Nili Helman Caspi, an ERAN volunteer, sits at her desk where she answers calls to the hotline.
Nili Helman Caspi, an ERAN volunteer, sits at her desk where she answers calls to the hotline.

While Israel sleeps, Palo Alto volunteers lend compassionate ear to Israelis in crisis

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It’s the middle of the night in Israel, and Yael Landan is in Palo Alto. But emotionally, she’s back in her home country, connected by telephone to Israeli callers, and lending an ear to the lonely, the distressed, even the suicidal.

Landan is one of a core group of volunteers organized by the Oshman Family JCC who are answering phone calls for Israeli crisis hotline ERAN to cover the night shift in Israel, taking calls from people who have nowhere else to turn.

“Every time I do the shift, I feel so fortunate I can help those people,” Landan said. “It makes you put everything in perspective.”

ERAN, founded in 1971 in Jerusalem, is open 24 hours a day to take calls from Israelis — from teens to soldiers to seniors — in crisis or needing some kind of emotional support. The California connection was made in 2018 when the JCC got a call from the head of ERAN in Israel.

“He was having a hard time filling the volunteer slots for operators in the middle of the night,” said head of the JCC Zack Bodner. “And that’s kind of when it’s most important for a crisis hotline to have people manning the phones.”

Because there are so many Israelis connected to the JCC through its robust Israeli Cultural Connection program, ERAN hoped some Californian expats would step up. And they did, Bodner said. When the call went out for volunteers to be trained, over 40 people responded “within 24 hours,” he said.

We have many callers, lonely people, who just want someone to hear them.

One was Dalia Chatow, who has been volunteering since the first cohort (the JCC is now training its third).

“It was just the right thing,” she said. “I felt I could contribute.”

She, like other volunteers, committed to four hours of work twice a month in a private space at the JCC (during the pandemic they’ve been working from home). There are more calls than volunteers can take, Chatow said.

“It’s mostly people with psychiatric illness and loneliness, I would say,” she said. “There are a lot of old people who are awake during the night. They don’t have anyone to speak to.”

Sometimes, though, there are suicidal callers. Volunteers refer serious cases to an always-on-call supervisor in Israel, who can contact the police. Other calls aren’t as urgent, but it can become emotionally intense for the volunteers.

To prepare, volunteers go through an in-depth training by ERAN and local program manager Hagit Shekel, a counselor and former social worker. They are taught how to respond, but more importantly how to listen.

“Most of the phone calls are about loneliness,” Shekel agreed. “This is what we deal with on a daily basis.”

Landan has had the same experience. “We have many callers, lonely people, who just want someone to hear them. They just want someone to speak to.”

She said she also has responded to callers of different ages and all backgrounds about sexual harassment, and from young people from haredi, or ultra-Orthodox, communities, with various inquiries.

Mugs bearing warm wishes for Passover given to each volunteer.
Mugs bearing warm wishes for Passover given to each volunteer.

“They know that there’s something else outside, and they have questions,” Landan said. “They can’t talk to anyone else.”

According to its website, ERAN takes around 365,000 calls per year. The calls are mostly in Hebrew, although there is an Arabic line as well. According to Shekel, the ICC volunteers answer about 350 calls per month. But when a caller reaches a volunteer in the middle of the night, they don’t know that they’re speaking with an Israeli living across the globe.

“They don’t know that they’re talking to somebody outside of Israel,” said Ronit Jacobs, head of the ICC program. “They don’t get a name. They don’t get where the phone call was placed to.”

Volunteers are taught to remain anonymous and not share details about their own lives. But it doesn’t matter that they’re in California, Shekel explained: “You feel right next to them,” she said.

And for the Palo Alto-area Israelis who volunteer, it’s an incredibly satisfying way to give back.

“For a lot of Israelis that feel very, very connected to Israel and never know what to do with it, it gave them a huge purpose,” Jacobs said. “They feel like they’re supporting people in Israel.”

Chatow said she feels good about giving personal help and not just sending a check. Instead, she’s glad that for unhappy people she can be a quiet, comforting presence and a calm voice on the telephone in the dark quiet of the Israeli night.

“I’m not saying that it’s easy,” Chatow said. “But it’s so powerful and it’s so meaningful. I’m so happy I can do it.”

Maya Mirsky
Maya Mirsky

Maya Mirsky is a J. Staff Writer based in Oakland.