Cheryl Mirrop

Denver psychologist launches groups for community to process grief and anxiety

Apr 22, 2024 | Article, Newsletter

Cheryl Mirrop was visiting friends in Israel on October 7, as she does about once a year. She had just spent the evening of Simchat Torah in Efrat, attending what she describes as an “exhilarating and inspiring” ceremony, when her host awoke the next morning to hundreds of security alerts from the government. In a matter of hours, Mirrop had gone from joy to shock.

“I remember thinking, ‘Am I in the Twilight Zone?” she recalls. “Is this a dream—or is this real?’”

Sandy Mann

Dr. Sandy Mann

Nearly seven thousand miles away, in Denver, Dr. Sandy Mann, a licensed clinical psychologist and grandchild of Holocaust survivors, also had a visceral reaction to the events of October 7. At the time, she was serving as the CEO of a nonprofit mental health counseling center. The events of October 7 brought her to both a personal and professional inflection point.

“I felt moved by what had happened personally, and as a psychologist, I wanted to help my community,” she says. “At the same time, I felt very isolated in my professional workspace because people said the right words—this is ‘awful’ and they were ‘sorry,’—but I didn’t feel they really understood.”

Several months later, these two women with very different experiences of October 7 met, their paths crossing thanks to Dr. Mann who decided to put her professional skills to use by co-organizing a series of Jewish Community Process Groups that have been meeting regularly since November.

In the wake of October 7 and the rise of antisemitism around the world, the groups offer an authentic and inclusive space for people to reflect on their individual and collective experiences in the months since Israel was attacked by Hamas.

“These groups are not spiritual in nature, and we are not marching to protest,” Dr. Mann says. “We are talking about the isolation, fear, intergenerational trauma, grief, and loss of sense of safety we have experienced since October 7.”

Cheryl Mirrop in Israel

Mirrop describes herself as someone who has “a lot of faith in G-d.”

So even reports of an invasion and the sound of rockets did not deter her from walking to synagogue on the morning of October 7. During the service, she heard her first rocket siren alert and, with the entire congregation, went to a bomb shelter.

“The first thing I noticed was that no one was panicking,” she says. “They said, ‘We have heard sirens many times. This is probably nothing.’” But when we returned to the service, they canceled all of the Hakafot, so then I knew it was serious.”

There would be no leaving Israel any time soon. Mirrop would have to wait 10 days until her regularly scheduled El Al flight departed. During those days, she got an education in life after October 7. She had to install three different apps on her phone to monitor alerts. One type of alert meant an incoming rocket, and she had 90 seconds to get to a bomb shelter. She learned how to lie flat on the ground and protect her head during a rocket attack if there was no nearby shelter. Another type of alarm meant a potential infiltration.

One day, she heard repeated gunshots in the neighborhood, and, at the same time, she received an infiltration alert saying that terrorists may be entering the area.

“I thought I may have to say goodbye to the world,” she says. “I started praying to G-d, saying ‘It may be my time, but please don’t let them torture me to death.’”

By the time Mirrop left Israel, she was living in a state of constant fear that something terrible could happen to her. When she got back to Denver, her feelings for Israel—a country where she has many friends and has had joyful experiences—were dramatically altered.

“All I could think was ‘Oh my gosh, I feel like I can’t go back for a visit for a very long time,’” she says.

Dr. Sandy Mann

In the wake of October 7, Dr. Mann reflected on two identities that she had usually kept separate—she is a psychologist, and she is Jewish.

Growing up as the daughter of an immigrant, she had learned not to advertise her Jewish identity.

“As a child, you learn that you are in danger based on who you are, so you try to blend in, to assimilate,” she says. “You learn that is the safer way to live.”

In school, when people made comments that were antisemitic, she remained quiet so she would not be perceived as an outsider. As a young woman living in Denver, when her car was keyed with a swastika, she again downplayed the incident.

“I remember my father saying, ‘We will have to make a police report for insurance purposes, but we won’t report it any further,’” she says. “‘We will try to just fix this ourselves.’”

