Natural therapy

Through communal gardening, Ohr LeNefesh is planting the seeds for the social integration of people challenged by psychiatric disorders.

Garden therapy 521 (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
Garden therapy 521
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
There is something about putting your hands into the soil, planting seeds and watching them grow that soothes and relaxes. Through gardening, you can connect with the natural world while removing yourself from the tensions of day-to-day life. Many people enjoy gardening not only for the beauty it creates but also for the pure pleasure of the work itself. It is creative and restorative for people of all ages and is used as a form of therapy for a wide range of conditions.
In Jerusalem, only a few minutes’ walk from the busy café scene of Emek Refaim Street, there is a hidden haven for gardeners and nature lovers. On the grounds of the Natural History Museum, a center for nature and education since 1962, you will find a large garden abloom with trees, plants and flowers. This area was originally cultivated as a garden beside the old stone building that houses the museum when it was built in the 19th century as a summer home by a Christian Arab or Armenian living in the Old City. Today, this rustic spot is home to a busy community of devoted neighborhood residents who are working to bring Jerusalemites closer to nature and to each other through community gardening.
There are 35 community gardens in Jerusalem, all of them under the auspices of the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel in cooperation with the Jerusalem Municipality. A community garden is a place where neighbors work side by side to cultivate and plant the garden, often focusing on “functional plants” such as fruit trees, vegetables and herbs. Getting together in a community garden for holiday celebrations, activities and joint meals prepared from their own harvest not only brings people closer to nature but also serves to knit closer relationships among them. The Community Garden on the grounds of the Natural History Museum is the largest of Jerusalem’s community gardens and is lovingly planted and tended by the gardening enthusiasts of the nearby community.
In the corner of the foliage stands the Greenhouse from the Heart, a therapeutic greenhouse created and managed by Ohr LeNefesh, a nonprofit organization devoted to providing compassionate services to people with mental health issues. Founded in 2002 by British social workers Avraham and Hinda Schryber, Ohr LeNefesh offers community support to 170 individuals who suffer from a range of psychiatric conditions. The organization manages assisted-living apartments in Jerusalem, Beit Shemesh and Kiryat Sefer, providing guidance, therapy and vocational rehabilitation to people suffering from conditions such as schizophrenia, OCD, bipolar disorder, severe depression and personality disorders. Ohr LeNefesh also runs a psychiatric assessment clinic open to the public, offering evaluation services, as well as individual, marital and family therapy. While Ohr LeNefesh works with people of any background, the majority of the clients are from religiously observant families. Ohr LeNefesh clients come from all over Israel and abroad.
The Greenhouse from the Heart began when an Ohr LeNefesh rehabilitation counselor brought a few of his clients to the garden as a therapeutic activity. They began planting succulent plants in pots, returning on a regular basis to tend them. The project was later expanded by another counselor who, together with Ohr LeNefesh clients, planted additional varieties of plants, flowers and herbs.
The second counselor officially opened the Greenhouse in 2007. Now, six years later, the Greenhouse employs four workers, all clients of Ohr LeNefesh, who are assisted by a few volunteers. The manager, Tal Cohen, is a professional gardener who studied therapeutic gardening and is expanding his knowledge in an advanced program.
Cohen explains that the people who work at the Greenhouse are known as mitmodedim, or people who are “coping.” He, too, is a mitmoded, he says. He began as one of the workers and was later promoted to manager.
Cohen says that he and his workers get along very well with the people who run the Community Garden and the members of Garin Dvash, a group of post high-school youth who are spending a year of service to the community by working in community gardens and running educational programs. He describes it as a comfortable, friendly environment, where people work together, helping and supporting each other in their efforts.
“I enjoy coming here,” he says. “It is a place where you can hear the wind rustling in the trees. The people of the community garden are friendly, we all work together, and everything is relaxed.
On a professional level, I am lucky to have the opportunity to do professional work as a therapeutic gardener; and, as a mitmoded myself, I benefit from working with my hands.”
The Greenhouse from the Heart brings its workers together with a variety of volunteers, individuals and groups, including school groups and students from abroad. A group of autistic children from a Jerusalem special-education school goes there once a week to work with Cohen in caring for the plants. The Greenhouse sells plants to visitors and at holiday and craft fairs in different parts of the city. Greenhouse workers and community gardeners help and support each other’s activities and work together towards bringing the community closer to nature.
Another important goal is integrating people with psychiatric conditions into the community. An event that takes place one afternoon a week is Zula B’teva, a joint initiative between the Community Garden and the Mercaz Lama center, a program for people coping with mental health challenges. Founder and manager of Mercaz Lama, Sima Levi, befriended Cohen and the two worked together to create the Zula event. On those days, members of Mercaz Lama join Greenhouse workers and volunteers in the garden to cook and eat a healthy meal together amidst the trees and plants, enjoying fresh air, good food and each other’s company.
The Greenhouse from the Heart, Mercaz Lama and the community gardeners are now developing a plan to launch a Center for Sustainability on the premises of the Community Garden and the Greenhouse. The center will bring people who are coping with psychiatric illnesses closer to the wonders of nature, teaching the values and practical aspects of sustainability, providing opportunities for the development of creative talents and bringing them together with the general population. The program will include training in organic gardening; a breakfast club using vegetables they have grown themselves; and lectures in sustainability, mental and physical health, and separating trash for recycling. There will also be classes in creative writing, intuitive photography and making crafts from recycled materials. Representatives of the Community Garden will provide practical and theoretical guidance and invite participants to the community meals and celebrations that take place in the garden.
As Levi says, there are all sorts of politically correct words to describe mental health conditions in Hebrew or English and probably most other languages. Whether you use words like “psychiatric” or “mental health,” “illness” or “disorders”, “problems” or “challenges,” it doesn’t matter because it is all semantics. What matters, she says, is that people in society understand that a person coping with bipolar disorder, schizophrenia or any other psychiatric illness is a person like any other person in the community and should be treated as a person, not as an illness.
“The people you will meet at our programs are all people who have been diagnosed with a ‘serious’ psychiatric illness,” says Levi. “Together with this, or despite this, we conduct our lives, function in society and contribute to it. We have among us authors, poets, doctors, lawyers, photographers….the list is long.
Nevertheless, there is a stigma associated with psychiatric illness, and because of it we cannot “come out of the closet,” which often leaves us very lonely. For this reason, the Greenhouse from the Heart, Mercaz Lama and the Zula have been established, and that is why we are working to build up these programs and to launch the Center for Sustainability.”
At the Community Garden next to the Natural History Museum in Jerusalem, there are important lessons to be learned – and not all of them have to do with gardening.
For more information about Ohr LeNefesh and the Greenhouse from the Heart, visit or write to For information about Mercaz Lama, write to