TORONTO — On a recent evening in the Toronto suburb of Richmond Hill, Israeli-Canadian Arie Eigner was on edge as he hunched over his laptop computer. Seated in a small room in his ninth-floor apartment, wearing a black headset with a built-in microphone, he listened intently while making notes. A few minutes earlier, he had received an unsolicited phone call on his laptop from a deeply despondent man halfway around the world whose life now seemed to hang in the balance.
“I’m in a corner, I’m in a dark space, I don’t see myself anywhere,” the voice began in Hebrew, speaking in a slow, melancholic monotone from Israel, where it was the middle of the night. “It hurts so much. All I want to do is vanish. All I want to do is just end it and stop the pain.”
Based on his training, Eigner recognized what was at stake. He was careful about every word he uttered, concerned any miscue might push the anonymous caller over the edge into a suicidal abyss.
“I wanted to keep him engaged, to know that with me he had a sympathetic ear,” says Eigner, recounting the conversation. “After listening attentively, I painted a picture for him: ‘Look, you’re now sitting in a swamp, and everything you see around you is only swamp. But if you raise your head a bit, you’ll see it’s a small swamp with lots of green grass around it. Tomorrow is a new day, a greener day. It’s not all swamp and you can always talk to us. We’ll help you get out of the swamp.’”
During 90 minutes of difficult conversation, Eigner walked the caller back from the brink. He ultimately persuaded him to contact his psychiatrist.
Eigner, 68, may very well have helped save the man’s life. More extraordinarily, he did it from Toronto where seven days a week, specially trained volunteers, all Israeli-Canadians, provide solace to people in Israel who contact the ERAN helpline. The volunteers are part of an initiative in Toronto launched last spring to fill a specific time slot for which ERAN has long had trouble recruiting volunteers in Israel.
Founded in Jerusalem in 1971, ERAN — the name is derived from the Hebrew acronym for emotional first aid — is Israel’s only crisis intervention hotline, serving people of all ages and backgrounds. It describes its work as a humanitarian service as opposed to professional advice.
Volunteers provide unconditional, non-judgmental support 24/7 — in Hebrew, Arabic, Russian and English — to Israelis bedeviled by violence, suicide, loneliness, family pressures, social rejection, sexual abuse, eating disorders, economic hardship, difficulties raising children, marital breakdown, trauma, harassment, school conflicts, mental illness, personal tragedies, substance-abuse, age-related stress, anxiety and more. ERAN also offers a separate hotline for Holocaust survivors and IDF soldiers.
Clearly, ERAN is filling a dire need. In 2018, it received more than 193,000 calls, including 7,500 which had suicidal content (threats, intentions and thoughts). Volunteers saved the lives of some 800 people who would have likely committed suicide had they not contacted ERAN.
Current events, especially security flare-ups, have an impact. Last November, when Hamas fired more than 500 rockets at southern Israel from the Gaza Strip, there was an upsurge in callers. Same thing on holidays when people with little or no family ties feel isolated and more prone to depression.
If the primary channel of communication with ERAN is by phone, people also engage with it via email and online chat.
“When it comes to our callers, the two biggest challenges occupying us are loneliness and suicide prevention,” says ERAN CEO David Koren, 67. “The worst disease of the modern world is loneliness and suicide.”
In addition to its 25 full- and part-time staff, ERAN has 1,200 strictly vetted, highly trained volunteers in Israel who handle the crisis line. Every day, they run six 4-hour shifts. The two overnight shifts (midnight to 4 a.m.; 4 a.m. – 8 a.m.) were a chronic problem until ERAN realized a solution lay overseas.
In November 2017, Koren attended the annual Israeli American Council conference in Washington where he spoke of ERAN’s need for volunteers for its nocturnal shifts. He met three Israeli-Canadian women — Sigal Almog, Sara Dobner and Galya Sarner — who offered to engage their 65,000-strong Israeli expat community in Toronto to be of assistance. (Full disclosure: this reporter is married to Galya Sarner.) At the time, there was already a pilot project in Palo Alto, California, where former Israelis volunteered for ERAN.
“We were surprised by the response,” says Almog, 54, who moved to Toronto from Israel in 2004 and helped spread the word in the large Israeli-Canadian community in Toronto. “It was overwhelming. More than 80 Israeli-Canadians attended the information sessions we organized. People felt it was a great initiative and the connection to Israel is very powerful.”
