Gail Kizner Auslander, AM ’74, MPH, PhD and Brian Auslander, AM ’74

(This article appeared as a sidebar to the feature article, Expanding the Borders, of the Winter 2015 SSA Magazine.)

You might say they’re a social work power couple.

Brian AuslanderFour decades after first moving to Israel, Brian Auslander, AM ’74, serves as director of professional projects and the international relations unit for the Jerusalem Municipality Social Services Department, where among other duties he is part of the team of social workers who respond to mass casualty incidents including terrorist attacks and natural disasters. He’s also a leader in the Israel Association of Social Workers, currently serving as a member of the national council and as the association's international representative.

Gail Kizner Auslander, AM ’74, MPH, PhD, received her first appointment at the Paul Baerwald School of Social Work and Social Welfare, at Hebrew University in Jerusalem as a field work (internship) supervisor in 1978. She quickly moved up to instructor, teaching fellow, lecturer, senior lecturer, associate professor and finally, in 2004, full professor and the Zena Harman Chair in Social Work. She then served as dean for four years.  

Gail Auslander“People know me from the academic side and know Brian both because of his work in the municipality and his work in the union,” Gail Auslander says. “We’re very well known as a social work couple in Israel. People always come up to him and tell him that I taught them, and people come up to me to tell me that they worked with him.”

The Auslanders met in college and arrived at SSA already married. Gail’s parents moved to Israel in 1971, a week after she and Brian married, and “over those next several years we visited once or twice, and it was an intriguing situation and an intriguing society,” Brian says. At the time, Israel was a primarily socialist country with “a tremendous amount of social solidarity,” he says. “We saw it as an adventure. We had nothing special holding us in the states. And in 1976, we stayed.”

At the time, the social work profession had just started to move from a non-academic to an academic profession, Brian says. Few of the country’s top universities had social work schools and the University of Chicago and SSA were very well known. “The degree from SSA was a door-opener,” Gail says, noting that Baerwald’s early leaders included two prominent SSA alumni: Jona Rosenfeld, AM ’56, PhD ’62, and Abraham Doron, AM ‘61. “We had no trouble at all getting jobs.”

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Early in her career Gail studied community service work as a field coordinator. She set up a teaching unit in a then-new neighborhood in Jerusalem and coordinated municipal services, the residents’ association, and the university in leading projects in the neighborhood.

But Gail’s true professional love lay in the health care-related aspects of social work, which led her to pursuing additional degrees that helped her break through the academic glass ceiling that then existed in Israel. Brian and Gail returned to the U.S. for three years, from 1982-85, during which time Gail received her master’s in public health and doctorate in social work from Columbia University in New York. While perfectly acceptable as teachers, “women were not encouraged to become professors,” she says. “I was one of the first social work women in the country to become a full professor. That’s all changed now.” She credits Rosenfeld and Doron for supporting her in receiving a scholarship for Columbia, which led to her ascension to a teaching role after returning to Israel.

At Baerwald, Gail’s courses covered topics such as the health system and the psychosocial aspects of health and illness. Her research, often done collaboratively with public health academics as well as social workers at Hadassah Medical Center in Jerusalem, looked at a mix of issues surrounding social work with sick or injured people.

“My baby is a research center that I set up with the social work department at Hadassah, with the goal of doing collaborative research between the university and the hospital, and to encourage and help social workers carry out research on issues in their own practices,” she says.

Rebecca Feinstein, PhD ’13, an SSA alumna who has continued the SSA family tree as a Lecturer at Baerwald, teaches healthcare-oriented courses. She attests that the Hadassah program is “very special” in mentoring staff and helping them do research in their areas of expertise about “things that were puzzling them; trends they wanted to know more about.” She pairs herself or another faculty member with a social worker, and they write grants for research.  “It’s a really amazing project, working with the hospital and presenting to physicians. It’s also raising the status of the social workers there,” she adds.

Gail Auslander says her primary administrative achievement during her tenure as dean was to put Baerwald on a solid financial footing. “There were various crises within the university and higher education in general, and social work in particular. I inherited a problem, and we weren’t rich when I left, but we were in a much better financial situation,” she says.

On a more qualitative front, Gail attempted to build university-community alliances of the sort she forged early in her career as a researcher, setting up a series of “mini-conferences” on different community issues.

