Lisa Mandel, a Wexner Heritage alumna from Los Angeles, is an attorney who is currently the Child and Welfare Policy Deputy to Los Angeles County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky. The following are her reflections from a recent trip to Israel on a child welfare mission with the LA Tel-Aviv Partnership. She can be reached at email@example.com.
In my first forty-six years, I had never been to Israel. In the last year and a half, I have been three times and can’t seem to stop going.
I adored my grandparents. Having escaped Russia as teenagers, my grandparents loved Israel. After her children were grown, my grandmother Sarah dedicated herself to selling Israeli bonds, so many in fact, that she received numerous honors in recognition of her hard work. My childhood memories include attending many luncheons in her honor. I remember sitting at her feet learning the importance of the State of Israel. Her love of Israel sprang not just from it being a safe homeland for Jews but also because it afforded us a chance to build a better world. As I got older, the seeds my grandmother planted and nurtured grew stronger. Her love for Israel guided me when I applied to the Wexner Heritage Program a few years ago.
Last October, while still savoring the intense memories of our Wexner summer in Israel, I was privileged to join a distinguished group of fourteen Los Angeles County leaders traveling to Israel with the L.A. – Tel Aviv Partnership for an in-depth view of its child welfare system. We were a mixed group: Jews and non-Jews, leaders in policy work, education, and social work, executive directors of prominent L.A. non- profits, child welfare officials, Jewish professionals and lay leaders. We looked to our Israeli counterparts for innovative approaches to children and families at risk.
For those of you unfamiliar with its nature, the child welfare system is where government, through social workers, is empowered to intervene with a family, assess the level of risk and thereafter provide services to children who are the victims of, or at risk of abuse or neglect. Similarly, parents who lack the ability to properly raise their children are assisted with the requisite counseling, parenting and social welfare assistance. The ultimate goal of this intervention is to help support or to reunify families when possible.
During the visit I discovered that although we speak the same language as our Tel Aviv counterparts, we had vastly different approaches to how we deliver services and work with families. The disparities are largely due to completely different stating points and attitudes in delivering social and welfare services.
In the United States, although there is lip service paid to those who dedicate their lives to child welfare, in truth most view them as government workers. In Israel, social workers are held in high esteem and are seen as well-trained professionals who are welcome into neighborhoods.
This respect for social services is reflected by the elevated status of those in charge: Zeev Friedman, the head of the Tel Aviv social services occupies a high cabinet status. Prime Minister Olmert’s wife is both a champion and has day-to-day involvement with her new early childhood intervention program called “New Beginnings.”
The most poignant part of my trip was getting to know Zeev Friedman, the Director of the Welfare, Health and Human Services Administration in Tel Aviv-Yafo Municipality. Zeev embodies all the qualities necessary to lead and to change a stagnant system. He is vibrant, emotional and focused. He is understated in his approach, while proud of his organizations’ achievements. Even our “old hands” were mesmerized as he explained that every person is created in the image of God, and as such, they are to be treated with respect and caring. This philosophy is the Israeli starting point and the essence of their approach to welfare and social services. Zeev explained that anyone working in social services must learn from Genesis – to love our fellow man and that we are all created in God’s image.
For those of us working within the confines of the L.A. version of child welfare, to hear the Tel Aviv leader speaking of each child being created in God’s image was a pleasant shock. We have worked so hard to separate religion from our work, that such a strong and profound approach was a revelation. In L.A. we are only now realizing that turning to our faith communities can be of great benefit to our children and families.
In L.A. social workers, educators, schools and foster care programs are usually housed in utilitarian structures. Grey, faceless interchangeable modular carrels like those portrayed in the television show, “The Office.”
Under Zeev’s leadership, a visible and important part of Tel Aviv’s change in social services is a commitment to constructing beautiful, modern buildings. He has created a number of new facilities that can boast of functionality, modernity and sophistication and are jointly funded by the Tel Aviv Development Fund (government), private donors (in both Israel and the U.S.) and various other organizations. These facilities are a great source of pride, having been designed to maintain the respect and dignity of all social service clients. This new policy is a conscious move away from the prevailing notions of poor buildings for poor people.
In addition to creating new beautiful buildings, bureaus or offices were relocated into areas where clients lived. These neighborhood centers represent a move away from silo’d services towards a blending of all social services — co-locating everything a family would need under one roof including: social services, public health, immigrant absorption, drug abuse prevention and homeless services.
In L.A. if a child must be removed from his/her home and no suitable relatives are available, the primary placement alternative is foster care. For those who can’t be placed with foster families there is a greater use of congregate care, aka “group homes.” To us, group homes are placements of last resort reminiscent of orphanages.