During the screening process, the local ERAN committee selected 25 applicants for a week-long training workshop led by local professionals and ERAN staff from Israel — Koren, Ety Siton (director of the Kfar Saba branch who oversees Toronto volunteers); Dina Oren (professional supervisor) and Alon Shimoni (COO and CFO of ERAN).
The training stressed active listening, giving callers the sense they’re being heard without being judged, how to reframe what a caller says in a constructive way, and offering empathy without pretending to solve the caller’s problem.
Receiving through giving back
Last spring, when Odi Gruber responded to ERAN’s call for volunteers in Toronto, she already knew the organization from her cousin in Israel who volunteered for it 10 years ago.
“The moment I heard ERAN was coming to Toronto, I knew I wanted to volunteer,” says Gruber, 62, a real estate agent who moved to Toronto in 2000. “I thought it would be good for me to do something meaningful, not only sell houses. I felt helping people in Israel — both the callers and volunteers who would otherwise have to answer calls in the middle of the night — would give me the feeling I’m doing something good.”
Unlike a fellow volunteer in Toronto who said he joined ERAN, in part, because he felt guilty at no longer living in Israel, Gruber feels otherwise.
“I already gave enough to Israel,” she says. “You can always give more. I gave my share. I don’t feel guilty. I understand someone who does, but it’s a matter of personality and that’s not me. If I thought I shouldn’t be in Canada, I’d be in Israel and I’d stay there.”
While doing her shift, Gruber sits on the floor of her living room, in front of her laptop on a low table. She closes all the doors so she doesn’t hear anyone in the house and her family doesn’t hear her, as ERAN insists on absolute confidentiality for every call and anonymity for callers and volunteers.
On average, volunteers handle six to eight calls per shift. They take notes and complete a report after each call which a supervisor in Israel reviews before giving feedback about how the volunteer handled the caller.
“The biggest challenge is not to lecture people,” says Gruber. “Not to tell them to do this or that, or even to say this is OK or that’s not OK. You have to listen a lot, be very empathetic and give them 20 minutes of comfort as many feel the whole world is collapsing on them.”
When faced with high-risk, life-threatening situations, volunteers can click on a button on their computer to immediately contact a specially-trained professional in Israel. That person can access the conversation with the caller to offer the volunteer guidance via a WhatsApp text message. If there’s a threat to the caller’s life, or suspicion of a minor in danger, the on-call emergency professional in Israel contacts the police.
“One time, a girl called to say her friend was probably committing suicide as we spoke,” Gruber recalls. “She said she had spoken that morning with her friend who had problems. Later in the day, she found a letter her friend had written saying she was going to kill herself.
“The caller said she tried frantically to contact her friend for hours but couldn’t reach her and then turned to ERAN, saying she was sure her friend had done something bad to herself. It was now late at night in Israel. She gave me all the details and I contacted ERAN in Israel. The police took it from there,” she says.
According to ERAN protocol, volunteers aren’t told what ultimately happens to callers.
“I’ve read articles on people planning to commit suicide,” says Gruber, whose biggest fear as a volunteer is that she won’t be sensitive enough to recognize someone is in danger.
“Many people say ‘I don’t want to live anymore today, but tomorrow is a different day.’ There’s a huge difference between that and those who prepare a letter, say goodbye to family and friends, send messages to people, prepare pills and have made a plan.
“This is one of the things you ask a caller. You need to know these things. Otherwise you’d be calling ERAN in Israel frequently. If someone tells you he wants to kill himself, it’s usually simply a matter of speech. They’re often tired of life. But between this and actually killing yourself, there’s a big difference,” Gruber says.
ERAN officials say most callers have previously contacted the hotline. Volunteers sometimes speak to the same person several times, even during the same shift, although callers rarely realize it.
“One time, I had a woman who’s 91,” recalls Gruber. “She was an amazing person. It was a delightful conversation. Her only issue was she was alone. She simply wanted to talk. I had another caller who writes songs and just needed an audience. She wanted someone to hear her sing. Many people just need someone on the other side because they’re very lonely. They have nobody in the world and they’re lucky to have ERAN to talk to.”
Incognito in Toronto
Volunteers in Toronto never let on where they’re speaking from.
