Psychology at the U.J.

The campus of the University of Judaism where Lutzker’sclasses are taught

Sometimes we all need a good nudge before we do the right thing.Nearly 10 years ago, when the University of Judaism approached Dr.John Lutzker to head its fledgling psychology department, he broachedthe possibility of starting a graduate program. Lutzker, nationallyknown in the field of behavior analysis, was coming from theRehabilitation Institute at Southern Illinois University, whereformer colleagues still praise his groundbreaking efforts in trainingprofessionals to work with the developmentally disabled.

Lutzker’s hope was to create at UJ a top-notch new program inbehavioral psychology, the first of its kind on the West Coast, andone of only a handful in the U.S. By turning out skilledpractitioners versed in the treatment of autism, flagrant childabuse, schizophrenia, and traumatic brain injuries, he sought tobenefit the public in general, and the Jewish community inparticular.

Lutzker accepted the UJ post partly because he was homesick forCalifornia. (A native of the Bay Area, he keeps San Francisco 49ersmemorabilia on prominent display in his office.) He also warmed to UJas a Jewish environment. “It just seemed haimish,” he said.

But he admits to feeling discouraged when his proposal for amaster’s degree program was put on the back burner. It wasn’t simplythat UJ had other priorities. Lutzker has found that most Jewishinstitutions would rather not acknowledge that Jews can also fallvictim to severe mental disorders. This despite the fact thatdiagnoses of autism have risen dramatically in recent decades, andthat Jews are hardly immune. There is no question, in Lutzker’s mind,that “the Jewish community has been slow to recognize the need” thathis proposed program was designed to meet.

Then, in the spring of 1996, the state of California offeredLutzker stipends for graduate students who would commit to interning20 hours per week at a secular treatment center. Suddenly, with thestate funding offer having the effect of a sharp elbow-nudge to theribs, UJ started paying close attention. Its academic senate quicklyclimbed on board, and Lutzker’s dream became a reality. As of thisAugust, five graduate students (some from as far away as Florida andPennsylvania) have enrolled at UJ, drawn by Lutzker’s reputation andthe chance to do cutting-edge work in an expanding field.

Curiously, not one of the students is Jewish. (Two Jewishapplicants hope to enroll at mid-year, along with the program’s firstmale student.) By all accounts, the new arrivals didn’t quite knowthat they were coming to an institution with a fundamentallyreligious orientation. One of the students, Ayndrea La Vigna,discloses that “I didn’t realize we’d be almost the only non-Jewishpeople on campus.”

Still, all are excited about what student Mary Caruso calls “anopportunity to learn from a different perspective.” As part of theircourse work, they’ll study the sociology of the American Jewishcommunity. This will help provide context as each begins a required”practicum” at a Jewish institution. The children of Sinai AkibaAcademy, the Etta Israel Center and two special-needs programs atValley Beth Shalom, will be among the beneficiaries when Lutzker’seager grad students become involved with their schooling on a weeklybasis.

They won’t be there as teachers, but rather as specialists inhandling behavior issues, both for the mentally disabled and forthose whose brain-functions are sound. Two of the grad students havespecifically chosen Sinai Akiba because it offers them the chance towork with “normal” children for the first time. Quips Caruso, “Iwouldn’t know a normal kid if he smacked me in the face.”

Meanwhile, Cynthia Boyle, who has opted for placement at the EttaIsrael Center, will interact with youngsters who have severedevelopmental disabilities. She was surprised to learn thisassignment will require her to meet orthodox Jewish standards formodest female dress. This may prove inconvenient (these young womenfar prefer slacks and casual tops to long skirts and covered arms),but for Boyle and the others, it’s all part of the educationalexperience.

Lutzker insists he “could hardly be happier with the first class.They’re tired and energetic all at the same time.” His studentsdivide their days between rigorous coursework, their Jewish communityobligations, and on-the-job training in high-pressure settings likethe Fairview Developmental Center in Costa Mesa. Though they getbitten, hit and yelled at, no one’s commitment has yet flagged. Withtheir degrees in hand, those who don’t choose to go on for doctoralstudies elsewhere should easily find challenging work in schools andtreatment facilities. The fact that California is now beginning tolicense its behavioral psychologists will surely make theircredentials all the more appealing to established secularinstitutions.

This, Lutzker hopes, will lead to “the Jewish community openingits eyes” and drumming up funds for its own expanded treatmentprograms. Establishing innovative options for helping Jews withdevelopmental disabilities requires money, of course, but also a coregroup of dedicated staffers. Lutzker knows that his own job lies infinding capable Jewish grad students and encouraging them to pursuecareers within Jewish institutions, either existing ones or thosethey create themselves. “I want all my graduates to leave asconsummate professionals. My hope is that the Jewish students willserve the Jewish community,” he said.

A piece of contemporary wisdom is that “if you build it, they willcome.” Lutzker, having built a strong program at UJ, is now waitingfor the Jewish students who are a vital part of its reason for being.

Beverly Gray writes about education from Santa Monica.