Marianne Fontillas is a resident of Hawaii of half-Chinese, half-Filipino descent who wants to work with members of American military families after she completes her master’s degree in social work at Rutgers University.
During her two-week visit to Israel in January, she was especially interested in the ways the members of the Israel Defense Forces and their families “deal with unique challenges such as deployments, prolonged separations, and post-traumatic stress disorder.”
Sheree Boone of Monroe Township, a fellow graduate student at Rutgers School of Social Work, is interested in social policy. In Israel she was particularly impressed with social service agencies that cater to the developmentally disabled. She visited Israel Elwyn in Jerusalem, an agency that runs vocational programs and assists special-needs populations for inclusion in the work force.
“That definitely hit home,” she told NJ Jewish News in a Feb. 9 phone interview. “It seems to be a priority for Israel to take care of its most vulnerable population, so I truly appreciate visiting those sites and being able to speak with some of the directors and participants.”
Boone and Fontillas were two of 15 Rutgers students who spent from Dec. 26 to Jan. 9 in Israel visiting welfare programs, as well as cultural, historic, and religious sites.
Their tour guide was Max Kleinman, associate professor of practice and faculty director of the Israel study abroad program at the Rutgers School of Social Work and immediate past executive vice president/CEO of the Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest NJ.
The participants in the trip included Asians, African-Americans, and Latinos as well as two Jewish students. The intent was not only to “break down stereotypes about Israel they might have read about in the media,” said Kleinman, “but to study the Israeli social welfare system, which is much more advanced than ours.”
“Israel has near-universal health-care coverage and is much closer to Western Europe’s welfare system than ours.” In a visit to Haifa University, he said, the students “saw the vibrant academic life and the intellectual stimulation.”
It was the fifth year of the social work school’s study program in Israel, with the university providing much of the funding. The Greater MetroWest federation donated $5,000 to its cost.
Because she considers herself “a very spiritual person,” said Boone, visiting Israel “has been on my bucket list for many years. I had wanted to go because there are so many holy sites.”
Kleinman — together with Nancy Schley, associate director of field education at the School of Social Work, and their Israeli guide, Moshe Mor — led the students to a wide variety of locations and populations.
They visited absorption programs for Ethiopian and Russian immigrants in Rishon Letzion and Ofakim and met with religious and secular Jews, as well as Christians, Muslims, and Baha’is.
“We had the opportunity to have face-to-face conversations with representatives of the Druze community in the outskirts of Haifa and the Bedouin community in a Negev village near Be’er Sheva,” said Boone. “The Druze community was pretty integrated, with people of different faiths. It wasn’t exclusively Druze. But for the most part my takeaway was that there is a lot of segregation in Israel, just as there is here, with the ultra-Orthodox Jewish community and a community of poor Arabs.”
Fontillas said a visit to a school in Kiryat Yam, a town north of Haifa, had a major impact. “School-aged children were encouraged to honor the fallen soldiers through their special projects. It was such a meaningful gesture,” she told NJJN in a Feb. 8 e-mail.
She was also fascinated by a trip to the College of Management in Rishon Letzion, where the group met with entrepreneurs and viewed some of the school’s technological developments.
“I was most impressed with Israel’s ability to use its compassion, service to its people, and desire for independence with the technology available to them,” Fontillas wrote.
Stops also included Yad Vashem, the Holocaust memorial and research center in Jerusalem, where huge pillars bear the names of Jewish communities decimated by the Nazis. Among them was Sedziszow, Poland, the town where Kleinman’s late father Eli was born and lived before Poland was invaded by the Germans in 1939. Eli Kleinman, then 14, was one of only three Jewish survivors from Sedziszow.
Kleinman, who also serves as a senior consultant to Jewish Federations of North America, aspires to create a scholarship for future student visits to Israel in honor of Bert Goldberg, the late executive director of the Center for Leadership and Management at the School of Social Work at Rutgers. “Bert was a dear friend of mine who got me involved in teaching at Rutgers,” he said.
Kleinman believes the study abroad program will have benefits for years to come.
“We now have 15 more ambassadors for Israel as a result of this trip,” he said.