Victims of rape and incest often have few places where they can turn to deal with the emotional and physical toll of the crimes committed against them. And in certain societies where discussions even remotely of a sexual nature are conducted in extreme privacy, many victims are left with no alternative but to suffer — sometimes for decades — in silence.
Beth Israel Medical Center is helping to bridge this gap through a planned series of culturally-sensitive, confidential help lines targeted to specific ethnic groups to help victims of rape, incest and all forms of molestation confront the crimes committed against them, pursue corrective action and find appropriate counseling. The hospital recently launched the first of these targeted help lines under the auspices of a program in the hospital’s Department of Social Work called SOVRI — Support for Orthodox Victims of Rape and Incest.
At the crux of SOVRI is an anonymous, confidential help line — 212-844-1495 — answered by trained volunteers from the Orthodox Jewish community who are able to offer compassionate support, information and referrals. Its hours of operation are Monday through Thursday, 9:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m., and Fridays from 10 a.m. to 12 p.m.
SOVRI is actually not a brand-new initiative. It was originally started in 1981 by a group of Orthodox women in Washington Heights, led by Basya Littman, who saw a need in their community to support individuals dealing with sexual assault. In addition to operating a hotline for several years, they also ran community education programs in yeshivas and at women’s groups.
Chaya Mermerstein, LCSW, an Orthodox woman and a clinical social worker in the Department of Psychiatry at Beth Israel, has seen many Orthodox victims of rape and incest both through her work at the hospital and in her private practice. She met Littman, and other interested people, and the idea of resurrecting SOVRI began. When Beth Israel became involved, Cheryl Friedman, LCSW, an Orthodox social worker in the Emergency Department and Victim Services, who also worked with many Orthodox survivors of rape and incest, became an integral part of this program.
“Being a victim of sexual assault is of great concern to many people in the Orthodox community, just as it is in other communities,” Mermerstein says. “Like many other ethnic groups, Orthodox victims of sexual assault often suffer in silence because of longstanding reticence to talk about what happened to them. That is why it is critically important to create a safe, confidential environment that is sensitive to their way of life.”
Friedman adds that males also can be victims of sexual assault. “Our service is also open to men who have been victims,” she adds. “Sexual assault is not a crime that affects just one gender. It affects everyone.”
Presently, the SOVRI help line is staffed by 12 Orthodox volunteers who are specially trained to ‘actively listen’ to callers, and to provide assistance in several areas, including referring them for counseling either to members of the Beth Israel staff or to appropriate organizations and services closer to their homes. Carole Sher, LCSW, Crime Victims coordinator in Beth Israel’s Social Work Department and another of the driving forces behind SOVRI, says that ‘active listening’ is critical to the program’s effectiveness.
“Active listening has several benefits,” Sher says. “First, it forces people to focus attentively to others. Second, it avoids misunderstanding as the trained volunteers have to confirm that they really do understand what the other person has said. Third, and perhaps most importantly, it encourages people to begin to address and get validation for complex and painful feelings and experiences.”
Mermerstein and Friedman report that, to date, important rabbis and other community leaders in the Orthodox enclaves throughout Manhattan and its surrounding boroughs have been supportive of SOVRI. They hope and expect that more will follow. “When the Orthodox have issues or concerns, they often turn to their rabbis and other respected community leaders for guidance,” Mermerstein says. “That is why we are working hard to get information about SOVRI into the hands of these spiritual and community leaders.”
“They represent the best opportunity to spread the word about this important resource,” adds Friedman.
If you are interested to learn more about SOVRI or how to become a help line volunteer, contact Sher in the Department of Social Work at Beth Israel Medical Center, at 212-420-4516 or email [email protected].