Veterans: The place where I belong

With a keen eye at a young age for what Israel lacked, Ahituv Gershinsky decided to become a social worker.

Ahituv Gershinsky 521 (photo credit: Gloria Deutsch)
Ahituv Gershinsky 521
(photo credit: Gloria Deutsch)
Although raised in a religious and Zionist family it was probably his given name as much as anything that convinced Ahituv Gershinsky that his place should be in Israel and not Manhattan where he was born.
“My parents named me after a great-grandfather whose name was Guttman and they chose ‘Ahituv’ as a rough translation. You can’t grow up in America with a name like that and blend in,” he says. “Your name is so much a part of your identity and I just didn’t feel at home.”
After living in Israel for nearly 35 years, he certainly feels at home here and always has done since his first visit at the age of 17. And as the national director of the Israeli Society of SOS Children’s Villages, (an international organization of residential homes for disadvantaged children) for the last four years he has seen his dream of contributing to Israeli society reach its peak – a dream which began when, as a newly married man of 22 he made aliya with his wife and child, back in 1977.
He was appointed to the position after many years of experience in social work, which he studied at Yeshiva University.
“I’d visited Israel as a teenager, studying for a year at a Hesder yeshiva, and even then I started investigating what was needed here,” he says. “I decided to become a social worker, as the subject really interested me. I thought, if I’m going to starve, I’d rather do it in Israel working with my own people.”
He met his wife, Ruthie, originally from New York, while he was here studying, and they married a few years later in Tel Aviv.
“But we had to go back to the States for a few years to finish my schooling,” he says. Finally, with his brand-new master’s degree in social work and psychology, they landed in the absorption center in Mevaseret Zion and he began looking for work straight away. He already knew Hebrew so could cut out the ulpan and try and get straight into the workforce.
The first job was certainly a baptism of fire: being in the old Ezrat Nashim psychiatric hospital, later the Sarah Herzog Hospital, in the chronic ward.
“My job was to work on the social skills of people who had been seriously damaged by being neglected over many years,” he says. “I spent two years there and it was not an uplifting experience, but it’s an important part of Israeli society.”
From there he joined a Welfare and Social Services Ministry chain of vocational and rehabilitation centers for people with psychological and behavioral problems. He worked with the chronically unemployed, helping them to enter the employment world and providing emotional support and teaching basic skills. This lasted two years, and the next job, in the B’nai B’rith home for adolescents with problems lasted for six, and gave him valuable experience for his current position.
Meanwhile, the family was growing. Ruthie had given him four sons and another was on the way.
Ahituv flirted with the idea of a private practice in family therapy, took a qualification at the Shiluv Institute and worked in it for a while.
“But I didn’t have the guts to leave my paying job and do it full-time,” he says.
Ruthie was working too – today she is financial director of a program for women from abroad who want to study at Midreshet Moriah.
Into this hectic schedule he also had to fit in his yearly stints of reserve duty, from the age of 28 until 46.
“My boys grew up seeing me go off in uniform – and every one of them became a combat soldier in Hesder,” he says proudly. One of their sons is a company commander in Golani. He and his wife are clearly very proud of all five sons, all of whom succeeded in their professions, and the fact that they have all stayed religious and all get along is immensely important to them.
From 1997 to 2003 he worked as the director of the long-term hospitalization unit at the Alyn Hospital in Jerusalem.
“The mission was to help the patients move out into the community, and we got the numbers down from 41 people to 18 with another five with discharge plans,” he says. “It means if you do the job right you will be unemployed.”
And at the age of nearly 50, he was.
Looking for work became a consuming and often depressing experience. He was 49 and prospective employers made him feel as though he was old. After a year of being unemployed he got a job unrelated to his social work through connections.
“I didn’t want to leave the profession but I had to feed my family,” he says, explaining why he took a job with an American company making animated films, which went on for two and a half years. Another stint with the Vocational Rehabilitation Center followed that until he learnt about the position going at SOS.
“Someone told me I should apply, as the director job was made for me,” he says.
He took over the position four years ago and loves the job, although he says he is essentially a bureaucrat, handling the administration of the two SOS villages here and connecting to the international organization worldwide. One gets the feeling that he misses the hands-on interactions he had as a long-time social worker.
“The real work is done in the villages,” he says.
He has no doubt he made the right decision back in 1977.
“I knew Israel is where I belonged,” he says.