An Exclusive Interview with Mrs. Baila Halpern
As director of the Social Work program at Sara Schenirer in liaison with the Wurzweiler School of Social Work, Mrs. Baila Halpern has guided hundreds of aspiring social workers. In this exclusive interview, she shares her unique insights into the field. Are you suited for the field? Let Mrs. Halpern advise you.
As someone who has interviewed and counseled many aspiring social workers, what, in your experience, are the qualities that make a great social worker?
No question, first on my list is humility. A social worker must have the humility to understand that anyone at any point can need help. Humility is the impetus for a therapist to continue their own growth and inner reflection. When a client senses humility in a therapist, they feel safe and comfortable and will open up and share. A social worker who lacks humility can do more harm than good.
Other than humility, what else is important?
Empathy and good listening skills are crucial. What a therapist really does is listen so well that the client arrives at conclusions on their own. So, you have to be willing to learn how to listen. Then, you have to gain the knowledge and the skills of asking the right questions and deciding when to use other methodology that might be more appropriate. Timing is critical – but if the therapist hasn’t developed the ability to listen properly, they won’t be able to time anything.
Can you, as program director, sense these qualities in applicants to the social work program?
It’s interesting you ask, because I often have applicants who think that the right answer to the question, “Why do you think you would be a good social worker?” is “Because I give very good advice. Everyone comes to me for advice.”
That sounds like the right answer, but it’s not. People don’t want advice from their therapist. That only comes later in the process, once a significant level of trust has been created. It’s much more about the client’s needs to be heard and understood. The therapist is there to help the clients move in the direction they themselves seek.
Some of our truly exceptional professors are the most unassuming, humble people. They’re not necessarily huge personalities or super-dynamic achievers. They have a quiet confidence in their abilities, and their low-key demeanor makes clients feel comfortable and ready to share.
Would you say that patience is a prerequisite?
Well, good listeners are patient, so yes.
The process of therapy requires an enormous amount of patience. Sometimes it takes months to see results, and the therapist can go through quite a few sessions wondering if they’re doing anything for a client.
When Dr. Pelcovitz spoke at graduation, he told the graduates, “Any seasoned therapist can tell you that sometimes, you will work with a client, and maybe you never felt that you were able to help them – maybe the client even switched therapists in middle – but 15 years later, the client will admit to you that one thing that you told them made all the difference.”
How do degree programs differ in the way each one prepares its students to enter the field?
Every school has a different style; the people at the top have certain ideals and standards that they set. Based on those standards and how effectively they’re implemented, the school will attract different instructors and students and will provide different class materials and learning experiences. All this makes a difference.
Another key factor is internships. People running programs can make all sorts of promises about their internships. The reality is that it’s very difficult to find good internships and supervision. It requires real commitment and entails significant expense on the part of the program. Our partner colleges work extremely hard and have invested significantly in an infrastructure to provide our students with appropriate internships, because we believe this makes a huge difference in the quality of our graduates.
Let me ask you a sensitive question: If a fifty-year-old woman applies to join the program, would you suggest that she is too old for this field?
Not at all. Social work is a career in which life experience is valued. Many people appreciate the understanding, support, and guidance of an older, wiser person. So long as the student is able to put in the hours and has a passion for their work, and personifies humility, they are greatly appreciated in the field. It’s really an excellent later-in-life career.
How long does it take to earn this degree?
That depends on a few factors. In general, we offer a very accelerated program. The full- time MSW program through Wurzweiler requires 18 months, divided into four semesters. We work with each student to develop a more part-time option for those who wish to do it at a slower pace. Those students can graduate at a later time.
Does a social worker’s role extend beyond clinical practice?
Yes. Social workers are involved in working to improve society as a whole. They get involved at the government level, in advocacy, in policy, in legislative efforts – and to earn your degree, you would have to take foundational courses in these areas.
Government agencies want to hire social workers. Many organizations that are government-funded are staffed by social workers; they work in hospitals, rehab centers, prisons, homeless shelters, lobbying groups and relief efforts.
How do social workers deal with everything they see and hear all day? Is it possible for them to separate their personal lives from what they deal with at work?
That’s a great question, and I don’t think there is one answer for this.
There is, however, a concept in therapy called self-care. The expression is used vis-à-vis the client, but even more so, self-care is important for the clinician. Therapy work can take a toll on a therapist, and they must learn to separate themselves from their work so they do not burn out.
Often, in the first few years of a therapist’s career, you see excitement and idealism, but then as they witness the painful realities of people’s lives, they start to struggle. I think that it takes time to learn how to separate oneself from the pain while remaining empathetic and compassionate.
That seems like a very fine line to walk.
It is very challenging. Throughout the schooling, our professors, who themselves are very seasoned therapists, discuss how to navigate this. They discuss the need to be compassionate while setting boundaries, which is something that most therapists are reluctant to do at first.
No one wants to turn away from another person’s pain, but the therapist must go home and put the work phone away and focus on the aspects of their life that bring them joy and make them feel relaxed. If they make themselves too available for their clients, they are left with little energy for themselves and can feel depleted. A depleted person cannot be an effective social worker.
Speaking of challenges, how do you deal with hashkafic issues in the program curriculum?
Rabbi Meisels , our dean, has an extremely clear standard on what he does and doesn’t allow, and we make that crystal clear to all our instructors. We comb through all the syllabi and reading materials and vet everything that is being taught. Of course, our college partners are a part of this process and must approve our curriculum, but they’re very understanding of our cultural sensitivities and work closely with us in this process to find ways to reach the same academic results for our students.
The world of social work is fraught with lots of gray area and sensitive subject matter, but we approach everything in the most dignified manner possible. While being very careful, we must also make sure that we are not denying our students knowledge they will need to work successfully in the field.
It must be a tough balance.
It is. We are constantly seeking guidance from our Rabbanim, as well as from respected frum mental health professionals, to ensure that we’re striking the right balance.
The beauty of our program is not so much what we remove as much as what we add to enhance. We bring the Torah perspective into the subject matter we teach, and we help our students identify when they will need to reach out to their Daas Torah.
You won’t find any other college that addresses the frum world the way we do. Wurzweiler hires highly trained professionals to teach; these are therapists who have a broad understanding of social work in the secular world but also work extensively within the frum community. They provide our students with the necessary knowledge and relevant case examples.
Are your students aware of the sensitive nature of the material that they’ll be studying before joining the program?
Of course. We inform our students of the nature of the coursework well before they enroll. Our students go in with their eyes open – they make a conscious decision to pursue their degree in the most dignified way possible. We are very clear that this is not a field for everyone, and we encourage every applicant to speak to their rav and other mentors before deciding to embark on this path.
If there’s one piece of advice you’d give a social worker upon graduation from your program, what would it be?
First, as any social worker will tell you, always prioritize your own inner work and continue to self-reflect. It’s an ongoing journey. Second, always reach out to mentors and supervisors for support. Slacking off on this can lead to unfortunate results. Social workers must be aware of what they know and don’t know and must never be afraid to ask for help from someone with more experience or insight.
We once received a call from the director of a well-known agency that was hiring at the time, who requested we send Wurzweiler-Sara Schenirer graduates. She said, “We interviewed 30 people for this position, and three of them were your students. We were blown away by them!”
What so impressed the interviewers? The director explained that it was the rare balance that our students achieved, manifesting professionalism and competence while simultaneously exuding humility and self-awareness of where they were holding clinically.
It was the most beautiful feedback we could have received because that is precisely what we strive to accomplish.