Even though they have no government minister to represent them, social workers proved at a Jerusalem conference and fair on Wednesday that they could still carry out worthwhile work. The event was sponsored by the Ministry of Social Affairs and was designed to highlight the importance of cooperation between professionals and the community.
"As social workers, we believe that in order to solve problems we have to involve the client in planning and evaluating services," explained Prof. Terry Mizrachi of Hunter College School of Social Work in New York City, currently a Fulbright Fellow at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. "A main criticism of government and non-government organizations is that they plan programs for the community - but not with the community."
Mizrachi, who was commissioned by the ministry to research and write a comprehensive paper on the topic, said this model of social work aimed to empower disadvantaged citizens by listening to their needs, providing them with tools to protest or influence public policy, and bringing individuals together to provide support for each other.
In her address to the over 150 social workers, community organization representatives, volunteers, concerned citizens and parents, Mizrachi said, "It is so important in a democracy such as the US or Israel that we have shared participation between the government and the client. There will always be less problems if you feel like someone is listening to you." She added, "It might be more complicated to include the client but experience has shown that programs work better when people are invested and have a sense of ownership."
The 40 booths set up at the fair provided vivid examples of these social models in action. Arad-based All As One, which was started three years ago by area resident Avital Argaman, is designed to bring together women of all backgrounds to share their skills and learn new ones, with the ultimate goal of becoming financially independent.
Esti Azoulay, a social worker for the Arad municipality explained, "We help women find their natural skills or work, and provide a different option for those who are in financial difficulties. It is an effective alternative to the Wisconsin plan [a government-run employment program]. We hold a market every month so that the women can sell their goods and are about to start a course on how to set up a small business," she said of the group, which now receives partial funding from the Jewish Agency for Israel, the Arad municipality's social services department, Arad-Tamar Economic Development Unit and Shatil.
Another booth showing the effectiveness of a community-oriented welfare service was that of the Kadima Project, active in the Arab village of Kafr Manda in the Galilee. Visam and Radya, two social workers running the booth, said the project was aimed at helping children and youth-at-risk in the village. They said that the program's current emphasis was on preventing the practice of underage marriage in their village.
"Out of the 80 weddings a year, close to 20 involve brides who are younger than the legal age of marriage, which is 17," said Visam.
Radya added that underage marriage was a very sensitive issue dictated by traditional and religious practices but which could cause great harm to the village's young women. She said that the outreach had been well received so far.
The irony of the conference's focus on social programming in light of the fact there is no minister of Social Affairs was not lost on the social workers present.
Yossi Korazim, head of the policy-planning department at the Ministry of Social Affairs, said that Israel had a lot to be proud of regarding citizen participation in welfare programs, but he said the fact that the government still had no minister was "very bad." "We do not have a representative in the government except for the prime minister but his priorities are not social welfare," he said.
Another social worker, Jerusalem-based Sue Lehmann who works for the Family Court Services at the ministry, was less diplomatic.
"I think it is a disgrace that the government has been set up without a minister of social affairs," she said. "So many politicians and parties in the recent election ran on the welfare ticket and now not a single minister has thought to take up the issue. No fundamental policies can be made without a minister."