Too many people are troubled and feel they have nowhere to turn. Alex Galbinski finds out about the work of Jewish Helpline.
About 30 years ago, a single mother living in Hendon with a young boy was struggling under the weight of her problems. To the shock of her friends and family, she killed herself.
People questioned whether she would have taken her own life had she had somewhere to share her burden. Motivated by this lady’s experience, a group of people started an organisation called Miyad (‘Support’), now known as the Jewish Helpline, which counts Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis as a patron.
“We are effectively a Jewish version of the Samaritans,” says Tamara Zenios, the charity’s chairman since January.
“People call in with anything that’s troubling them. A common thread is loneliness – you might get someone who is lonely and they are alone or isolated, or someone who feels lonely when they are surrounded by family and friends.
“We’re somewhere to turn. People call in about relationships, depression, sexual issues, sexual identity, substance abuse, bereavement; some people call us in a suicidal state, while others have more seemingly-simple issues that they just need to talk through.”
Some of those calls are heart-breaking. Zenios describes one caller, a woman in her 70s whose husband of 50 years had died days before.
“It was the last night of the shiva and her family, who had stayed with her for the week, had left. She was going upstairs to bed on her own for the first time and wanted to say goodnight to someone. I don’t think she ever called again.”
One man who has called over many years suffers from bipolar disorder. “He’s someone who has been university educated and part of the community but his life has spiralled downhill,” Zenios says. “He has had spells of homelessness, he’s been involved in drugs, emotional trauma, he hears voices, and he’s been diagnosed with a terminal illness.
“The only people he’s in contact with now are the carers who come in to look after him.”
There are callers who might have contact with people to whom they could offload, but prefer the emotional distance of a stranger.
“Many people have very fleeting, very dark thoughts,” Zenios says. “For example, your marriage is breaking up or you’ve just been diagnosed with cancer.
To say to your partner: ‘I think I’m going to die’, or ‘What are you going to do when I die?’ – it’s too much. But you can tell a stranger your fears. We are all trained to go deep down into their feelings.”
Though the more-widely known Samaritans might seem a more obvious place to contact, Zenios understands why a Jewish organisation is the first port of call for many in the community.
“We’re a Jewish helpline, so there’s a context their story fits into that we understand,” she says. “We understand the issues people are dealing with; there’s a lot that doesn’t need to be explained.
“And it’s a really brave thing to do, to pick up the phone and talk to a stranger, so it takes away one level of the unknown.”
Indeed, the charity takes its Jewish principles a step further. “We’re not a religious organisation, but we are bound by halachic principles and we try to preserve life,” says Angela Kamiel, Jewish Helpline’s vice-chairman.
“We would try to get a suicidal person through until tomorrow, to stay with us step by step.”
The helpline, which is entirely run by 60 or so volunteers along with an executive committee of six (including Zenios and Kamiel), receives calls from right across the religious and economic spectrum and from people of all ages.
The volunteers, who undergo extensive training, are non-judgemental, and they listen to callers in an understanding way, without offering advice or referring callers on to other support.
“We think people are generally experts on their own life,” affirms Kamiel. “We’ll try to help them make decisions if they need to go to see someone else, but we won’t suggest another agency.
“As is the principle of psychotherapy and psychiatry, it’s helping to empower someone, helping them to make their own decisions.
“And just by talking things through, people can realise they have more resources than they think.
If someone has managed to find us and had the courage to call us, they have an ability to find the next step they need to make. And we can accompany them while they do that.”
Rabbi Mirvis praised the organisation’s work, saying: “I am delighted to commend the invaluable work Jewish Helpline carries out, providing a unique service to people across the Jewish community during times of stress, vulnerability and crisis. In our busy world, it is not always easy to find someone to talk to in our time of need.”
Given the strict confidentiality of the organisation – volunteers need to remain anonymous – fundraising is difficult.
“It’s our biggest challenge,” Zenios admits. “Our overheads are relatively low, but we still have to raise money to cover them and we are totally reliant on donations.”
The helpline, which receives around 2,000 calls a year, is open from midday to midnight every day except for Shabbat and Yom Tovim.
“It has an extremely large impact on the people it helps relative to its size,” Zenios adds. “The service it offers is really very special. We’re a listening ear for when people are struggling to cope with everything that life throws at them.”
- Jewish Helpline can be reached on 0800 652 9249 or www.jewishhelpline.co.uk
- To find out about volunteering for Jewish Helpline, email firstname.lastname@example.org
- Donations can be sent to: Jewish Helpline, c/o Studio 2, 2 Downshire Hill, London NW3 2NR
- All identifying details have been changed to preserve the anonymity of helpline callers