Double protection

Beersheba and its satellite suburbs were pounded by dozens of missiles during the week-long Operation Pillar of Defense.

CIVILIANS TAKE COVER in Beersheba 370 (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem/The Jerusalem Post)
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem/The Jerusalem Post)
In a tiny corner of Beersheba’s yuppie Ramot neighborhood, Dr. Shula Piura takes stock of the dramatic week that has left her beloved city a virtual ghost town. Israeli warplanes were on sorties over the Gaza Strip, where Hamas retaliated by lobbing rockets and missiles that have driven tens of thousands of local residents to seek emotional assistance wherever available.
“These air raid sirens are nonstop,” says Piura, the manager of the Beersheba branch of ERAN, the Hebrew acronym for “emotional first aid.”
“This is a bizarre situation,” she says. “Our director-general is at a conference abroad, and he called to ask what’s going on. I told him, ‘David, thank God, it’s been quiet this morning. It was quiet during the night, and now it’s quiet in the morning.’ I didn’t even get a chance to finish the sentence before a siren rang.”
The ERAN branch that Piura heads doubles as the only bomb-proof shelter on Michael Zohari Street, a quiet, upscale suburban setting lined with homes that were built before the 1991 Gulf War. The Scud missiles that terrified Israeli cities during those weeks prompted the government to mandate that apartment buildings and homes be fitted with bomb-proof rooms. Given that this area of Ramot was built before the war, the ERAN branch provides not only emotional assistance but also physical shelter for nearby residents. Whenever the siren sounds, a number of residents sprint into the office and wait 10 minutes, in accordance with the instructions of the Home Front Command. During particularly bleak periods, when the rockets and missiles rain down at a pace of 10 to 12 a day, the shelter offers mattresses so that residents can spend the night.
“This entire street doesn’t have bomb-proof rooms, so this is their shelter and they come here every time there is a siren,” Piura says. “They come here with their dogs, their infant children, their elderly loved ones. There’s a whole variety here.”
Beersheba and its satellite suburbs were pounded by dozens of missiles during the week-long Operation Pillar of Defense.
Its residents were frightened to leave their homes, and the trauma of loud explosions created a void that ERAN hoped to at least partially fill.
“On routine days, we give confidential advice through our hotline to anyone who wants to talk to someone about any subject,” says Piura, a psychotherapist by profession and a former literature professor.
“It could be that person is indecisive about something, or that person is in distress. It could be that the person is depressed, anxious, or any other emotional thing. It could be relationships with parents or loved ones.
“During an emergency, we immediately see a very steep increase in calls that are related to the situation because the level of stress and fear rises,” she says. “Our goal is to calm people down, to give people the tools to cope with the situation and to maintain a normal routine as much as possible. We want to give people the sense that they are in control, because the sense of control is what calms people down and gives people the option of feeling more secure. At the moment, this is most important. Everyone has internal resolve, and our job is to rouse that resolve and bring it out of people.
We tell people, ‘You are capable of coping. You can do it.’” Founded in Jerusalem in the early 1970s as a non-profit organization that offered assistance to suicidal Israelis, ERAN has since expanded its menu of services, giving those suffering from depression and anxiety over everyday issues a forum to air their innermost thoughts and feelings. During wartime, Piura says that ERAN volunteer hotline operators – there are 80 in the Beersheba branch alone and 1,000 manning the phones in nine branches across the country – offer practical tips to distressed callers. In the week since the skirmishes with Hamas began, the branch fielded 12,000 phone calls, according to Piura.
“We have people who aid callers in breathing, we have people who aid callers in doing physical activities, we have people who aid callers in expressing their feelings,” she says. “One of the best tips we give to people is that whenever they are anxious, they should exhale slowly and count to five. They should repeat this a few times because the very act of focusing on your breathing lowers anxiety. People are also keeping themselves busy with yoga or shutting their eyes and imagining that they are inside some bubble that protects them and the entire family and inside this bubble nothing bad can happen.”
Piura says the slim budget that ERAN is allocated gives it limited means, though it has managed to be of invaluable benefit to those who do not have the luxury of seeking individual counseling.
“We only receive a very small piece of the small pie that is allocated to non-profit aid organizations,” she says. “We have a very tiny sum that we receive every year from the Health Ministry.
We are making Herculean efforts to solicit donations and to get a status from the state that would allow us to have an annual budget. We’re hoping to get NIS 4 million per year, because I think that the service we provide to the public is of high quality and very valuable. It also saves people money because we cater to consumers of mental health. The very fact that they turn to us ends up relieving them of the expense incurred by going to a psychologist or a therapist. We prevent quite a few hospitalizations just by being available to them on the telephone.”
SIMONA BEN-CNAAN is hard-wired for this moment. After a lengthy career as a school principal and an educator, she was looking for a non-profit where she could offer her services. Her life changed when a friend recommended a little-known organization whose phone number is sprawled along the bottom of the screen on the television news coverage whenever war breaks out.
“I’m the volunteering type,” Ben-Cnaan says. “Even when I was a principal and a teacher, I would always be on the various teacher committees. Before I retired, I looked at all of the non-profits to see which one I wanted to volunteer at. A good friend of mine recommended ERAN to me, even though not many people knew about it. I had never met anyone who volunteered here, but on her recommendation I came here and I joined.
“This may sound somewhat patronizing, but I’ve always thought of myself as a good listener,” she says.
“After my time at ERAN, I know I’m a good listener. Now, people are calling us for the first time. It’s interesting how a phone number that appears on the television screen brings us hundreds of callers. People thank us after the conversation, so I feel that we are providing assistance.
“I always make sure to speak candidly, so I don’t ever say to them, ‘Tomorrow there will be a cease-fire,’ or ‘It’ll be okay.’ I make it legitimate for people to feel the way they do, but I also give them another perspective to their emotional world.” Ben-Cnaan says that the hotline operator’s job is to serve as a sounding board for irrational anxieties that are often triggered in times of severe stress.
“A 24-year-old woman from Ashdod called saying that she was afraid for herself and her young daughter,” she recalls. “They didn’t have a bomb-proof room in their home, so she went downstairs to the entrance of the apartment building. After describing what the entrance looked like, I told her where to stand.
Then I ask her, ‘Tell me, your husband is staying with his mother. Where does she live?’ She says, ‘Givatayim.’ So I ask, ‘Why don’t you go to Givatayim?’ She was evasive in her response, so I said, ‘You’re telling me that you’re more scared of your mother-in-law than you are of missiles.’ Then she started to laugh. That just gave her a different perspective on things.
“People’s biggest fears aren’t from the missiles, but it’s the thought that they have lost control,” Ben-Cnaan says. “So I made this woman realize that it was her choice to stay in Ashdod, so she really isn’t afraid. Once the sirens go off, she should just find the nearest bomb shelter, and everything will be all right.”