubt,” he said to her that he didn’t know personally of a single molestation survivor.
Leslie responded, “You know me.”
At the healing service, people are going to look around the room and see familiar and unfamiliar faces. No one is going to walk in with a name tag that says, “I’m a survivor.” The survivor could be, and will be, the man or the woman seated nearby.
Rachel told the group that she wants people to change. She wants not only the rabbis educated, but also the court system.
“If you don’t speak about it,” said Rachel, “it’s not real.”
She would add later in the session, “Bad things happen to good people. But I don’t want the bad thing that happened to me to define my life.”
The issue of molestation is something that receives care and comment even from the top leadership of the Associated.
“I wish I could say our Jewish community is immune to the ravages of domestic abuse, molestation and trauma, but, sadly, I cannot,” said Marc B. Terrill, president of the Associated: Jewish Community Federation of Baltimore. “What I can say, however, is that as a community we have made great strides in our response to incidents of domestic abuse or trauma. For 13 years, CHANA has provided support for women and their families dealing with domestic violence and the recent addition of the Shofar Coalition to our system of agencies and programs enables us to reach even more people needing our help.
“But compassion should not come only from professionals and organizations. As individuals, we must all reach out a helping hand to those who have suffered and support them as they struggle to overcome the trauma in their lives.”
For information about CHANA’s services, call 410-234-0030.
Healing Groups sponsored by the Shofar Coalition for women and men who have endured traumatic experiences:
• From Survivor to Thriver: Building Coping Strategies
Co-sponsored with Jewish Community Services
Thursdays, 6-7:30 p.m., Women only
• Creating Balance and Wellness: Recovery Through Art
Tuesdays, 7-8:30 p.m., Women only
• Renewal and Recovery Through Movement Therapy
Day and time to be announced, Women only
• You Are Not Alone: Separate Groups for Orthodox Women and Men
Women’s group — Wednesdays, 7-8:30 p.m.
Men’s group — day and time to be announced
• Survivors in Recovery: 12 Step Model
First Monday of every month, 7-8:30 p.m. Men and women
All groups are professionally facilitated and meet in a private, confidential location in the Pikesville area. To make a referral or to discuss participation and group fees, call Joan Kristall, LCSW-C, clinical coordinator for the Shofar Coalition, at 410-843-7576.