In sharp contrast, Israelis have very little use for foster care or adoption. Their preference is to keep children in their family unit and provide them with services to help preserve and heal the family. If that fails, relatives are next in line and then residential care. There are enough residential placements for children. There are no waiting lists. All placements are of high quality. This commitment reflects the societal values of promoting safety, providing a good education, and the preservation of the family unit despite inability to live there. We heard on several occasions the deep held Israeli belief that no one else gets to be called “mom”. For the L.A. group unfamiliar with the Israeli approach, it took a while to overcome their initial shock and curiosity.
To further enhance prevention efforts, over the last few years Tel Aviv has created several programs to work with at-risk children. One such effort is the Multipurpose Day Care Centers. These Centers are unique as they blend staff of government and non-government social workers, therapists, teachers, and national volunteers. The Centers have extended hours and care for children from birth through age six when they enter school. They focus on family and parenting issues in a positive non-threatening child care environment. The Centers are open to all families thereby eliminating stigmatization by blending those receiving welfare services with other neighborhood families. To date, the benefits have been profound in creating community and lifting up those most in need.
In LA, group residential care is considered out-dated and unhealthy. We now favor foster care believing foster families will provide the love, direction and support to help raise our children. Yet in reality, many foster parents’ motivation is financial. Paid significant amounts of money per month per child, many view foster care as a business. While not inherently abusive, the provision of room and board without anything more is simply not working. Many children placed in foster care move from home to home ultimately ending up in residential care without any sense of permanence. Some return home, others spend their life in constant motion after “emancipating” from our system.
After overcoming our initial shock of co-ed multi-age residential living facilities, we were able to see beautiful living quarters arranged by age groupings. These modern “condos” were nicely appointed with nice furniture; new carpets; large and personalized bedrooms; a kitchen that looked like home and a large dining table for everyone to gather around. The kids looked happy. As a young girl roller-skated by, she stopped to give staff a hug. In my frequent tours of L.A. foster and group homes such skating and hugs are equally rare. The county is afraid to allow kids to skate in fear of lawsuits for injuries caused by falling or to allow adults to hug kids for fear of allegations of inappropriate touching.
During last summer’s Wexner Israel Institute, I spent a day with Ethiopian Jews. The older immigrants had difficulties in adjusting, yet with the assistance of the government and U.S. supporters, their children are much more able to make the transition. On this Partnership trip I had the opportunity to examine their experience from the government prospective. Coming from L.A. with huge immigrant populations and a permanent underclass population, I expected to see how services vary based on the identity of those needing assistance.
I was impressed by Israel’s key policy decision and efforts towards not allowing the Ethiopian immigrants to become an underclass. I was pleasantly surprised by resources put into this effort ranging from successful integration of pre-school through high school, provision of social and absorption services and equality of education, employment and access to services.
Perhaps Israel’s unique history opened it to healing its damaged children. As a new country after World War II, many children without parents came to Israel to live on newly established Kibbutzim making it alright to live in a residential community. Similarly, emphasis was placed on getting a good education – in residential placement. Given Israel’s origins, social services are viewed as a right or entitlement not a negative reflection upon those in need. A battle now emerges as their system gradually moves away from its socialist roots to a more capitalist society. Only time will tell how this plays out.
All the members of our group were impressed with the level of hope and commitment on the part of Israelis toward their less able. Israel is a country which demonstrates a profound level of understanding of what it takes to lift a family up – to support and wrap services around them – to do so without stigmatization – and to do so in a dignified manner by providing services even in the poorest neighborhoods in beautiful and welcoming buildings. This humanity permeated every meeting, every site visited, and every lecture attended. There wasn’t whitewashing but an acknowledgement that families in every country have issues. It is how we chose to work with them and their children that will make all the difference.
Like my grandmother, I felt a strong sense of pride in being Jewish and being connected to this amazing State. Proud to watch others who are not Jewish awed by the progress and compassion of our Israeli counterparts. Proud of my grandmother and the thousands of Americans who poured their energy and financial resources into the creation of a Jewish State. With this pride comes knowledge that we can learn from and utilize important parts of what Israel has become. My grandmother’s dream realized.
This trip and the Wexner program have presented me with the ability to look at what can be learned and created. My Wexner years taught me that leadership for change requires energy and the will to take on the movement. It is the ability to see what needs to be changed and then to have the strength and will to move forward. I’ve been given a gift of knowledge and experience which will help me in my policy work. With the help of our Wexner community, the Federation, Jewish Family Services and the will of our County – we can and will make a difference by honoring my grandmother’s work and vision and by giving back. More accurately by bringing back the best of Israel to the children of Los Angeles.