Meet the psychotherapist helping new olim beat the stress of aliyah

“I am very honored to be helping olim from all over the world.”

 The people behind KeepOlim (from left): Founding CEO Liami Lawrence; board member Anne Pollard; Susan Cohen, co-director of Tikva for Olim Mental Health Program; board member David Hova; Jessica Thangiom, Bnei Menashe program; MK Alex Kushnir; and founding CEO Attorney Tzvika Graiver (photo credit: Lev Tabachnikov)
The people behind KeepOlim (from left): Founding CEO Liami Lawrence; board member Anne Pollard; Susan Cohen, co-director of Tikva for Olim Mental Health Program; board member David Hova; Jessica Thangiom, Bnei Menashe program; MK Alex Kushnir; and founding CEO Attorney Tzvika Graiver
(photo credit: Lev Tabachnikov)

“My life has totally changed,” says Susan Cohen, referring to events since her aliyah. 

“Living in Israel has changed me. Not only am I around family, but I’m working with olim from all over.”

Susan and husband Neville made aliyah in 2019 from Leeds to join their children and grandchildren who were already in Israel. “Being in the same country as them is amazing!” she declares. Though her elderly parents made aliyah with them, they found the adjustment too difficult and returned to the UK.

Susan has been engaged these last two years as a volunteer psychotherapist for the KeepOlim in Israel Movement, working with English-speaking olim. Keep-Olim, which began as a Facebook Group, is now a full-fledged nonprofit with close to 45,000 members, helping new olim settle in Israel. Susan coordinates their mental health services division, Tikva, which offers low-cost and free therapy in 15 languages.

“Through this I have met MKs, the UK ambassador, and attended a Zoom meeting at the Knesset,” she relates. KeepOlim’s services include getting homeless olim into hostels, and providing food and therapy.

 Susan Cohen, 61; From Leeds, UK to Netanya, 2019 (credit: Ranephoto) Susan Cohen, 61; From Leeds, UK to Netanya, 2019 (credit: Ranephoto)

Going back some decades, Susan left school early to become a hairdresser. Though she enjoyed her profession and the cozy salon atmosphere, she opted out three years later because of allergy problems. She and her future husband were schoolmates who started dating at 16, marrying at age 22. She had several jobs while raising her family. Among them were phone sales for a newspaper, working for a high-end jewelry store, and ultimately assisting her husband in their wholesale business.

In her 40s, as her children reached independence, Susan attended an introductory 10-week course in therapeutic counseling in Manchester. As a result, she decided to qualify as a therapeutic counselor and psychotherapist. She then spent five years at college, ultimately achieving her goals in 2013. 

Early on she became involved with a voluntary organization called the Samaritans, which ran a suicidal help-line. Through this contact she developed ties with local prisons, besides her private psychotherapy work.

“During my course I was volunteering for the prison service in Leeds,” she says, “after training on the job to become a Jewish chaplain.” In this pastoral role she worked with both male and female convicts at several different prisons for nine years, including high-security historic Wakefield Prison – dubbed “The Monster Mansion”’ of Her Majesty’s prison service – and Leeds prison. These were mostly old-fashioned Victorian brick buildings that were “cold in atmosphere and in feeling. I worked with sex abusers, terrorists, criminals serving life sentences who would never be eligible to get out of prison.”

“Actually I was more scared of the female prisoners than of the males,” Susan relates. “On the whole I worked alone but carried an alarm and a two-way radio. Though I was originally a Jewish chaplain, I ended up as a generic one working with all faiths, particularly Muslims.” She adds, “My therapeutic background was certainly very useful.”

THE COHENS are happy and settled in north Netanya with a very good social network. Two of their children arrived here about a decade before them – a daughter who came with her husband and baby, and their older son who met his British wife at a culinary school in Jerusalem and currently manages a supermarket. These families live in Ramat Beit Shemesh, while the youngest son, who married last year, lives in Petah Tikvah with his Israeli wife, a beautiful woman of Ethiopian origin, whom he met through a dating app.

Susan set up her own practice last year, working remotely, “looking for something to do during corona.” She says she “was able to help people through the process of aliyah when they were feeling isolated and locked-down, with very deep emotional issues concerning COVID-19.”

Her volunteer work has revealed that many new olim arrive woefully unprepared for challenges. “They often come with expectations that their lives will change [for the better],” she explains, “even though they lack appropriate skills and don’t have money in the bank. In such cases you can find yourself sinking very quickly.” 

As moving overseas is a highly stressful life event, she is kept very busy by KeepOlim “doing all the intakes and assessment of English-speaking clients,” and usually “finding them a therapist within 24 hours. People do not understand about mental health services here and may arrive with a scant two-month supply of medication.” She mentions one immigrant who called her the very same day they arrived, with the plea: “I need help. My anxiety levels are through the roof!”

She has encountered numerous cases of domestic violence which is distressingly widespread – without “social or economic limitations.” During a regular week, Susan may devote 25 hours to counseling immigrants aged 18 and above, but at peak times, 40 hours is not unusual. Of this casework, some 90 percent is voluntary and unpaid.

In the future, she foresees the need to set up an English suicide prevention help-line for olim and lone soldiers, to be followed by other languages. This project will, of course, require appropriate funding. In her spare time, Susan likes spending time with her grandchildren and children, walking with her friends, and entertaining.

“Aliyah is not an easy process, but in truth we have more ups than downs. We have met special people and made wonderful friends. 

“I am very honored to be helping olim from all over the world, alongside our amazing team at KeepOlim – supporting them so they can integrate into Israeli society with more positive mental health.”