“If callers knew I was in Toronto, it might be awkward for them,” says Gruber. “It’s something they don’t expect. They call ERAN to speak to someone like them, who knows the situation in Israel. If they discovered I was speaking from Toronto, many would think, ‘What kind of advice can a person in Canada offer someone in Israel?’ Their attitude is they’re in a different world from North America.”
Not surprisingly, engaging with callers demands great concentration.
“During my shift, I don’t hear anything except the caller,” says Gruber. “We listen. We hold their hands and that’s it. We’re not professionals. We can’t give solutions. We can ease the moment.”
Every month, Toronto volunteers attend a workshop on recent cases, best practices and related topics. Led by volunteer instructors Anat Gonen and Sabina Mezhibovsky, it’s held at the Schwartz-Reisman Centre (SRC), which along with the Prosserman JCC, has supported the ERAN project from the outset in keeping with their extensive involvement with Toronto’s Israeli-Canadian community. The SRC’s work with Israeli-Canadians is supported by the city’s UJA Federation.
“Our centers act as a thread that sews the fabric of our community together,” says Jennifer Appleby, SRC’s chief programs officer. “The ERAN Toronto project creates a life-changing connection among Torontonians and Israelis. It’s a unique initiative that interests and excites the community we serve.”
Menny Israeli originally got involved with ERAN to help on the technical side. The IT consultant in Canada developed software after graduating from the Technion in electrical engineering.
Setting up ERAN in Toronto required connecting volunteers’ computers to the organization’s system in Israel to create a seamless link between them and callers. Operating via a voice-over-internet phone, the system is an extension of the ERAN exchange in Israel. Toronto volunteers log on, open a browser that takes them to the ERAN website, enter the volunteer portal, type in their name and individual ERAN code and enter the system to receive calls.
Like their counterparts in Israel, volunteers in Toronto commit to do two 4-hour shifts every month.
“It may not seem like much but it can affect you, especially if you’re dealing with particularly difficult calls,” says Israeli, speaking at home in Thornhill, the Toronto suburb where many of the city’s Israelis live. “ERAN found that if volunteers do too much, many will leave because the negative impact is cumulative. They found two shifts a month is manageable.”
Among the 22 volunteers in Toronto are two married couples including Menny Israeli and his wife, Irit Toni Israeli.
“I volunteered for ERAN because I wanted to contribute something to Israel,” says Toni Israeli, who moved to Toronto with Menny from Tel Aviv in 1986. “Even though I live in Canada, Israel is my country. I still feel Israel is our home and if it was more peaceful, we’d live there.”
Her work as a psychotherapist and counselor helps her as a volunteer.
“Most people calling ERAN are extremely lonely, including many who are very disturbed,” says Toni Israeli. “Nobody has patience to listen to them. With ERAN, somebody gives them their full attention, listens to them with respect, without criticism or judgment. It’s the best gift you can give them. The interaction enriches both of us. You get a window into their innermost world. It really touches you.”
Helping out the homeland
Eigner is the only Toronto volunteer who worked for ERAN in Israel, which he did in the 1980s, long before moving to Canada from Ra’anana in 2006.
“It may sound pompous but I’ve always liked helping others,” says Eigner, a retiree. “Contributing to the community adds another dimension to your life. I call it something for the soul. In this case, there may have been also some guilt feeling because I’m in Toronto and not in Israel. Even though I’m here, I felt I can do something to help Israelis.”
He readily admits what he gets out of it.
“When you finish a conversation with someone who started the call very troubled and at the end you hear him smile and thank you for helping him, that’s the most you can get out of it,” Eigner says. “Other calls are the opposite and you feel badly. When you feel you’ve succeeded in helping somebody, it makes an impact on you. Saving one person is like saving the whole world. I really believe in this.”
Eigner finds many calls today similar to those he handled 30 years ago.
“Most callers seem mentally challenged, like they did back then,” says Eigner. “Many are on drugs. Loneliness is, by far, the biggest issue. The problems are mostly the same but now they seem more pronounced and the stress level is higher.”
It’s compounded by the reality in Israel.
“Most Israelis I know back home listen to the news every hour,” says Eigner. “There’s always something going on. You feel the stress in calls we receive. When there’s an emergency or a terrorist attack, the stress increases and the quantity of calls goes up.”
There’s already talk of adding more volunteers from Toronto.
With the number of calls to ERAN constantly growing, the success of its Toronto project is spawning similar initiatives elsewhere. A new branch becomes operational in New York in February, and another in New Jersey began last summer.