Why Mexico’s Jews have a new crisis hotline
(And it’s not to do with Donald Trump)
AS 2016 drew to a close, Mexico’s Jewish community inconspicuously rolled out a new crisis prevention hotline for its members.
The news was announced only on community newsletters and social media, although there are plans for an official release to the wider Jewish media some time in the next couple of months. The reasons behind the project were kept politely vague, citing “the growing number of people who claim to feel lonely and/or depressed, and who feel they have no one to turn to”.
Mexico’s Jewish community has been thought of as insular by many observers, both within and without. But 105 years after Mexico’s main Jew-
ish organisations were founded, the community here is now widely considered a global success story.
Most of the approximately 50,000 Jews that live in the Latin American country — mainly in the greater Mexico City area — are affiliated with at least one Jewish congregation or organisation; the intermarriage rate is thought to be one of the lowest in the world; and most families send their children to one of the 14 community-based Jewish day schools.
Jewish social life here is bursting with cultural, religious and sporting activities. Antisemitism is kept in check and the BDS movement is weak in the country’s main academic institutions.
For decades, Mexico was a land of opportunity for immigrants willing to work. But the trends toward globalisation, specialisation and high-stakes competition that began during the 1980s have hit family businesses and undermined the financial prospects of countless others.
The times have caught up with many traditional Mexican Jewish families in other areas as well, particularly when it comes to drug and alcohol addiction, gambling addiction, domestic violence and child abuse. While the option of seeking out professional help has become more socially acceptable for many households, others have preferred to look the other way. Some have chosen to work out these matters with a trusted rabbi, or even with lay community leaders. But in other cases, the crises have been overwhelming, even for extended families. This created a growing need for an external, professional entity that could help people in their time of distress.
The new crisis hotline — dubbed 1118 — is the brainchild of the Maguen David Community (which incorporates Syrian Jews from Aleppo) and the Ashkenazi Kehila. The two Orthodox groups have teamed up to launch the service for the entire Mexican Jewish Community, regardless of affiliation or religious denomination.
“The hotline 1118 is available 24 hours a day, every day of the year,” said Tania Chontkowsky, a member of the oversight committee for the new service, “and we have specialists who are trained to assist a person in crisis, with absolute discretion”.
The conversation will be anonymous and confidential, although the caller can choose to give his or her name in order to ask for more direct care. In fact, the hotline serves as a link to several Jewish support organisations. “Depending on the type of crisis, we can assist the person to get them the help they need, whether it is drug or alcohol addiction, domestic violence, clinical depression, elderly neglect, or just plain old loneliness,” said Ms Chontkowsky.
The hotline also employs rabbis and religious counsellors to help the caller, if he or she expresses a need for spiritual guidance. In fact, the number chosen for the hotline is a play on the gematria for 18, which corresponds to the Hebrew “chai”, meaning “life”; and the motto on the logo reads “one to one, in your life”. Ultimately, the project aims to save lives.
Ms Chontkowsky stressed that the hotline operators spent 20 months being trained for their role, with the help of Mexican and Israeli mental health professionals.
For the Jewish community, the hotline will also be a tool to gauge the ongoing emotional wellbeing of its members. The constant connectivity of social media does not necessarily mean that people feel connected or cared for. Mexican Jews can now find a comforting, familiar voice on their phone at all times.