Lightening the load

The Nechama organization, Israel’s only dedicated trauma and bereavement counseling service aimed specifically at the English-speaking community, aims to be a veritable emotional lifeline for Anglo-Israelis.

Nechama’s training program 521 (photo credit: Dan Kosky)
Nechama’s training program 521
(photo credit: Dan Kosky)
It is one of the sad realities of contemporary Israel that the country famed for its innovation and creativity is lauded in equal measure for its ability to deal with tragedy and disaster. The bitter experience of war, conflict and terror has left an impressive legacy of expertise in emergency management, from first response to post-traumatic treatment. So impressive, in fact, that it has even been exported. Just last year, a unique post-trauma recovery program for children, which had originally been developed in the wake of the Second Lebanon War, was introduced by Israeli experts to help Japanese children cope in the aftermath of the tsunami.
While Israel is eminently well prepared for the impact of large-scale disaster, what happens when the country is not in crisis mode? After all, individual traumas, whether they are brought about through bereavement, illness or other forms of loss, occur on a daily basis. Yet, once the headlines of a national crisis recede, the danger exists that so too does the awareness of the need for counseling for those suffering trauma or bereavement.
In Israel, the prospect of finding adequate help at a time of personal crisis can appear even slimmer if Hebrew isn’t your first language. Counseling in a foreign language is hardly the kind of assistance covered by the average health fund. As a result, those who need support are instead likely to suffer in silence.
That was certainly the conclusion of the founders of Nechama (meaning “comfort), Israel’s only dedicated trauma and bereavement counseling service aimed specifically at the English-speaking community.
In 1999, Rebbetzin Bayla Gold and Tova Reich, both originally from the US, observed that for Anglo residents in their own Jerusalem community in need of emotional support, the options were few and far between.
They realized that immigrants whose family and natural support network are abroad often have little choice but to allow the pain of loss and trauma to grow unchecked unless they can find the funds for an expensive English-speaking therapist.
Gold and Reich therefore founded Nechama as a framework of Englishspeaking counselors, laying the foundations for what is now a well-established non-profit organization and a veritable emotional lifeline for Anglo-Israelis.
Such progress is due to the dedication of a network of devoted volunteers. Thea Givati arrived in Israel from South Africa in 1999, having qualified there as a bereavement therapist. The following year, having noticed an advertisement for Nechama, she quickly became involved in its work, giving greater structure to the organization. Givati pioneered a yearlong training program which continues to operate today, attracting a variety of participants.
“Some want to do the course for their own personal enrichment, others are rabbis or social workers and take the skills that they learn and use them to enhance their professional life. A number become outstanding counselors for individuals all over Israel,” says Givati.
It is clear that not everyone is cut out to be a counselor and those who do go down that path with Nechama must sign an affirmation of confidentiality, commitment and a pledge to apply a non-judgmental attitude toward their clients.
TEN YEARS on, Givati’s band of committed counselors, based largely in the Sharon region and Jerusalem, traverse the country to meet clients. Meanwhile, recruitment has recently begun for the latest training course.
“Our counselors give incredible amounts of time to ensure that people who need it have the space to work out for themselves how to best deal with the acute emotional challenges that they are facing,” says Givati.
Indeed, since the organization’s inception, Nechama’s volunteers have seen it all. Crucially, though, they take a wholly individual approach to each and every client that comes to them with the understanding that no two tragedies are the same. As such, Nechama tailors the emotional support it provides to the specific requirements of each client.
Givati recalls counseling one woman during the second intifada who had lost her baby to a terrorist attack and only felt comfortable talking from behind a closed door. She strongly believes that even when numerous people suffer from the very same tragic event, each person experiences an incident differently and therefore needs to be supported individually.
“We helped a family who had lost a teenager in a traffic accident. The emotional needs of the mother, two brothers and two sisters were very different from one another. As a result, three of our counselors saw the different family members for around two years,” recalls Givati.
The personal approach is a thread which runs through much of Nechama’s modus operandi. Clients are encouraged to meet counselors in their homes, where they are likely to feel most at ease. Similarly, if English is not their language of choice, Nechama is able to facilitate counseling for clients in Hebrew, Yiddish and French. It is therefore somewhat surprising that for Nechama’s coordinators, finding those that need their help can be a challenge.
Adina Rakoff arrived in Israel in 2001, having gained certification in counseling in South Africa. Today, she coordinates Nechama’s training program alongside Angela Reuben, who hails originally from London but has lived in Israel since 1967.
Rakoff says that although Nechama receives referrals from other organizations such as Chai Lifeline, which provides support for Israeli families living with pediatric illnesses, and immigrant-based organizations such as AACI, they receive relatively few calls for help from individuals acting on their own initiative.
