A new kind of freedom

Thanks to a social worker from New York, there are now six centers in the capital that citizens can call for guidance in getting their rights.

The Center for the Actualization of Rights in Kiryat Hayovel. (photo credit: Courtesy)
The Center for the Actualization of Rights in Kiryat Hayovel.
(photo credit: Courtesy)
New Yorker Florence Galkin has been involved in social work for almost 60 years, and her passion for helping people access their rights led her to found Mashov – an Israeli nonprofit for citizen involvement and partnership for community advocacy – in 1993.
“Ten years ago, I saw a US website, Benefits CheckUp, in which people over 65 put in their details and immediately received the national rights that they were entitled to,” explains Galkin.
“I thought that this could be a springboard for a model for activating citizens’ rights in Israel.”
Working in conjunction with the Jerusalem Municipality’s Social Services Department, she was instrumental in laying the groundwork for pioneering change that has enabled Jerusalem residents, especially those from non-mainstream populations, to realize their rights.
“When Florence came to us 10 years ago and told us that there were ‘barriers’ preventing people from actualizing their rights, we didn’t really understand her,” says Sharon Binyamin, deputy director of the Social Services Department. “But we learned that there were many social, cultural and economic factors that prevented people from realizing their rights, including lack of knowledge on how to access these rights, lack of confidence, bureaucratic mazes, and laws and regulations that are open to interpretation and can easily change.”
“Many times people gave up trying to access their rights before they even started,” says Binyamin.
Working together, Mashov and the Social Services Department developed a multidisciplinary approach to engage citizens in utilizing their rights, and launched a pilot project with one vulnerable population, single parents, in Kiryat Hayovel.
The goal was to assist them in fields such as debt, employment, consumer protection, coping with bureaucratic barriers and getting municipal services.
“We did not want to hand-feed people information,” says Galkin. “We wanted to work with them to help them to utilize the information they received to overcome barriers, to volunteer to pass their knowledge on and to become partners in leading policy change in citizens’ rights.”
The first step, according to Gilat Sefaive, coordinator of community organization in west Jerusalem, was to interview 90 single-parent families in Kiryat Hayovel and find out why they were not accessing their rights.
“What our social workers saw was that people needed more help than we thought in this area and that over and over again they did not feel like they were being listened to or heard,” says Sefaive. “We wanted them to be included in a meaningful way in the process, and not to just give a solution to a problem. As such, we focused on working with the single mothers to learn not only who to ask, but what to ask about their rights.”
As Galkin notes, “knowing where to go doesn’t necessarily mean you know how to get what you want.”
The process consisted of a more inclusive working relationship with the clients, as well as intensive training of the social-work staff and engaging and training a diverse group of volunteers – lawyers, academics, teachers, judges, managers and administrators – to assist in the process. Service providers like the National Insurance Institute partnered with the effort, to learn how to serve client needs better.
“Single parents began to feel confident, alive and involved in a meaningful way,” says Galkin.
Idit Levy Lederman, a single mother from Bayit Vegan, went to the center on the advice of her social worker. At first she was wary, not trusting that anything would change her situation. But as she worked with the people at the center, she felt empowered by her ability to find out about and receive benefits, and now she volunteers to help others like herself in the community.
“People need to understand what they are entitled to,” she says. “There are so many different benefits on housing, gas, telephone, living subsidies, National Insurance payments and more. Each person has their own situation, and it is complicated. When I pass on the knowledge I’ve gained to others on how to do things, and then they pass it on, this creates a domino effect. People want to help one another.”
The impact of the first Center for the Actualization of Rights in Kiryat Hayovel has led to the opening of other centers in Jerusalem. The center’s clients, and active volunteers like Lederman, are also engaged in bringing awareness of this topic to the media and advocating for their rights on the local and national level.
“There are now six centers for rights actualization in Jerusalem, including one in east Jerusalem, and a Center for Senior Citizens’ Rights,” says Sabina Shusterman, director of the Municipality’s Rights Actualization Department. “The scope has expanded beyond single parents to include people with special needs, new immigrants, seniors and families. Every citizen in Jerusalem can call to receive guidance.”
According to data that the Social Services Department has compiled, in 2013, 10,000 people contacted the different centers in Jerusalem, and 80 percent reported that they had exercised their rights afterward. Some 170 volunteers provided assistance at the centers, and 120 meetings took place throughout the city to explain citizens’ rights.
In addition, the Jerusalem Municipality is working on a new CRM software system that will register all center calls and help the professional staff to correlate requests and identify trends and barriers.
Another result of the centers is the establishment of social action and policy change forums. These include the Water Forum, which deals with increasing water allocations for people with special needs and lowering water prices for low-income citizens; the Debt Forum, which is compiling a work plan to help low-income families cope with debt; the Housing Forum to increase rent assistance and public housing; the Coalition for Adding Geriatric Hospitalization to the Health Services Basket; and the Forum for Promoting the Rights of Single-Parent Ultra-Orthodox Families.
“Groups come from different municipalities throughout Israel to learn about what we are doing,” says Sefaive.
On May 18, Mashov and the Social Services Department will hold a conference at the Begin Heritage Center about rights actualization and changing social policy. The conference will “put forth in a meaningful way the processes that took place” according to Galkin, in order to continue expanding this work and involve others in learning about and using this multidisciplinary model.
“Jerusalem is breaking new ground in social workers’ activity with their clients to bring about social policy change,” says Binyamin. “We believe that everyone has the right to know what they are entitled to.”
For Galkin, opening doors is a continual process.
“I like the saying that an obstacle can also be a stepping stone. This is what I try to do to help people from diverse communities take proactive action in bringing about change in their community and beyond.” •