“I believe in the importance of the university taking an interest in the community, and the community using the university and its resources,” she says. “Our faculty would go out to different organizations, having prepared some of our research that was relevant for the organization, and the organization would have prepared presentations on the same or parallel issues. It was not something that universities usually do, and the gesture was very welcome. There were some alliances built.”

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Gail and Brian AuslanderBrian Auslander’s early career immersed him in communities and their issues. From his SSA graduation into the 1990s, Brian worked as a school social worker, residential care supervisor, group development coordinator and family therapist in Jerusalem. He served as self-help project coordinator and social worker for the Jewish Board of Family and Children’s Services in New York in the mid-1980s while his wife did her additional graduate work. “I miss the hands-on, especially working with family therapy,” Brian says. “The treatment settings I worked in were much more specific (than municipal social services), either nonprofit organizations or a private outpatient clinic.”

For the past 24 years, he has worked in municipal social services in Jerusalem, which “provides all social services from birth to death,” he says, including the elderly, people with disabilities, families in crisis and child protection. From 1991-2001, Brian worked as director of the Eskhol Neighborhood Social Service Bureau for the Jerusalem Municipality Social Services Department, and since 2001 in his current role he has handled project development and implementation, disaster management and emergency services, and international relations.

The broad range of services at the neighborhood level “was part of the challenge,” he says. “As the supervisor for a team, I had overall responsibility for pretty much everybody’s caseload, making sure that everybody was providing quality service. Secondly, I had responsibility to keep contact with the lay leaders in the community, heads of different organizations like the community center, working together to develop programming. The third thing was, I also felt I had the responsibility to help the social workers on my team to move ahead, to help them advance professionally.”

In his current position, Brian has focused heavily on developing and implementing a computerized recordkeeping system with a logical classification system so workers can find the information they need and have the ability to measure outcomes and work toward best practices. “The major challenge has been making sure that the system serves the workers, and not that the workers have to serve the system,” he says.

His past roles have helped Brian understand what the front-line workers experience on a regular basis, which is especially useful given that Jerusalem is the poorest city in Israel.  “We’re working on using the information in the system to identify families who can benefit from special programs to help them break the cycle of poverty,” Brian says. “We’re not going to solve poverty, but we want to identify families that, with extra input, can improve themselves.”

Another special challenge that Brian and his workers face: What does a social worker do during a terror attack? “We have a whole manual developed,” he says. Facing the threat of rocket attacks last summer, the social workers worked with the army to make sure that every citizen could access a shelter or a sheltered area within 90 seconds from the time a warning siren sounded. “The social workers’ role was to identify people in the city, mainly clients but not only, who were unable to reach a shelter in 90 seconds—for example, the physically impaired, elderly, or anybody with physical disabilities.”

Social workers in Israel definitely focus on the terrorism issue more than their counterparts in say, New York or Chicago, Brian says. That aspect of his position has always impressed Mayer Perelmuter LAB ’61, AB ’66, a rabbi in Forest Hills, N.Y., and former social worker, whose wife Deborah Haberman Perelmuter, AM ’73, is vice president of Services in the Jewish Community at the Jewish Child Care Association in New York. The couples have been friendly and stayed in touch on and off since their University of Chicago days.

“What really is impressive about Brian … is that he was very active during the intifada,” Mayer Perelmuter says. “There were a lot of suicide bombings, and he would be the social worker responding to the families. After Jerusalem quieted down, I asked him, ‘What are you doing now?’ He said, ‘Preparing for the next disaster.’ They’re an amazing couple, and they both, after SSA, did outstanding things.” Adds Deborah Perelmuter, “They taught Israelis a lot about Americans and put their skills to great use there.”

Professor Christopher Hudson, AB ’71, AM ’74, does not have a distinct memory of the Auslanders from grad school days at SSA but has met them “several times” when bringing his social work students from Salem State University in Massachusetts to visit Jerusalem. “They’re very helpful,” Hudson says. Brian “arranged a number of the visits to various social service agencies in the Jerusalem area. He made himself very available and was obviously extremely knowledgeable. He had a huge amount of insight into the local scene.”

Brian Auslander will retire in a year, and while he expects to stay connected to the profession through volunteering, he plans to spend more time with his family. Gail was well-loved as a dean, says Feinstein, who appreciates her mentorship. Gail opted for emeritus status in June 2013 but despite that, “She’s very caring,” Feinstein says, “and she’s not quite ready to let go. She’s still really very much into her students, and dedicated to seeing them through.”