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Israel’s social workers are on strike; my sister is one of them

So often, social workers remain at their posts, with compassion and care for their clients, in spite of their abysmal working conditions and offensive salaries. No longer
Social workers demanding change (Courtesy of Hanna Waller)

My sister is a social worker in the State of Israel.

I repeat: my sister is a social worker in the State of Israel.

When I write these words, they hit me twice, and each beat carries its own distinct feeling.

At first, I am awash with pride.

I think of the generations of Jews who could only dream of a sovereign Jewish state, and of the kind of freedom that such a place affords us. I think of the way they had to depend on the unreliable kindness of strangers, and keep their heads down, and do their best to fit in. I think of my mother’s father, on the run from the Nazis, leaving his entire life — and entire family — behind. Life as he knew it wasn’t his to hold on to. Life as he wished it wasn’t his to pursue. And I think of my father’s father, too, on the run from Soviet Odessa. He was a screenwriter then, but never again. Not after the  authorities started eyeing him with some suspicion. He had to  leave his life behind then, and his beloved art as well.

I think of him later in life, talking to my grandmother in hushed voices, wondering which school to send his kids to, which skills they must acquire. How can they best pursue a career where they’ll be left alone? What kind of professional path will leave them somehow protected? I think of my other grandfather hiding his Jewish roots from my uncle and mother. I think of them, and look at us, and see our freedom — to dream and try and pursue our aspirations. And I am shaken,

And then I think of the prophets who marched through our nation’s old capitals, and said, over and over, that sans compassion, and sans justice, Israel and Judea will fall. Burnt offerings can’t replace taking care of the weakest among us, they taught and they cried and they tried to convey. The Jewish state can’t stand if its social foundation has eroded. And I think of my sister, who rushes out every morning to care for those who are incredibly vulnerable, who answers calls throughout the hours of the day and night, who is always there for the lonely, for the abused, for those who have no one else to turn to. And I think: my sister is using her freedom to pursue more than a personal dream, more than a private aspiration. My sister, and her colleagues, are ensuring that the State of Israel will have the inner strength to stand.  They are ensuring that we will be a society that’s worthy of its freedom.

So yes: pride.

But then, on the heels of this pride, another wave of feeling hits me. Only this time, it’s worry. And it’s a muted, helpless rage. My sister is a social worker in the State of Israel. And this means, as she puts it, that when it will be her own time to retire, she will have to rely on the social services as well.

Did you ever see a social worker’s paycheck? The actual salary is so small, that the authorities must add to it another sum — one that doesn’t count towards a a social worker’s retirement fund — just to round it up to a minimum wage. My sister completed two degrees, worked for eight years, and acquired many skills and some seniority. Her basic salary crawled up a bit to match her progress. But the only difference this has made is that the authorities don’t need to pay as much to round the paycheck up before it hits the lawful minimum. My sister can go on working and studying and pouring herself into her work for years to come, and the previous sentence will remain as true as it is now.

The offensive salary is only one of the many problems social workers face in Israel today. Due (at least in part) to the lack of proper compensation, the social services are severely understaffed — some estimate that circa 1,000 positions are unmanned today. As a result, the case load on every social worker is impossible; my sister is responsible for 290 elderly men and women, and will be responsible for 60 more within a few months. How is she supposed to give each of them the care and attention they need and deserve? How can her colleague, who works with cases of domestic violence, dedicate herself to every client when there are more and more whose files pile onto her desk each day? Is it any wonder that the clients often respond with frustration and even violence? Is it any wonder that the social workers don’t feel safe?

The social workers are expected to carry the weight in a case of emergency, but the state offers little by way of acknowledgment or support. During the lockdown in Israel my sister and her colleagues made sure that no elderly person in Jerusalem would go without food or medications. They manned the emergency lines, called everyone aged above 75 in Jerusalem to ask if they need help, carried heavy boxes up and down apartment buildings, and handed out food. And my sister did it all with four kids at home and a husband who is also an essential worker.

The state didn’t offer my sister and her colleagues any help or reprieve. She had to entrust her young toddler to his brothers, and work at night, and rarely sleep.

During the lockdown, the Jerusalem municipality came out with a beautiful initiative for Holocaust Remembrance Day, and sent social workers to hand out a flower to every holocaust survivor in the city. My sister sent me a picture of one of the sunflowers she handed out. It made me proud, and it made me worried. It was an island of warmth on a difficult day and in a difficult period. And it also made me think of my sister’s paycheck and her future, and feel so helpless in my sadness and my rage.

My sister is a social worker in the State of Israel, and as of today, she isn’t going to work. She and her colleagues tried to strike before, but there were rockets in the south, and so they didn’t. And then they wanted to protest, but the pandemic started, so they didn’t. Time and time again, they were held hostage by their compassion and care for their clients — the very compassion and care that make their contribution to the State of Israel so invaluable.

But today, they are striking. And I hope that in their absence, we will see their value, and help to make a difference in the conditions under which they are expected to keep working.

My sister is a social worker in the State of Israel, and makes our state better place, a place that can deserve a prophet’s commendation.

May our state deserve my sister and the others like her. May we value the compassion that they bring into our lives.

About the Author
Rachel is a Jerusalem-born writer and speaker who's in love with her city's vibrant human scene. She writes about Judaism, parenting and life in Israel for the Times of Israel and Kveller, and explores storytelling in the bible as a teacher and on 929.
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