My husband was in Kollel for nine years and then in the classroom for 3. He's thinking about getting a degree in social work and I'm really scared it will change the wonderful person I know. Not to put you down, Mindy, and I don't know you at all-- do you think that social work school can change a person's Yiddishkeit level? What about his interactions with family? He is the kind of person people feel drawn to and talk to etc and he feels like this might be a really good profession for him long-term. I want to support him as there's a part of me that feels he'd be great for the community...but the selfish voice wonders how it will affect me!



With the flood of new options in all-men or all-women classes in schools of social work, this question is becoming pretty commonplace. While only fifteen years ago, the only option to obtain a degree in social work would be a mixed gender college or online degrees, today, obtaining a social work degree in a more appropriate environment has made choosing counseling as a career pretty popular.

But the questions you ask are valid, and not only will I answer your questions, but throw in some more aspects of going for social work that you may not even be aware of. Personally, I am glad I did not ask any questions before going to school, because if I would have known the road ahead of me, it would have seemed so daunting, so insurmountable, I most undoubtedly would have felt too discourage and overwhelmed to even attempt it. And boy, am I glad I did not know; because it was the best thing (except for getting married!) I have ever decided to do.

Here are your questions:

`Can going to school for social work affect a person's level of religious observance? How will social work affect a person's interactions with his family; specifically a spouse? What else would someone need to know before going to school for social work?

I cannot speak for anyone else, but for me, becoming a social worker felt like a calling; and although it took twenty years of my adult life to get there, when I arrived at school in my late 30's, after two satisfying decades as an educator, doula, and kallah teacher, I literally felt I had come home.

Know that there is a pretty length process but what makes it worth it, however, is the drive to help others, to make a difference in another person's life; to be the catalyst, the facilitator of improved quality of life, of mental health, of positive relationships and even the spiritual awakening of others.

Here's the process, which is similar in most fields of mental health, with slight differences for psychologists, mental health professionals (LMHC), nurse practitioners, and the like. Life coaches are not in this category because they are not licensed practitioners, nor is there yet a degree for life coaching.

About 60 credits of college courses, which comes to about 2 years of full time school. About 1,200 hours of (usually) unpaid internship, which comes out to 21 hours weekly, for two years. Upon graduation, you become eligible to take the first licensing exam, that allows you to work under supervision. Although it is possible to work in an approved private office under a licensed social worker, the pay fairly decent in an agency or clinic, where most interns get their first jobs, the pay is abysmal with hours of paperwork (important for learning, but grueling to do daily). Both options require supervision for 2,000 hours to be completed in no less than 3 years and no more than 6 years in order to sit for the licensing exam that confers a clinical license. A clinical license enables you to legally operate a private practice without being under supervision.

Ha. No good therapist works without supervision, and for myself as well as my esteemed colleagues to whom I will refer clients, we can be under supervision our whole lives, often with multiple supervisors all throughout the month.

Most responsible therapists will not open a private practice without adequate experience and adequate supervision (which runs quite a bit of money). So until getting to private practice, we are talking about a minimum of five years, but it's more like ten.

But this is all technical stuff.

What you want to know is how school affects a person's religiosity.

It doesn't, I think. Not by much. Today's schools of thought are not particularly apikorsus, although if you are in a mixed college not sensitive to the religious Jew's needs, the professors can use the platform of the classroom to spout heresy and immorality. But psychology itself has undergone deep changes in which the teaching of psychology itself does not embody heresy as it did 50 years ago. There are, however, deep ethical questions of what happens when social work values (which are by tradition extremely liberal) clash with religious values. This would occur more in an internship and in the 3 years post graduation than when working in private practice where you have the freedom to choose your clients and avoid these typical ethical dilemmas. However, these can occur in private practice as well. For example, what if you are working as a marriage counselor but you find out the couple is not halachically allowed to be married; as in a Kohen married to a divorcee. See what I mean?

Also, being in a classroom exposed to other non-Jewish/non-religious students, their ideas and lifestyle can impact a person. Especially in the field of mental health. And I will explain why. Somebody sitting in a class to become an accountant feels differently towards a classmate who is becoming an accountant versus a social worker. Not only is the classmate becoming a social worker part of projects you may need to do collaboratively, but there is much sharing as part of the classroom setting; and it is difficult not respect and appreciate much of the desire to do good and altruism that is evident in these classmates, regardless of their religiosity or affiliations.

In addition, college classes makes you think in ways that are different when you needed to think in high school, seminary, yeshiva or kollel. There isn't that soft cushion of like-minded rebbeim and mentors to help formulate how you think about your world, your ethics, your responsibilities. It is of utmost importance, if your husband seriously considers this field, to have a rav to whom he can turn to regularly as he passes through this process

How may this affect your husband's relationship with his family and especially you?

His relationship with others can only improve. Understanding psychology as a parent and human being in general can only give insight how to be a better person overall. If a person becomes a therapist, and lacks the skills to use that information to be a better person, then let them rather go into accounting. Nobody expects an accountant to learn how to be a mentsch from numbers, but it would be pathetic if a person does not become more of a mentsch from learning how to help people.

But with a spouse, the relationship does become more complex. And here's why.

Firstly, spouses of therapists hate feeling suddenly that they are being therapized. It's when you are upset at your spouse, for example, and getting ready for a good argument, and instead of your usual patterns, your spouse becomes all therapy-sweet on you. Being calm. Acting patient and understanding. It's sounds nice, but it can drive you nuts feeling that he is being your therapist instead of your husband. Sounds funny, but it's true. Ask any therapist's spouse. It's an adjustment!

The second adjustment to a spouse becoming a therapist is that suddenly, after years of sharing your lives, there is complete silence when your spouse comes home. No stories, no sharing, no funny observations. Yeah, yeah. I know some therapists share their therapy stories with their spouses, but it's unethical. Any story you tell your spouse, even without names, even disguised, is simply not ethical when you work within the orthodox community where what happens in Australia feels as close as Brooklyn.

So if your spouse is the real deal, after enjoying his rebbe life full of stories and problems, it will take a lot of getting used to to find other things to talk about. Which won't include his clients.

Being a therapist is a higher calling. We are born therapists. If your husband chooses this path, the greatest gift you can give him is of your support. It will be a gift that continues giving in the lives of those he will help that will have your influence embedded deeply inside of it.

Sounds good, no?



note: this was originally published in BINAH MAGAZINE's bi-weekly column 

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