Saving Lives, One Phone Call at a Time

August 14, 2014

7 min read

It is the middle of the Sukkot [Tabernacles] holiday, in the fall of 2005. Alone, on a sunlight beach, somewhere south of Netanya, glistening waves roll up onto the shore and blanket the feet of an IDF soldier who received special leave from the army for the holiday for a breather and to deal with pressing family issues, which had resulted in psychological instability.

His father had left him and his older brothers long ago. His aging mother was suffering from dementia and did not know who he was anymore. His older siblings had no time for him and all had worries of their own. And he was failing at being a soldier, having disgraced himself upon mission after mission, only to endure the ridicule and harsh words of his commanders and peers.

He had no where left to turn except to God.

No one was there for him.

No one was willing to listen.

As he gazed across the expanse of sea towards the glowing sun hovering upon the horizon, he made his peace with God, enjoying this last beautiful gift from the heavens. The soldier lifted his M16 rifle up to his mouth and fired.

Little did he know that approaching his exact location from behind were a group of 10 hikers, many of whom had been combat soldiers themselves. Upon hearing the shot, they immediately ran to his aid. Two ran to get the life-guard from the nearby beach while others called an  ambulance and the police.

Unfortunately for this particular soldier, help came too late. But for the many other soldiers in similar situations help is available.

Today with one phone call soldiers in need, as well as anyone else, can call and talk to someone who will listen. They can reach out and talk to a trained professional who can help them with their problems, and together find a solution.

“Our job is to bring the person who calls to a level of functionality and deal with their problems in a calm and proportional way. We get the person to a level where they can function everyday, so that they can look at their problems in a different light with a different perspective,” says Adrienne Hersh, spokeswoman for the Eran Foundation, Israel’s only emotional first aid hotline service.

“Hundreds of people call us everyday and we listen to them talk about their problems. Not just soldiers, but normative people, people with marital issues, depression, mental issues, people who have been abused or attacked, and many many people who are simply lonely,” she explained.

(Photo: IDF)
(Photo: IDF)

Over the past month during Operation Protective Edge, Eran received over 950 phone calls and online messages from people in distress or emotional crises each day. Many of those reaching out were from soldiers, while others were from civilians frightened in bomb shelters, or simply in general states of panic.

One soldier called up and said was about run away from the army as his father was lying ill with cancer and his family’s harvest was going to be left to rot in the field. If he didn’t deal with the problem his family would end up in financial ruin. The Eran volunteer calmed the soldier down, then contacted the army, who not only released the soldier, but also released his entire unit for 24 hours to go and help with the harvest.

“Things like this happen everyday,” added Hersh.

The Eran foundation was set up in 1971 and is Israel’s only emotional first aid service, that provides a confidential 24-hour hotline, seven days a week, 365 days a year. It includes various sector specific hotlines offering unconditional emotional support to those who are alone, depressed or in crisis. The foundation has hotlines in Hebrew, Russian, Arabic and even English. It has 12 centers in total around the country including an online hotline where people can chat or email the volunteers at Eran and communicate via the web.

In addition to the calls from soldiers, Eran receives calls from people of all ages, denominations and religions. Children and teens in distress in particular use the hotlines of Eran continuously. In 2013 over 8,000 phone calls and emails came in from children in distress, while over 60,000 calls came from people over the age of 50 who needed someone to talk to.

Eran typically receives over 450 phone calls per day or 162,000 phone calls a year. Over the past month, this number has doubled, as well as the number of calls from soldiers. “When you realize the need to help people in emotional and mental distress, it gets in your blood and you can’t do anything but help people. That is what we are all about,” says Hersh.

Eran is a completely volunteer run organization that was founded by Maria-Berta Zasleni, in memory of her late husband, the psychiatrist, Arie Zasleni.  The organization was based on the American “call for help” models that were gaining popularity in the 1960’s, and the need in Israel for such an organization has never been greater.


The organization also runs a special hotline for Holocaust survivors but goes above and beyond by having their volunteers call the survivors to talk to them and see if they need assistance or someone to talk to. This phone call can often be a lifeline to those receiving the call having gone through tremendous trauma which has only been compounded by age-related changes, such as bereavements or reduced economic, social and emotional resources, isolation and physical incapacity. Eran takes the initiative and reaches out to these people to let them know that there is someone whom they can talk to, who will listen and care, and help if they can.

Unlike in most other countries, the law in Israel is such that organizations such as Eran can get physically involved with a caller in need. Thus if a person is suicidal, or thought to be a suicide threat, Eran volunteers will try to find out the caller’s location, and will immediately notify the police and ambulance rescue services, thus hopefully saving the person’s life, while at the same time giving them the emotional support and tools that they need to maintain stability after they hang up the phone.

Eran volunteers go through a grueling 10-month training process in order to be properly qualified to deal with the crises that they may receive via the phone or internet. They help callers explore their own strengths and provide them with ways to cope with their emotional ordeals. These professionally trained volunteers saved many lives by “being there” for callers when they needed help most urgently.

“A lot of what we do is confidential and proprietary, and everything is kept anonymous,” Hersh explained. “All of our volunteers are trained professionals, and many of them include major educators around the country who take part together with Eran in the training of our volunteers and the saving of lives. We also work together with the top professionals of many different mental health organizations.”

“The job can be difficult for the volunteers. To get involved in someone’s life is a difficult thing. Especially when that person is at the lowest point of their lives, in a time of great crises. Then once the phone is hung up, that connection is lost and the volunteer has no idea what happens to the person on the other end. That can be very difficult for a volunteer to deal with, and therefore it is imperative that the volunteers go through extensive training,” says Hersh.

She gave the example of the protocol of what happens after a suicide call. “After a suicide call all volunteers must go through a therapy session with their supervisor,” she said.

Sunset on the Mediterranean (Photo: Buonasera/Wiki Commons)
Sunset on the Mediterranean (Photo: Buonasera/Wiki Commons)

“The volunteers periodically go on sustainability training as well, in order to refresh our techniques and help them cope with the stresses that they feel answering all these calls. Each person who calls is their own story, some calls last 5 minutes, others last an hour or more. Each caller gets the full attention of volunteers, and there is no ticking clock on the call. We help each person as they need until the get back to a stable place in their own mind,” Hersh explained.

When asked what was most eye opening for Hersh, who herself works as a volunteer operating the phones in English, she responded and said; “Even strong people need someone to talk to at times.”

The organization is in the process of setting up an SMS hotline specifically targeted at helping children and teens. The number of children and teens committing suicide jumped dramatically last year, and teens are committing suicide as early as eleven years old.

When asked what the biggest challenge facing the organization was, Hersh answered by saying: “We need to increase our volunteer network. Currently we are able to answer 162,000 calls a year, but there are more. We need to increase our network so that we can answer all of these calls.”

The annual budget for the organization is $3.11 million a year. Of that a very small portion is funded by the government and over 90 percent of it comes from donations. “This past month we needed to dig deep as our volunteer answering centers in the south had to close due to the conflict. Our volunteers simply could not get to the centers under the heavy barrage of rocket fire, so we had to purchase IP for over 150 of our volunteers. They were great though, and they kept answering calls even from their own bomb-shelters while under fire,” says Hersh.

Eran is there for you and me, our children and our grandparents. And while the work they are doing is truly great, the need is even greater. Every volunteer at Eran will tell you that something as simple as listening and talking can save a life. That is what Eran does.

They make sure that there is always someone available at the other end of the phone or internet to help those in need who are in trouble and distress. If the soldier on the beach had only known, perhaps he would be still be looking out at the gorgeous sun drenched beach of the Mediterranean, and smiling, even today.

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