Imagine being stuck deep inside a long dark tunnel for many years. You appeal to numerous people on the outside for help but for some reason they are unable to; or perhaps they do not even see that you need it.

Finally, you meet someone who leads you to safety. After you have emerged and recuperated somewhat - for to say that those dark years had a deep effect on you is a wild understatement - you begin to think of all the others who are still trapped in the tunnel. You may have never met them, you may not know their names, but you know that they are there. And you know that it is your responsibility, now that you yourself have been liberated, to tell people, all those people who could not or did not help you, how they can help those still in pain.

Although you do not want to focus on your years in the blackness, it is necessary to share even just a fraction of your experiences in order to make them understand just how desperately their help is needed.

That is the purpose of this article. Not to focus on the negative, not to lay blame, not to cull pity from the reader. I neither want nor need that. This article is intended to show you, important and caring readers, how you can help others who are going through what I went through, who are experiencing what I experienced. And in doing so, it will be necessary to illustrate my points by reliving some bits of my dark and painful past.

Family life is a central component in Jewish life. Our calendar is not only replete with festivals to be celebrated together, but we have Shabbat once a week - a time for family - not to mention weddings, Bar and Bat Mitzvahs, and the many other family oriented celebrations and rituals. The next time you sit around your Shabbat table, or dinner table for that matter, surveying your beautiful family, imagine what it must be like for those who do not have that. In fact, just remember how homesick your children feel when they are away in camp, or even at a sleepover. Now, multiply that manifold for those who are "homesick" for love and warmth, yet do not have that to go home to, ever.

You can make a lasting difference in a young person's lifeI am referring to children from broken and abusive homes. I want to tell you how you can ease the burden of these children, teenagers and young adults. I want to make you aware that in small, simple ways you can make a lasting difference in a young person's life and alleviate some of the pain. Just because a person's parents don't have the ability or inclination to be real parents, it does not mean that the child doesn't need, want or deserve to have that in their life every bit as much as your own children do. And you can help fill that need.

In homes where a divorce has taken place, it is inevitable that the children will be suffering in one way or another. There are often numerous court-cases, which are very unsettling for a child. Moreover, they are often involved in financial issues and used by both parents as a "go-between." This is not at all healthy for the child and places a heavy burden on him or her. What people often assume, however, is that once a remarriage has taken place, everything is fine. The opposite, in fact, is usually the case. Remarriage brings with it innumerable challenges and adjustments. The child often feels overwhelmed and helpless. Since it is the parents causing all the complications, to whom should the child turn?

You may be thinking, "I know so-and-so and her kids are fine," or, "My daughter's friend is from a troubled home and she's okay," but do you really know that? Are you 100% certain? Because I would venture to say she is really not so okay. It is imperative to look beyond the surface and take notice of deeper dimensions of the child's mood and behavior. When a child is acting up in class, has social problems and is generally "difficult," it is a clear indication that something is wrong, something is going on in that child's life. However, another child may react differently to the stress, but that still doesn't mean they are fine. A child can go through school making friends, getting good grades, not being disruptive in class, but suffering nonetheless. What are the signs to look for and what can we do to help these children?

What Teachers Should Look For

You see your students every day, or at least several times a week. You know at least a minimal amount about each child and their background. Be on the lookout for signs of distress - physical and emotional. Sometimes I wonder how it is possible that I went through twelve years of school without anyone realizing that things were not okay with me. Because the cuts and bruises were on my heart, and not on my arms and legs? Because, by the time physical abuse was an issue, I had already developed a reputation as a "dunce" so no one took notice of a few extra scars?

If you see that a student is reluctant to go home day after day - find out why. If a student looks positively miserable day in, day out, find out why. If a student is chronically exhausted, find out why. Please, do not ignore these signs.

