Although Israelis are ranked among the happiest people on the planet, nobody would deny that life here comes with a host of challenges — from a high cost of living to the ever-present threat of war and terror to the recent mass civil protests over the government’s proposed judicial reform.
Emotional First-Aid by Telephone & Internet (ERAN) helps Israelis navigate these and other crises by phone or online chat, free of charge, anonymously and confidentially. The service is available in Hebrew, Arabic, English, Russian, Amharic, French and Spanish.
Following the coronavirus pandemic, the NGO has even become part of the national emergency system. Although the range of referrals to the hotline includes “common” reasons like depression and other mental-health disorders, ERAN Professional Director Dr. Shiri Daniels says that in the weeks leading up to Passover this year, one in every four cases was directly related to “the political and social breakdown.”
An island of sanity
Daniels says that in February, 15 percent of all calls and chat line appeals dealt with the judicial reform unrest, from all sides of the political spectrum. In March, that number increased to 25% — which on average constitutes about 200 cases a day.
She says the volume of calls was so great that in an unprecedented move, the organization decided to add “the political-social crisis” category to the hotline’s call management system.
“This is something we haven’t done even during all the recent election cycles,” she tells ISRAEL21c.
“The challenge for our volunteers is to be there for the people who call, to listen without judging, without having the discourse turn violent. These days our organization is an island of sanity.”
She says the cases that directly address the political unrest include those with general anxiety as well as those who were attacked — physically or verbally — at one of the protests.
“ERAN is a microcosmos of Israeli society,” she says.
“It reflects the stress level and the emotional distress of the public. We get calls from men, women, teenagers, senior citizens, soldiers, ultra-Orthodox, Arabs and new immigrants. They all share a common worry about the political situation in Israel, and how it will impact them in the future.”
The proportion of calls addressing the justice reform issue plateaued at 25% over the months of March and April, but calls relating to security concerns have increased to 30% in April compared to March. This may be due partly to rocket attacks during the holidays as well as worries and emotions surrounding the upcoming Memorial Day (April 25) and Independence Day (April 26).
Daniels, who has worked at ERAN for 14 years, recalled a recent appeal from an elderly woman who said she had never called the hotline before.
The woman told the responder that she had been through wars and lost close relatives, but she never felt so despondent as she does now due to the civil unrest.
That caller was not alone. “People say they are afraid that a civil war may break out soon. The public is exposed to so much hate that it is difficult not to take it personally,” Daniels says.
Operating on 3 continents
Established in 1971, Eran currently operates 13 branches nationwide, six branches in North America and one in Australia. The overseas branches are manned by Israeli volunteers who live there. In all, ERAN has 1,600 volunteers.
People wishing to volunteer at ERAN are required to pass a course in which Daniels instructs them how to answer calls and put all personal emotions and political views aside.
Following each call or chat, the volunteers fill out a form detailing the case in order to be reviewed by the professional staff, who make sure the response provided was adequate.
“It’s important to be aware of ourselves and our own triggers, to know where the experience of the caller crosses paths with the point where it echoes the events we have gone through, how to make the caller and their needs the center of the conversation not ourselves,” Daniels says.
“Our goal is to make the callers talk about themselves. Sometimes they tell us things they have never told anyone else.”
Yedidya Schwartz, 30, has been volunteering at ERAN for a year alongside his day job as a software developer. The father of two says he felt the need “to minimize the suffering” in the world.
“A call can last for up to 40 minutes, and in some cases you really connect with the person on the other side, even though it’s anonymous. When someone in distress opens their heart to you, it creates a special bond. Maybe I didn’t change their lives, but in that moment I changed something in them.”
At ERAN, he adds, “there will always be someone to talk to even if you are completely lost. In some cases, it’s a net that catches you just before you are about to fall and crash.”
One case that impacted him the most was a man whose wife was suffering from a terminal illness. “He didn’t tell me that he was thinking of hurting himself. He just talked to me about how sad he was, and it was the only place where he could pour his heart out.”
When callers do present as suicidal, Daniels says, ERAN responds differently than do similar organizations across the world. While other mental-health hotlines will never violate the right to anonymity even in such cases, ERAN puts human life above all, and will alert emergency medical services if the volunteer determines there is immediate danger to the caller’s life.
Getting at the real problem
Schwartz acknowledges an uptick in calls related to the judicial protests, as well as the security situation. “We are in emergency mode; the shifts are much busier than usual,” he says.
“But, a lot of the time the real problem is not the judicial crisis or protests. [These issues] serve as a trigger for people’s personal problems to resurface,” Schwartz adds.
“I had a caller who was having a panic attack over the judicial crisis, but from our discussion I understood it stemmed from something deeper. I started asking her what else might be triggering her attack, but I lost her because she was unwilling to talk about anything else.”
Iris Gerlitz, 70, echoes her colleague’s sentiments. She says that more often than not the political unrest or security instability are not primary reasons of distress, but triggers that exacerbate existing problems.
“These events aggravate the feelings of anxiety, fear, anger and other feelings that need an outlet. Now it’s the political unrest, before it was Covid — these are just external elements that amplify personal problems,” she says.
“When people start talking to me about the protests and the judicial reform — whether they are against it or not — I always try to change the course of the conversation and I ask, ‘How does it make you feel?’ Let’s talk about feelings, not politics.”
Iris has been volunteering at ERAN for over 10 years and says the services it provides are unique.
“We know from statistics that the fact that ERAN exists helps the proper authorities to cope with national situations of distress — like during the COVID pandemic,” she says.
“Even now, with the recent rocket attacks in the north and the south, the authorities referred those who were dealing with anxiety to us. We get the immediate satisfaction that what we do matters.”
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