Life & Culture

A listening ear when life is tough

Why don't more people know about a counselling service for the Jewish community, asks Gaby Koppel


Sad woman in psychotherapy session with therapist. Unhappy girl feeling loneliness, grief, anxiety or sorrow. Mental health and support vector illustration. Professional psychological help.

Miriam* had always thought of herself as a “counselling sceptic” until an acrimonious divorce left her reeling from what felt like constant aggravation from a bullying ex. “I reached a point where I’d had enough and just didn’t know how to deal with it”, she says.

A friend pointed her to the Jewish counselling service Raphael, and despite her doubts she decided to give it a try. “At that point I thought what have I got to lose? The worst is that I won’t like it and it won’t work.” To her surprise, she found the process that took place over the next six months both healing and transformative. “What I really liked is they helped me to help myself. They didn’t spoon feed ideas or didn’t tell me what to think but asked questions that were incredibly insightful, and in that way we got to the bottom of my issues.”

Miriam has been back to see her therapist off and on over the years and regards the ongoing emotional support as a lifeline. Yet it wasn’t long since she’d first heard of Raphael. Though the small charity has provided affordable therapy for for 40 years and is well regarded within psychotherapeutic circles, it is far from being a household name even in Jewish households.

I did a highly unscientific straw poll of some intelligent, well informed, community-minded women who belong to the same virtual coffee morning. I asked them what they would do if a Jewish friend suffering from anxiety or depression asked them for advice. Where in the community or outside would they suggest turning for help? The answers were thoughtful to a tee — they would be there to listen, suggest private therapists, GPs, the Samaritans, yoga, dance, acupuncture, St John’s wort, the Jewish Helpline and in three cases the mental health charity Jami. Only two out of the 11 who responded suggested Raphael by name. That’s taking “under the radar” to a whole new level.

The charity’s clinical director Sara Cooper is well aware of its low profile though she seems somewhat baffled by it. “We do make huge efforts to publicise”, she says. “But we are very small.”

It’s certainly true that Raphael is tiny. In the past three years its income has never exceeded £100,000 which means it is dwarfed by the better known Jewish charities that deal with budgets in the millions. But the modest resources go surprisingly far.

Since its foundation, the organisation has grown from a single counsellor to a fluctuating team of 30 or so, a mix of fully fledged professionals and trainees all working on a voluntary basis, seeing between them anything from 60 to 90 clients a week. Counsellors often arrive on placement when they are studying, but some stay on for up to 20 years, receiving nothing but a token payment. That means a client could be seen by a highly trained senior counsellor for a fraction of the commercial rate.

At a time when patients with anxiety and depression can wait years for talking therapy on the NHS and then get only a limited number of sessions, Raphael usually finds a place for new clients within a matter of weeks and the treatment is open ended. The much larger Jami is a more broad ranging mental health service but refers patients to Raphael if appropriate.

Working from modest premises in Edgware until lockdown sent all therapy online, it welcomes clients from all parts of the Jewish community from Charedi to non-observant, and even non Jewish.

Miriam couldn’t afford the full guideline rate of £50 per session when she came for help, and was relieved to learn that the organisation works on the principle that “we never turn people away”.

Though Cooper would like to improve visibility, there’s a degree of caution about shaking things up too dramatically. When I ask if she’d like to change anything, she talks about a new logo, better premises, and sorting out the bureaucracy —the vision is one of small steps rather than a big, slick transformation.

Of course it’s important to bear in mind how the entire landscape of mental health has changed in recent years, with far greater public engagement in issues like suicide, depression and anxiety. There are lots of bold new initiatives, but some in the profession are rightly wary of the kind of celebrity circus attending — for example — recent revelations from the Duchess of Sussex about her suicidal thoughts. By contrast, there’s a lot to like about Raphael’s unflashy solicitude, its consistent determination to provide support where it is needed without banging a huge drum.

The roots of the organisation go back to the 1970s, a time when films like Annie Hall brought therapy into popular culture. Irene Bloomfield, a psychoanalyst and refugee from Nazi Germany, initially set up Raphael under the aegis of the Reform movement. It later expanded and now has the approval and patronage of rabbinical authorities across the religious spectrum.

From Freud to Woody Allen and beyond, psychoanalysis has been regarded as a “Jewish science” and with no shortage of Jewish practitioners elsewhere I wondered why a therapy service needed to be aimed at one specific community.

Says Cooper: “I think it was felt originally that people might feel more comfortable within a Jewish service, and more understood if they talk about issues which pertain to the Jewish community. If people say ‘we’ve got broiges within our family’ we know what they mean.”

Miriam agrees, she felt “…there would be an unspoken understanding. I wouldn’t need to say certain things about how I felt about family orientation, or what specific festivals signified to my children.”

Expecting counselling to work on a voluntary basis is far from unusual, though increasingly controversial in some quarters. But going fully professional is not on Cooper’s agenda, as she thinks it would change the nature of the organisation.

“It’s never been a paid service, I like the ethos as a voluntary service. It does feel like family.”

That’s a feeling shared very deeply by Miriam. “The work they do is amazing. My counsellor is an incredible person with whom I have built a very strong relationship and who has made a huge difference to me at a time when I really needed help.”

*Name has been changed

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