Everyone needs love and attentionTeachers, you have such a big influence on your students' lives; use it to help them! Everyone needs praise and encouragement and everyone needs love and attention, especially a student who doesn't receive it at home. Imagine that your student is told every day, and several times a day, by her very own mother, that she is fat, ugly, unintelligent, untalented, useless, incompetent and so on. And even if you give her an A+ on a piece of work, when she comes home she's told, "I wouldn't even give you a B for that." You have the power to give her at least a part of what she is missing at home. To imbue your students with some self-confidence, to mold them into stable people who have a sense of worth beyond the happenings at home.

Moreover, you provide consistency. The student knows that no matter what they face at home, no matter what they come from in the mornings, and what they're going back to in the afternoons, you will be there in school, day after day. For me, the teachers who were sensitive to me on a consistent basis were my biggest comfort. You - the teacher - are an anchor, providing consistency in a most inconsistent and painful world.

Most importantly, if your student wants to share what is in her heart, even if you don't have a magical solution, listen to her. Comfort her. Let her cry. Let her talk. Reassure her that things will be all right someday even if she and you don't see it now. Assure her that she will grow up and can be a happy person with an independent life. Please do not respond with the patronizing, "I'm sure it's not as bad as it seems," because it most likely is exactly as bad as it seems, if not worse.

How Older Friends Can Help

You are young and not ready to be a surrogate parent to anyone. But still, if someone does come to you with problems, don't turn her away just because you are not equipped to fully deal with it. Listen to her, believe her, speak to a responsible and older person about her. Refer her to someone more experienced and possibly in a position to help. Go with her to that person if need be. You help just by being a friend! By turning to you, she is reaching out for help, and indicating that she is searching for a way out of the tunnel. Do not turn her away!

If It Is Your Child's Friend

I know of a situation where a family literally took a girl in because she couldn't live at home anymore. The arrangement worked out well for everyone - the family had an extra pair of hands to help with the kids; but most of all, the girl had a warm, loving environment where she flourished. I recognize that most people are not in a position to do that, but there are so many small things you can do to help.

Mothers, you are blessed with a special maternal warmth. Use it! You surely see how much your own children thrive on your love, warmth and attention. If you know someone who is not getting that at home, share some with him or her! You cannot imagine how much a smile, a kind word, a hug, can mean to someone who is despised, neglected, or both, by their own parents and their parents' new spouses.

Fathers, if you are studying with your child and you know they have a friend with no dedicated father, encourage your child to invite them to join. There is no reason for a child's schooling to suffer because they have no one to study or do homework with.

Show her that not all men are evilIf you can, build up a relationship with your child's friend. Take an interest in his or her learning. Take the time to answer and encourage their questions. More importantly, particularly for girls: show her that not all men are evil. It is easy for her to assume that what she is exposed to is the norm. My memories of my father, from a young age, consist of being locked in various closets for "misbehaving," being forced to sit in a freezing cold bath packed with ice and other horrific consequences of his mood. That changed to a phone call once every two years, which eventually stopped altogether. A male role model would have been very beneficial. Someone from whom to observe what a real father is and should be.

How to Use Shabbat, Family Dinners and Other Events

Invite, invite, invite! I cannot stress this enough. If you know someone from a broken home, and you are hosting a Shabbat, holiday or family dinner, invite him or her as often as you can. Not the whole family, just the child. Not only will you be giving the child a very welcome respite from the tension at home, but you will be showing him/her how a healthy family interacts together - an invaluable and lifelong gift.

Now that I have been privileged to spend Shabbat with truly wonderful, kind people, I realize how beautiful it can be. But as a teenager walking home from synagogue on Friday nights, I would look longingly through the windows of all the families on my street, positively yearning for a home like theirs. Sometimes I would sit in the front yard and cry until I composed myself enough to go inside and sit through a Shabbat meal led by a man who tormented me (my mother's second husband). Where I was told repeatedly that unless I start using his last name as mine, he won't include me in the inheritance and, since I have nothing else going for me, I'll be penniless, and I certainly will have no chance of a marriage prospect. Yes, those are the kinds of comments I was constantly bombarded with in my home - a place that should be a secure and accepting haven.

