For about eight years now, Refa’enu has been offering support groups for people with mood disorders.
They’re not therapy groups; they’re peer-led support groups, fueled by the understanding that it often helps people whose blood chemistry, combined with environmental and other not-clearly-understood factors, has led them to depression or bipolar disorder.
It’s not that these groups are meant to replace work with therapists or medication. The combination of those things, carefully calibrated for each person, is extraordinarily helpful; with them, people with mood disorders lead full, healthy, happy lives. But peer-led groups help too. As with so many other conditions, it’s freeing to realize that you’re with people who share your experiences. You don’t have to explain them.
Refa’enu — the Hebrew word means “heal us,” and it’s a constant plea in daily prayers — was created by Dena Croog of Teaneck, a writer whose own experiences in support groups in New York, first as a participant and then as a facilitator, led her to start Refa’enu on the west side of the Hudson. The groups — one for people with mood disorders and another for their family members, aimed at Jews from across the Jewish world, and open to everyone — met in person until covid.
Once the pandemic began, the groups moved to Zoom. Although there are great advantages to meeting in person, there are several less obvious ones to Zoom meetings. “We now have people from all over the United States, and some were coming from Israel,” Ms. Croog said. Not everyone’s in easy driving distance of Teaneck.
But it’s not easy to go to a group that meets in the evening, Eastern Standard Time, if you’re in Israel. The seven-hour difference means that you’d have to get on Zoom in the middle of the night.
That’s why Refa’enu is beginning a Zoom peer-led support group in Israel, Ms. Croog said.
They’ll be facilitated by Miriam Greenberg, who made aliyah from Teaneck (and then, briefly, Bergenfield) at the end of May.
The group will be in English; Ms. Greenberg thinks that many of the participants are likely to be olim, as she is. “There are many olim who don’t necessarily have easy access to English-speaking therapists,” she said, although she stressed that the group is not a replacement for a therapist, but in addition to one.
“The stress of making aliyah can exacerbate mood disorders,” she said. “People are in a new environment, and there’s culture shock,” even if you think there won’t be. “Life here is different. The bureaucracy is just off the charts.
“We are able to support each other. And it’s not at all limited to olim.” It is, instead, for anyone comfortable in English and able to get to a meeting in Israel’s time zone. “People will call in from all over,” Ms. Greenberg said.
The group in Israel, like the groups here, “are an hour long,” she continued; they’re set for Wednesdays, from 7:30 to 8:30 p.m. there. As the facilitator, “I will start the meeting by asking if anyone has anything urgent to discuss. We will go around, and I will keep track of time so that everyone has a chance to be heard.” The groups are kept small, so that everyone has a chance to talk and be heard.
In-person groups probably make their participants a bit more invested in them, because of the time and effort it takes to get to them, Ms. Greenberg said. “But Zoom makes it easier for people to come, because they only have to go as far as their computer or their phone.” One rule is that each participant must be alone in the room, because “although we are not anonymous, we are confidential,” she said. “People can always go to their garage, or to their backyard.” Although it might be hard for someone to find that private space, “if it’s important, they find a way.”
You don’t lose much intimacy with Zoom, she continued, “because you can see people’s faces well, and you generally can see their gestures. People tend to talk with their hands. The only thing that you can’t do is hug.”
And that’s not necessarily a bad thing, she said. “We generally don’t stress hugging in in-person groups.” Partly that’s because not everyone wants to hug, and partly because “we have some religious people in the group,” who will not touch or be touched by anyone not of their gender.
“We have various levels of religiousness, even in Israel,” she said. “That’s fine, as long as everyone is respectful of each other.”
People will learn about Refa’enu’s groups in Israel on social media and by word of mouth; that’s why Ms. Greenberg and Ms. Croog think it’s important for North Americans to hear about them. They can provide the information to their friends and relatives in Israel, the two women said.
The groups in Israel, like the ones in the United States, are free. Anyone who is interested in the group in Israel is asked to email Ms. Croog at email@example.com; find out about the local ones at firstname.lastname@example.org. Ms. Croog will ask a few questions and then send a link.