The accidental Zionist

Richard Isralowitz, 66 From Cleveland, Ohio, to Beersheba, 1982.

Richard Isralowitz, 66 From Cleveland, Ohio, to Beersheba, 1982 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Richard Isralowitz, 66 From Cleveland, Ohio, to Beersheba, 1982
(photo credit: Courtesy)
When he was recruited by Ben-Gurion University of the Negev in 1982 to help establish its department of social work, New Jersey-born Prof.
Richard Isralowitz was working at Case Western Reserve University’s School for Applied Social Sciences in Cleveland, Ohio. He was married with a child, happy with his career and certainly not entertaining the notion of living in Israel.
Yet he accepted the offer.
Maj.-Gen. Shlomo Gazit, then president of the university, questioned Isralowitz about his motives after he arrived in Beersheba. “He asked me: ‘Are you a Zionist?’ I said, ‘What is that?’” Isralowitz was not being facetious.
“I was not religious and not from a Zionist background,” he explains. “I made the decision purely based on emotion. I was working on innovative programs and research in the inner city of Cleveland, and my dream was to do that here in Israel. I felt I had something to contribute that would be more rewarding personally and professionally than I could achieve in the US. It was just something I felt was right.
“Over time, it’s become even more so.”
The young American family moved into a rented apartment on Beersheba’s Rambam Street and began the task of acclimating.
Isralowitz spoke no Hebrew and discovered he lacks the knack for languages. “In fact, I might have the Guinness [World] record for how many kita alef [introductory] lessons I’ve had,” he says with a laugh. He claims he gets by with the help of friends, “very able assistants” and a technique of halting conversations periodically to summarize what was just said to make sure he understood everything correctly.
His language difficulties did not keep him from membership in Kibbutz Revivim. Though the kibbutz had little use for an academic, the family was accepted enthusiastically because Isralowitz’s wife was a nurse.
During 20 years there, Isralowitz enjoyed the communal spirit and even some of the chores.
“I was the first PhD full professor milking cows in the Negev,” he notes. “I can give a hell of a lecture on Holstein Friesian cows. At Revivim, my Hebrew became quite good in terms of ornithology and astronomy, in which I helped build interest.”
The native of Paterson, New Jersey, had been to Israel once before. After graduating from Rutgers University, he went to the University of Illinois for his master’s degree in 1970. A dorm mate told him about a free Jewish Agency program geared toward aliya, and Isralowitz signed up in the spirit of adventure.
“I was shipped to Bat Galim in Haifa for ulpan, and I was having a grand time on the beach,” he recalls.
“They said they had a job for me on the Golan Heights counseling pregnant women. Instead, I went back to the US and worked with children at Bellevue Psychiatric Hospital Center in Manhattan.”
Isralowitz later coordinated community daycare centers in Paterson and worked for the state. He earned his doctorate at Brandeis University, where he received a US Department of Justice competitive national award for research on juvenile delinquency, and from there he went to Case Western.
At BGU, Isralowitz has focused on promoting international research and model community initiatives.
He directs the Regional Alcohol and Drug Abuse Research (RADAR), which he established as part of the social work department in 1995, as a vehicle for working with worldwide experts and organizations to address substance abuse prevention, treatment and policy through education, training, research and publications.
He has received the US National Institute on Drug Abuse’s Distinguished International Scientist Award for his accomplishments with RADAR.
In addition to his BGU responsibilities, from 1991 to 2006 he served as adviser to the Foreign Ministry’s Center for International Cooperation for research of social issues and sustainable development in Africa and the Middle East. Among his many and varied responsibilities was chairing the ministry’s Netherlands- Israel Research Program and the Palestinian-Israel Research Program.
He recalls a proud moment, when he was asked by Ugandan government officials to plant a tree for Israel at a site where people were massacred by Idi Amin’s troops.
Based on his work in Africa for the ministry, Negev Project Vision was founded in 1996. This community- based service, affiliated with the Spitzer Department of Social Work, has addressed vision and healthcare policy needs of more than 40,000 vulnerable Negev residents including immigrants, Beduin and developmentally disabled people in residential facilities.
Isralowitz has many published articles, books and reports to his name, including the first-ever assessment of drug services throughout the Negev, funded by the Negev Development Authority.
He has taught semesters overseas on campuses including the University of Manchester and New York University, and was a Fulbright Scholar at the National University of Singapore from 1986 to 1987.
“They asked me to stay another year, but the kibbutz wanted my wife back,” he relates. “I wasn’t a happy camper.”
Currently, Isralowitz is a Fulbright Outreach Program committee member for the US-Israel Educational Foundation, responsible for selecting Israeli-Arab students in the Jewish state to do graduate studies in the US.
‘How can I leave this?’
From 2006 to 2008, he spent sabbatical time at Rutgers University, which offered him “a whopping salary” to stay. He declined.
“The Rutgers dean of social work came to Israel with me that year to deal with emergency preparedness, and to show him what I do, I took him to a school where Ethiopian and Russian children were singing We Are the World. I said, ‘How can I leave this?’ I had found the answer for [BGU president] Gazit.”
Turning down the position didn’t harm his relationship with his alma mater. Isralowitz reports that BGU has an excellent working relationship with Rutgers, including joint research and community development efforts addressing mutual concerns and interests.
Isralowitz has lived in Beersheba for the past 14 years with his current wife, a physician who speaks multiple languages, “and is very patient and supportive,” says the grandfather of four.
His oldest son grows peppers in the Arava, his middle daughter and son live on Kibbutz Revivim, and his youngest daughter is beginning studies at Hebrew University’s agriculture school following national service at the Lifta Drug Rehabilitation Center in Jerusalem.
With his colleague, senior researcher Alexander Reznik, Isralowitz has published articles examining women’s issues, gender differences and country-of-origin issues among adults and youth substance abusers, in addition to the largest completed study on highschool dropouts who ended up in drug rehab at Lifta.
“I look back and I’m proud of the contributions I’ve made,” he says. “We are not free of problems in Israel, but with the perspective of what I’ve experienced elsewhere, in the US and in representing Israel to other countries, we do quite well.”
Isralowitz has a contract for an edited book that will focus on his mental health and addiction efforts in the Middle East over the past 30 years.
“During the next few years, I want to build on my experience and pass it on to the next generation,” says Isralowitz, describing himself as a seven-days-a-week workaholic who never runs out of energy.
He hopes to continue his productive work, and voices his hope that age discrimination will become less of a barrier restricting the contribution that he and others can make to Israel.