Life & Culture

Why Britain's strictly Orthodox Jews are embracing psychotherapy

Secular colleges training therapists are now welcoming increasing numbers from the Orthodox community as taboos over counselling subside


With her wavy brown tresses, Chaya* walks into my house looking smiley, young and stylish, and about as modern as a Charedi wife and mother gets.

And there’s one other thing about her that is very 21st century — she’s training as a psychotherapist. Even more surprising to me is that she’s doing it at a secular college.

Chaya agrees that her chosen profession is one to which her community is still adjusting. “Therapy used to be regarded as something a bit unproven. We feel that we have all the answers already. We are wise, we have the Torah and it’s a guiding beacon of light.” But, she says, things are changing very quickly.

Or, as a Stamford Hill local put it, “In the past, people who were facing a problem would go to see a rabbi, now they look for a therapist.”

And they acknowledge with a sigh that the spike in antisemitic incidents that hit this very visibly Jewish community particularly hard after the Hamas massacre has made mental-health support more vital than ever.

Training providers report a surge of applications in recent years from the strictly Orthodox and Charedi worlds. The Shomrei Shabbat directory, a community phone book, lists no fewer than 17 psychotherapists.

Colleges in north London offer courses tailored to the needs of observant Jewish students, and the charity Noa Girls, which provides support for teens and young women, is sponsoring ten students on clinical programmes at the Tavistock Clinic and other leading institutions.

Noa’s founder Naomi Lerer says that there’s a huge need for culturally sensitive therapy, and demand is quickly outstripping supply.

“They struggle with all the things other people struggle with, but in the Orthodox community it can sometimes be difficult to express these things. Often that pain can be turned inwardly, resulting in self-harm, eating disorders and suicidal ideation. Plus, there is less access to mental-health education, and significant barriers to accessing mental-health support.”

A local charity worker who didn’t want to be named said it would be difficult to generalise the issues bringing Charedi men through the door. “They are no different than the rest of us — anxiety, depression, family problems, health issues. Men in this community face exactly the same kind of problems as anybody else.”

Since October 7, Noa Girls has put even more support in place for its clients but also for its staff, who report a surge in anxiety around antisemitism and safety. Lerer says it affects even those who had never before reported problems.

“Many teenage girls with no apparent mental-health challenge are finding it really hard. But for those girls at Noa who were already really struggling with their mental health, the recent events have been exceptionally triggering. The increased anxiety and depression is severe.”

With ten weeks of training under her belt, Chaya has her own theory about the unique stresses on women in her community.

The 32-year-old mother-of-four says “perfectionism is lauded above all”. It means, she says, that people are reluctant to admit that anything about their marriages or children is less than ideal, which creates unrealistic expectations.

Terapia is an accredited training provider in Finchley for child and adolescent psychotherapy.

Its first Charedi student arrived 16 years ago, and it has been a key conduit between religious and secular worlds ever since.

As numbers gradually increased, a problem emerged. Most courses, which are part-time, include compulsory sessions on weekends.

That meant some students had to find ways of making up for missed Saturdays, and others arriving late were unable to use the electronic entry system because of Shabbat observance.

Though the organisation’s founder Bozena Merrick says wryly that it never got to the point where anybody was left outside, she was quick to recognise that adjustments would have to be made.

“We are proud to consider ourselves a very diverse organisation. We have students who are practising Muslims, we have students of colour, different nationalities, different races, different religions. The Jewish students taught us what they needed.”

While courses are now offered at alternative times, other issues have proved more intractable.

By their nature, counselling courses all involve digging deep into one’s own psyche, with some likening the experience to group therapy.

It’s vital that this is done in confidence, and it’s a convention of such training that those in the group start as strangers to each other.

But since each cohort of around 15 now includes three or four north London Orthodox Jews, it’s proved very difficult to avoid putting people in a group with others with whom they are somehow connected. “It does inhibit them,” says Merrick, “despite the agreement of absolute confidentiality.”

CPPD counselling school in Crouch End offers a three-year accredited training, and the latest cohort includes single-sex groups of Charedi men and women.

The organisation has taught counselling in places as culturally and geographically far afield as Northern Ireland and Pakistan, where co-founder and director Jenny Sandelson sees the needed adjustments as being similar.

“It is working to match the needs of the community so that it’s accessible and appropriate, and also meets all of the requirements of the profession,” she says.

Though few of the Orthodox students have the undergraduate degree that would be required elsewhere, one of the biggest revelations for Sandelson, a member of a Reform synagogue, has been how easily they have taken to psychoanalytic concepts.

After all, she says, “a lot of the kind of traditional psychoanalytic theory has been written about for years is in the Talmud.

"So many of the ideas feels very familiar and useful.” She says that her earlier students had to be quite brave to go outside of the community and learn in a secular college, albeit with rabbinical support. But they have turned out to be “some of the best students we’ve had”.

And though both therapists and patients from observant backgrounds may accept and even integrate rabbinical advice into the counselling process, no concessions are made to beliefs and attitudes that may be common in Stamford Hill, but which don’t fit with modern counselling practice.

What’s more, Sandelson says that in her experience all of the Charedi students “have been absolutely open to learning about and accepting of sexual diversity, while also recognising the complexity and conflict that this can bring for clients from the community”.

But this may not be true everywhere. Chaya says she has heard of students who have had to abandon their studies because they struggled to adjust their mindset.

Unexpectedly for Sandelson, some of the biggest obstacles have come from the outside world.

Finding placements where trainees can opt for same-sex patients only, or take leave for the Jewish holidays, are two ongoing problems.

But doesn’t, I ask, equality law oblige them to make reasonable adjustments for faith?

“Supposedly,” she says, with a note of resignation, adding that overall the programme has been a huge success.

At Terapia, Merrick says some of the most fruitful learning has come from the mix of backgrounds. “It is fantastic to watch how people from such diverse cultures are really working together, and how they are really interested in each other.”

The founding father of psychoanalysis might be gratified to learn that his co-religionists are embracing the benefits of his insight.

But I suspect Freud would also welcome more American-style openness about the fact that psychotherapy is now part of the Charedi world.

As I was looking for therapists based in Stamford Hill to interview for this article, I met a wall of silence. None of the current students at the training facilities I visited were willing to talk to the JC, even anonymously.

I tried emailing professionals listed in the Shomrei Shabbat directory, and every sheitl or kippah-wearing individual I could see on the website of the British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy.

I didn’t get a single reply, even to say no. All of which suggests that while more therapy is broadly accepted as a positive change, talking about it publicly is still problematic.

Eventually I found Chaya through a neighbour. She’s working in an office while studying, but is changing direction in order to give something useful back to her own community and, though it is early days, she is loving every moment.

“We’re all there with the same goals, the same passions. It’s a wonderfully warm and supportive environment and we’re doing something good.”

* This name has been changed;;

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