Rakoff comments, “it takes an awful lot of self-awareness for somebody to pick up the phone and ask for help. Most people either feel that they are coping fine with whatever difficulties they face or if not, they usually bite their lip and get on with things. Eventually, though, the need to process and deal with loss and trauma catches up.”
As a result, Nechama engages in rudimentary outreach. Rakoff and Reuben are regularly given the names and numbers of recently bereaved English-speakers from synagogues and other communal bodies. They then make contact to offer Nechama’s support services at any point in the future. Far from being considered intrusive, Reuben says that their concern is greatly appreciated. Just as importantly, she says, “nine times out of 10, they become a client of ours. It may take several months, longer even, but in the end that initial contact that we make is the key to accessing the support that the individual eventually needs.”
THIS LONG-TERM perspective on emotional support is another hallmark of Nechama’s activity. Rakoff outlines the open-ended arrangement. There is no time limit on the counselor-client engagement and quite often the two meet regularly over a period of many months or years. The only commitment required from clients is a nominal fee for an initial four sessions.
For the individuals who know about it, the ease and convenience of the Nechama model can be a crucial factor in being able to access the kind of emotional support that they may have long needed. Michael [real name withheld], an immigrant from London, had suffered several family bereavements in quick succession and was at the same time dealing with a complicated breakdown in a key family relationship.
Mindful that these issues were occupying too much of his mental space, he was unsure where to turn.
Reflecting on the dilemma, he said “I spoke in confidence to a friend about an English-speaking therapist that he knew, but I could only really afford a few expensive sessions, which would have been of limited benefit. Fortunately, someone else mentioned Nechama and having called them, one of their counselors came to meet me. We met regularly for over a year, and because I was able to talk to someone in my own mother tongue with a shared cultural background it helped me to really identify how best to cope with the issues I was facing.”
According to Michael, Nechama’s counseling meant that the emotional trauma he was suffering from eventually became manageable.
“I realized that the problems I had would never simply disappear, but the sessions made them much easier to deal with by giving me the opportunity to pinpoint what was going on. I compare it to carrying around an incredibly heavy backpack full of rocks and with each session I could remove another rock until the load became much easier to carry.”
It is a sentiment shared by Reuben, who says, “We are simply there to listen, never to give advice. We can’t make problems go away, but we can help people function normally after they have suffered a tragedy or a loss.”
It is certainly something that Nechama’s counselors appear well-equipped to do, thanks to an ever-increasing number of specialist training courses available to them, which tackle a wide range of eventualities.
Reuben lists them: “We have developed specific workshops for our volunteers to help bereaved mothers, those who have suffered miscarriages and stillbirths, bereaved children, relatives of dementia and Alzheimer’s sufferers and dealing with abuse in the family. When it comes to loss and trauma, there is no one-size-fits-all model, each situation is unique.”
However, there is also an acute and impressive awareness that there are some problems which Nechama cannot help with. The organization’s counselors clearly understand the limits of their abilities, particularly when there are cases which require medical treatment, whether physical or mental.
“We are well prepared for a whole range of scenarios, but we are more than happy to persuade people that they should see a doctor, psychiatrist, psychologist, social worker or any other relevant professional when it is appropriate,” explains Rakoff.
Although the organization receives a steady stream of referrals thanks to the typically close connections within the Anglo community, it is almost impossible to tell how effectively the emotional needs of Israel’s English-speakers are being met.
Research that has been compiled on emotional support and counseling in Israel is tied almost exclusively to Israel’s military identity – several studies have been conducted into the country’s handling of combat-based trauma and war-related loss.
Indeed, Israel is perhaps unique in the emphasis that it places on supporting those that have been bereaved and injured in the armed forces. There is even an affectionate and comforting term for the close relatives of the fallen, often known as “the family of bereavement” – all of which can make the everyday emotional needs of Israelis who remain relatively unaffected by the ravages of war and terror appear somewhat less important. With emotional support in Israel typically viewed through the prism of military conflict, the needs of a specific sector such as the English- speaking community are rarely considered.
As a result, Nechama’s activists are convinced that there are plenty of Anglos currently unknown to them, who could benefit greatly from the organization’s help.
“Sadly, personal tragedies happen all the time. After all, there are no fewer deaths among English-speakers than anywhere else in Israeli society. So, where do these people turn? Our guess is that they simply don’t know where to turn,” comments Rakoff.
However, there seems little question that those who are quietly suffering will find an abundance of kindness should they turn to Nechama. Reuben outlines a case in which she has been making a weekly call to a woman with a desperately sad family story for a full nine years. Asked what motivates that kind of commitment, she says, “It is just a privilege to be allowed into people’s lives and into their homes and to be given the opportunity to make a positive difference.”
It is the kind of compassion and humility that you feel really can provide true comfort for those that need it.For further information about Nechama and its services, email: