Repairing the World is the Aim of Unique Dual Degree

  • Students
  • Alumni

Not all social workers have heard of the Jewish concept of tikkun olam or “repairing the world,” but most strive to live by its ideal.

The collective aim of building a more perfect world forms a strong foundation for the 50-year-long partnership between the USC Suzanne Dworak-Peck School of Social Work and the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion’s (HUC) Zelikow School of Jewish Nonprofit Management. Through a dual degree program offered by the two schools, together they have made important contributions to the nonprofit sector and the community by training generations of its leaders.

“This is a partnership founded in shared values—a belief in promoting a more equitable future,” said Erik Ludwig, director of the Zelikow School.

A best-kept secret

Some say the dual degree program offered jointly by the schools is one of the social work school’s best-kept secrets, offering the opportunity to earn two master’s degrees in the time it would otherwise take to earn one, while also providing a significant tuition discount from USC. Students who enroll in the two-year program earn an MSW from the USC Suzanne Dworak-Peck School of Social Work as well as a Master of Arts in Jewish Nonprofit Management (MAJNM) from the Zelikow School.

Alum Robyn Altmann, MSW MAJNM ’99, remembers hearing about the dual degree program from a family friend after completing her undergraduate work. She was immediately intrigued by the connection between social service agency work and the Jewish community, which had embraced her and her family since they moved to Los Angeles from South Africa in the early 1990s. “It sounded like a perfect meld of my interests,” she said.

For Altmann, the social work school would build her foundation in the one-on-one client work she was passionate about, while the Zelikow School would provide a broad view of nonprofit management with a grounding in Jewish history and values. Both are foundations she draws on today in her role as director of Hope Clinical Services for Jewish Family Service.

Schools of distinction

USC’s social work school and HUC’s Zelikow School of Jewish Nonprofit Management are distinct in the academic world. The USC Suzanne Dworak-Peck School of Social Work is one of the nation’s first schools of social work and known for innovation. The Zelikow School in its pluralistic and nondenominational approach is unique within a Jewish institution of higher learning.

The Zelikow School’s practice-based curriculum develops students’ capacities in leading with empathy, creative problem-solving and business acumen to ensure these future leaders can respond to the dynamic qualities of the nonprofit sector, Ludwig said.

Within the MSW program, students are prepared for impactful careers within a rich learning environment with access to world-class faculty, the latest research and a deep alumni network. Together, the programs complement and reinforce one another to create leaders ready to take effective action.

For dual degree students, the process of attending two schools is seamless. They attend social work classes taught by USC Suzanne Dworak-Peck School of Social Work faculty alongside other MSW students, and take summer courses at the HUC campus on Jefferson Boulevard across from USC’s University Park Campus.

The small community of learners at the Zelikow School ensures that the students pursuing joint degrees receive a tremendous amount of individual attention. A dedicated staff person serves as a liaison to USC, simplifying class enrollment and other administrative matters. HUC students also get another bonus: free parking on the adjacent HUC-JIR campus.

Students poised for success

“Historically, it has been social workers who have held the leadership positions at Jewish institutions like federations, Jewish community centers, and Jewish Family Services,” Ludwig said. The dual degree program extends a history of helping produce professionals who, through their leadership, continue to shape the way Jewish life is experienced, he said.

Many students in the dual degree program have gone on to prominent careers as leaders in the Jewish community. To name just a few among them: Mark Gurvis, MSW MAJNM ‘84, executive vice president at Jewish Federations of North America, Larry Robins, MSW MAJNM ’90, president and CEO at PediPlace, Jenna Fields, MSW MAJNM ’10, California regional director at Sharsheret, and Rachel Schonwetter, MSW MAJNM ’16, program officer at Koret Foundation.

The dual degree program students are uniquely set up for career success, said Samuel Mistrano, clinical associate professor at the USC Suzanne Dworak-Peck School of Social Work. Their social work courses are augmented by classes in nonprofit finance and grant writing as well as a deep grounding in Jewish culture. The result? “Graduates can walk into any of the area’s Jewish social service agencies prepared to take a leadership role,” Mistrano said. “The dual programs reinforce each other well.”

For current MSW MAJNM student Hannah Leib, the dual degree program helped her connect to her Jewish roots while earning the MSW degree to pursue her interest in clinical social work.

Helping others improve their mental health has been a passion of hers since her undergraduate years at Pitzer College. There, her own struggles with mental health led her to create Thrive, a student group devoted to removing the stigma around mental health issues through discussion. That lit her passion for pursuing a career in the field.

While Leib admits that the curriculum is challenging, especially at the beginning, she is glad she stuck it out. She sees herself doing clinical social work in the future, but acknowledges just how hard the caseloads can be and burnout is a real threat.

It is easy for Leib to imagine that she might pivot from micro to macro social work in the future, and the education she received from the MSW MAJNM will help her do that.

“It definitely broadens my career options down the road,” she said.

An enduring partnership

Fifty years of partnership has underpinned a remarkable relationship between the two schools that has contributed greatly to the community.

According to Ludwig, the schools share a history of academic rigor, professional excellence, and an expansive network of caring professionals who have local and global impact.

“The interdisciplinary approach supports developing ethical and moral leaders who will serve for generations and be an example unto the next generation,” Ludwig said.


Want to learn more about the MSW and MA Jewish Nonprofit Management dual degree program? Check out this informative webinar!

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