Clean slate: Jerusalem’s ‘home therapist’ tidies rooms into a well-ordered life

Psychotherapist Naomi Zelwer finds having people focus on the things they really love while minimizing excess baggage can re-energize clients and their homes

Naomi Zelwer, November 2022. (Courtesy: Dani Sarusi)
Naomi Zelwer, November 2022. (Courtesy: Dani Sarusi)

The average size of a home in Israel is 100 square meters (1,076 square feet), roughly half the size of an average American home, and smaller than the average in most European countries. At 1.2 rooms per person, Israeli homes are also among the most crowded of those in the developed world, according to the Organization for Economic Development and Cooperation.

It’s little surprise then that Marie Kondo, the Netflix doyenne of decluttering, was such a hit in Israel, as around the world, where some may have felt just one online shopping spree away from “Hoarders”-level chaos.

Naomi Zelwer is no Marie Kondo, though, and makes no promises of helping people boil their lives down to the truly essential. The yin to Kondo’s yang, the Jerusalem-based Zelwer instead tackles the problem of being crowded out by stuff via an approach she calls “minimalism therapy.”

While decluttering involves throwing things away no longer loved objects, with an emphasis on getting things out of the house, minimalism is about creating a space that features only those things that create a true reflection of a client, while paring back everything else.

“The people who do [decluttering] are looking out for what you don’t use,” said Zelwer. “I focus on the things that you do want and need in your life. I want my clients to choose what they love, to be anchored by a sense that I have everything I need, and I can therefore let go of what I don’t need.”

Zelwer started out as a psychotherapist, but shifted to therapy for the home after noticing over time that the same people who struggled to set boundaries around relationships found it difficult to control their things and to shape the space in which they lived so that it was a true reflection of them.

She realized that they were in need of more focused help to address the issues with the spaces they lived in – and for several years now has worked on minimalism therapy one-on-one and with small groups, in person and over Zoom.

Zelwer works with her clients to look at how things are stored and organized, and where space can be created by moving things out of sight or out of the home.

“I invite clients to express how they want their home to feel. Then, working with them, I try to translate that into how we can move things around physically. I want them to understand their relationship to things – how they acquire them, for example by impulse buying, or by children bringing things into the house.”

A cluttered piano top in the home of one of Naomi Zelwer’s clients, before her arrival, November 2022. (Courtesy: Yal)

Yal, a former client who preferred to use only her first name, pointed to a piano in her home that had once been an unruly mess, a byproduct of her busy family, which seemed to constantly be in motion.  Her “special place” had become a tangle of picture frames, candles, knickknacks and much more. “So many things… that you couldn’t see anything,” Yal recalled.

“Working with Naomi, I took everything off, put back just what I wanted in that space, and moved everything else to be out of sight,” she said. “Choosing what to put there seemed to be really all about self-care.”

The top of a piano in the home of one of Naomi Zelwer’s clients, after it has been treated with minimalist therapy, November 2022. (Courtesy: Yal)

Now she says she is trying to recreate the magic in other parts of her home to make it look how she really wants.

“I see it as a way to enjoy my home more,” said Yal.

Minimalism in practice: Naomi Zelwer reorganizes home spaces, November 2022. (Courtesy: Naomi Zelwer)

Her process, Zelwer believes, “marks a renewed commitment to the things that you are keeping. It is as if you are re-inviting these possessions into your life, and committing to looking after them. Small changes in how we use space can lead to bigger changes in lifestyle — move the coffee table out of the salon and people stop snacking as much because there is no place to do it easily.”

Zelwer works with all ages, from teenagers whose parents are looking for more order, to those reshaping a home following the death of a spouse.

Part of her method involves working with clients to co-create systems for easy maintenance at home. She starts by focusing on just one category of things; clients often come to realize just how much they have of certain things, and how little they need.

She discourages those she works with from racing off to buy more storage containers, and instead encourages them to repurpose what they already have to organize space more effectively, while discarding the rest.

“It is very important that anything that is going actually leaves the house. I don’t let clients keep ‘maybe’ piles. And I find it makes it easier for them if they know their things are going to someone who needs them, rather than into the bin,” she said.

Books present particular challenges. People are often proud to display all the books they have to signal things about themselves and different phases of their lives, but Zelwer says they can be “overpowering” and take up too much space.

A bookcase in an Israeli home, March 4, 2008. (Nati Shohat/Flash90)

“I encourage clients to worry less about the impression they make on others and to create a home that re-charges you and your family instead,” she said.

Shira, another client who preferred to not use her last name, described Zelwer as “super high-energy, but such a calm presence.” The pair worked together to sort through a storage unit, working out what was needed, what had served its time, and what could be donated elsewhere.

“She taught me to celebrate and cherish the things that you have, in a way that ends up making a lot of physical, and mental, space,” Shira said.

Thanks to Zelwer, she said, “I feel that I now relate to my space differently.”

Zelwer said she is powered by a belief that people’s possessions connect directly to the emotions that drive them.

“We can have too many choices in our overflowing cupboards, and it becomes exhausting to find what we need,” she said. “Children learn in kindergarten to keep things tidy and to store things in the space they’ve been given. I try to re-import those habits back into the home.”

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