Looking back on these incidents, she now believes that she was practicing a form of denial, thinking that the kind of antisemitism that led to the Holocaust was “old news.”

Then October 7 happened.

“Now, I was hearing about Jews being attacked in their homes on a Jewish holiday, by a group that desires to wipe out Jews wherever they are,” she says. “In a different time and place, my grandparents’ families were eradicated. The dangerous building blocks that led to the Holocaust can happen again.”

Though Dr. Mann was far from Israel, she found that she was experiencing some of the same fear and anxiety as Cheryl Mirrop. She worried about her husband and son walking to synagogue wearing their kippot. She started imagining things that could happen and became hypervigilant during Halloween trick-or-treating.

Ultimately, she decided to merge her two identities. As a Jewish psychologist, she would take care of her community and, through these connections, she could assert her Jewish identity and reassure herself and others that they were not alone.

Cheryl Mirrop in Denver

When Cheryl Mirrop left Israel, Israel did not leave her. She returned home and began attending city council meetings in the metro area in person and remotely to advocate for her community. She was shocked by what she encountered from groups of extremely angry people.

“There was such hate in their eyes,” she says. “I have never seen that before.”

When she tried to talk to friends about her experiences in Israel, people did not want to hear about it.

“I would say, ‘Why don’t you want to listen?’” she says. “And they would say, ‘I’m traumatized already. I don’t want to hear more.’”

Dr. Mann’s group

In early November, Dr. Mann teamed up with Gitit Kaufman and others to begin offering responsive community groups. Kaufman, who speaks Hebrew, is an Israeli-born American Jew and a licensed counselor experienced in trauma and grief.

Together, the two women worked to make sure that the groups offered a sense of safety—not only in the security of the building but in the sharing of experiences.

They created groups in English and Hebrew where many different perspectives were welcome. Some members of the groups had a connection to Israel—others did not. Some were connected to the Holocaust, others were not. A broad spectrum of political views were represented.

“I was surprised at how many people showed up and felt moved and connected by this powerful experience, Dr. Mann says. “We were validating feelings for people who may not have someone at home to talk with or may have someone at home with different views or someone who doesn’t want to discuss these issues at all.”

People talked about having lived through other traumas. They shared coping strategies and news from Israel. They discussed what is and what is not antisemitism. A recurring theme was how to show Jewish pride in a complicated American landscape.

“I was able to share my experiences with people who understand, to be allowed to grieve,” wrote one participant.

“It was the first place that I have been able to express my feelings with others besides my family,” wrote another.

Cheryl Mirrop and Dr. Mann

At a table at Hebrew Educational Alliance, Cheryl found flyers for Dr. Mann’s groups. It was “meant to be,” she says.

At her first group meeting, she met someone who had also been in Israel on October 7 with whom she felt an instant connection. When she told her story, people listened.

“The facilitator gave me feedback that was so comforting,” she says. “She said to me, ‘This sounds like it has been a great loss for you, and you are processing the grief.’ She affirmed my feelings and gave me ideas about how to heal.”

Dr. Sandy Mann and Cheryl Mirrop

As Passover approached, Dr. Mann wove the theme of “freedom” into the group discussions.

“We talked about letting go of what is not serving us anymore,” she says. “It is easy to be overwhelmed by social media. Not eating, not sleeping well, not allowing ourselves to experience joy—we are not helping Israel if we are suffering ourselves.”

Dr. Mann also organized a bimonthly process group to support other Jewish therapists and continue to build resources for Jewish people of Colorado to cope effectively with trauma.

In her work, she has found healing and a new professional vision.

“I don’t know yet what my journey is from here—how I will continue to integrate my Jewish and professional identity,” Dr. Mann says. “But for now, I will continue to help the Jewish and broader community become culturally and trauma-informed in the way that we can care for one another.”

Cheryl Mirrop says attending the process group has helped her with one of her goals. She is “not ready yet,” but telling her story in Dr. Mann’s group has been an important step in her journey back to Israel.

The Jewish Community Process Group will meet in May and June and, after a summer break, start up fall. If you are interested, you can sign up here.