In Israel, Helping Students Help Others

Wurzweiler’s Block Program Offers Israelis Cutting-Edge Social Work Education

As a high school English teacher in Jerusalem, Rivkah Weiss found students frequently turned to her for advice and guidance. But although she loved helping them navigate the personal challenges they faced, Weiss was frustrated by the sense that she could only do so much for them. “I felt like I was limited in my capacity to help them and had this strong desire to further develop my skillset so I could expand my work in this area,” she said.

2014 graduates of the Israel Block Program, left to right: Amikam Schweber, Zvia Altar and Yehuda Ish Shalom
2014 graduates of the Israel Block Program, left to right: Amikam Schweber, Zvia Altar and Yehuda Ish Shalom

Weiss decided to begin her master’s degree in social work at the Wurzweiler School of Social Work’s Block Program in Israel. Consisting of three summers of formal classroom social work education at Yeshiva University’s Wilf Campus in New York City and two years of supervised field experience in Israel, the program is designed to enable aspiring Israeli social workers to gain cutting-edge training without having to relocate.

“The Block Program allowed me to remain in Israel where I live throughout the year and at the same time complete my studies in three summers,” said Weiss. “Wurzweiler and the Block Program particularly are known for their high academic standards and success rate in terms of job placements, and my fellow students and I also became a very close-knit group of religious and secular Israeli, American and Canadian men and women.”

“Wurzweiler has been training Israeli social workers for almost 30 years, and the quality of our graduates and the strength of our Israeli alumni have had a positive impact on health and human services in Israel,” said Dr. Carmen Ortiz Hendricks, the David and Dorothy Schachne Dean of Wurzweiler. “Our Block Program brings international and national students together every summer, and Israeli students are an important part of this study experience. We are proud of each and every one of our Israeli graduates.”

According to Meir Charash, coordinator of the Block Program in Israel, the program’s flexibility, in addition to small class sizes and advising system, make it a natural choice for students preparing for a career in Israel. “New York City offers a rich environment for social work students within the mosaic of the city’s complex and ethnically diverse population, while living and working in Israel provides a wonderful opportunity to gain professional experience in Israel’s leading social work agencies,” he said.

That synthesis was part of the program’s appeal for Rikki Davies, who was on her way to a career in business, with a promising job at a direct response television company, when a volunteer position at an institution for young women with eating disorders stopped her in her tracks. “When I realized how much meaning I found in connecting to people and society, and that those connections could be my area of work, I decided to go back to school,” she said.

Davies initially chose the Block Program because of its unique schedule and academic reputation, but found the close mentorship she received from her field adviser invaluable. “Meir noticed my progress and challenges down to the smallest details,” she said. “In an encouraging and supportive way, he constantly pushed me to do better. I had excellent field experiences working with people with addictions and with families in emotional distress.  Most importantly I always knew that if I needed anything, there was someone to turn to.”

A Block Program student participates in an exercise during one of the New York summer sessions.
A Block Program student participates in an exercise during one of the New York summer sessions.

Davies felt her education in the Block Program gave her the tools to pursue a longtime ambition: to expand her work with survivors of trauma and possibly jumpstart community-wide interventions—“something that is unfortunately necessary in many communities in Israel,” she said. She recently collaborated with an empowerment and self-defense program in Israel to create a short-term adjunctive group intervention for survivors of trauma. “I have a dream of opening up a milieu rehabilitation program for survivors of trauma who symptoms aren’t defined enough to get them into any other program, such as rehab for addictions,” Davies said.

Hillel Langenauer valued the Block Program’s customizable focuses. “After joining the program, I found that the individualized attention in the Israel Block program was even more important to my growth as a social worker than I had anticipated,” he said. “It certainly allowed me to seek out the specific fieldwork experiences that I thought would be most helpful to the direction in which I wanted to develop professionally, and I was thrilled with these counseling and psychotherapy placements with adolescents and couples, which I would not have gotten without the help of the program director and my faculty adviser.”

He added, “The additional insight, clarity, and precision of direction in the development of my skills as a social worker was enhanced beyond words by the writing requirements required by Wurzweiler to my faculty adviser and our back and forth over email about these assignments, as well as the face-to-face contact and educational experiences offered by our monthly seminar days.”

For Yehuda Ish Shalom, the Block Program provided a supportive environment as he pursued formal training while juggling jobs in social work, security and the military. He was drawn to the field after volunteering for Magen David Adom during the deadly attacks of the Second Intifada, where he was exposed to the emotional trauma such attacks wreak on survivors and their families. His medical training also enabled him to assist at several births, and the juxtaposition of death and life underscored to him the significance and value of each human being’s existence. “During my military service, several of my best friends were killed in action,” he said. “The experience of loss, the process of mourning and the special connection that developed between myself and the families of my friends also played a part in my choice of social work as a profession.”

Ish Shalom now serves as the youth-adult coordinator at One Family Fund for Victims of Terror and Their Families, but is still active in the military as well. When he was called on to serve in Gaza this summer immediately after graduating the Block Program, he realized that even or perhaps especially in war, the social work training he had received at Wurzweiler played a critical role in shaping his actions.

“When I had some time to think alone, I acknowledged the fact that in all the wars I have participated in to date, this is the first one that I am not just a soldier, but also a social worker,” said Ish Shalom. “As such, I felt that alongside my operational responsibilities to target the terrorists, I had also human and social responsibilities to every innocent person. It is hard for to express how much [the staff of the Block Program’s] unequivocal and unhesitant support means to me.”