I know it's not easy to have guests, but do take into consideration how much pain you can be sparing someone and what an unimaginable gift you are bestowing on him or her, by simply extending an invitation.

One of the families welcomed me into their homeI did finally meet an absolutely wonderful woman (may she be blessed many times over) who listened and helped me, who arranged for me to leave home and attend school abroad and then welcomed me into her family with open arms, and continues to help me heal and grow. I saw how she treated her husband and I saw how he treated her and I learned. Thanks to her, I am able to sit here today and write this to you.

I had a wonderful year abroad and met many kind, generous people. One of the families welcomed me into their home with such warmth that I almost feel part of their family. Shabbat and holidays became something enjoyable for the first time ever and when I would come to class in the mornings and be greeted with a genuine smile and a cheerful "good morning," somehow it wouldn't matter that the night before I called home, only to be told "you have the wrong number" and had the phone slammed down in my ear. And when an adorable five year old would smile at me and say "I love you" - those magical words I so craved as a child - suddenly, everything would be okay. Better than okay. Wonderful in fact.

So although it is still hard for me, and it can hurt me so much to watch you hug and love your children, to be in your house for Shabbat - not because I don't enjoy it, but because it is a constant reminder of what I never had and what I don't have to return to - at the same time it is an invaluable lesson of how things should be and how they will, G‑d willing, be for my future family.

I hope that you will take the initiative and make that difference – no matter how small - in someone else's life. Someone buried deep in a painful tunnel, in desperate need, waiting for your arrival.


Editor's Note:Below are some of the many organizations working to prevent abuse and help survivors of abuse to heal. This list was orginally compiled by Miriam Karp for a related article on abuse:

Jsafe: The Jewish Institute Supporting An Abuse Free Environment is an organization led by Rabbi Mark Dratch, which provides a certification program for communal institutions, publications and educational initiatives. Jsafe.org

Ohel Children's Home and Family Services of Brooklyn, NY, has therapy and treatment programs for both victims and perpetrators, sensitive to Jewish needs. (800)603-OHEL

The Awareness Center is a coalition of Jewish mental health practitioners dedicated to building awareness in the Jewish community. They also offer an extensive online collection of articles on issues affecting survivors of sexual abuse. Awarenesscenter.org

The SOVRI Helpline is an anonymous and confidential helpline staffed by trained volunteers who provide help, information, support, and referrals to survivors of sexual abuse. We don't have caller ID. Our volunteers are trained to understand the dynamics of sexual abuse. They also have training in listening and counseling skills, emergency department protocol, legal protocol, post-traumatic stress disorder, domestic abuse, childhood sexual abuse and incest, and recommending appropriate resources. Our volunteers are supervised by licensed social workers with extensive experience in dealing with these issues. SOVRI Helpline is under the auspices of Beth Israel Medical Center in Manhattan.

The helpline is open Monday-Thursday 9:30am-5:30pm and Friday 9:30am-1:30pm. The phone number is (212)844-1495.

Shalom Task Force Hotline provides information on rabbinic, legal and counseling services for victims of abuse in the Jewish community. (888)883-2323.

Faith Trust Institute is a clearinghouse for information on domestic violence and clergy abuse in the Jewish community. Faithtrustinstitute.org.

Association of Jewish Family and Children Services (AJFCA). (800)634-7346. ajfca@ajfca.org

National Center for Victims of Crime (800)FYI-CALL.

National Child Abuse Hotline (800)4-A-CHILD.

National Hotline for Victims of Sexual Assault (800)656-HOPE.

National Organization for Victim Assistance (800)TRY-NOVA.

Find Jewish resources by state at jewishwomen.org/directory/state_res.htm

Sources for internet and general safety include kidsafe.com

Much additional information is readily available online, through family service agencies, and in the library.