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A Promise Kept

A retired teacher’s battle with domestic violence leads her to fight for others

By Janet Rivera Mednik


For Sheila Bernstein (pictured, right), a middle school foreign language teacher, the stress of living a double life was exhausting. But she found the courage to confide in a few colleagues that she was not the carefree woman that she appeared to be. She was a battered wife.

In 1990, as an active Bergen County, N.J., teacher, Bernstein spoke quietly and nervously about her tragic, personal experiences with domestic violence. Today, as a New Jersey Retirees' Education Association (NJREA) volunteer, she speaks loudly and clearly about putting an end to spousal abuse.

“I was scared and intimidated to tell anyone about what was happening to me, explains Bernstein, who was in an abusive relationship for four years, and nervous about how colleagues would react to her secret. Their responses still give her goose bumps.

“One teacher immediately gave me a personal check to start a much-needed independent savings account. Another opened her home to me when I finally found the courage to leave my husband. And my principal did things, like giving me a close and visible parking space, to increase my personal security,” explains Bernstein.

The kindness and support gave Bernstein the strength to transform from a victim of domestic violence to a champion of those who are abused by their spouse or partner. After retiring from teaching in 2005, Bernstein began her volunteer work at a local private shelter, helping out with a fundraising effort. She then worked as a mentor to clients and their children. For the past eight years, as a community outreach and education volunteer at Center for Hope and Safety (formerly Shelter Our Sisters), Bernstein has spoken in synagogues, at college campuses, in churches, and in front of civic organizations to inform men and women about the tragedy of domestic violence.

Berstein’s message resonates with her audiences for many reasons. First, she speaks openly and honestly about the abuse she endured at the hands of her husband. As a middle-class, educated white female, she also immediately debunks stereotypes of what many people think a battered woman looks like. Additionally, her 30 years in the classroom help her to effectively educate people about various aspects of domestic violence, from statistics showing its prevalence to concrete strategies to escape it.

In 2012, the SOS/Center for Hope and Saftey recognized Bernstein as “Volunteer of the Year.” She seized the opportunity to publicly thank all those, including her NJEA colleagues, who helped awaken her from her personal nightmare. When receiving the award, Bernstein said, “Twenty years ago, I made a promise to myself that if I survived this situation, I would find a way to tell anyone who would listen about the scourge of domestic violence.” Bernstein’s word has proven to be her bond.

If you or anyone you know is the victim of domestic violence, call the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 800-799-7233, or contact your local shelter.

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