Fred Berl (1903-1981) — Fred Berl and the Spirit of Social Casework
By Harris Chaiklin, Ph.D., Professor emeritus at the University of Maryland School of Social Work
The few people who were lucky enough and plucky enough to escape the horror that Hitlerism and Stalinism brought to this world made great contributions to America. While much of this history has been written for social scientists, the same cannot be said for social workers (Boyers, 1972).
I knew some of them. When I worked at the Jewish Board of Guardians in New York in the 1950’s one of my colleagues was Hilda Adelberg. She was a quiet person with a genius for reaching severely disturbed children. She once described how she and two others had walked over the Pyrenees Mountains from Vichy France to Spain. In this country she scrubbed floors to get through Smith College.
One of our agency consultants was a lay analyst named Peter Blos. Among other things he had been Erick Erikson’s mentor. His book on the adolescent personality is still worth reading for its content and for its methodology (Blos, 1941). For all his brilliance he was an immensely practical man. During my third year in the agency I got a supervisor who was doctrinaire about psychoanalytic theory. She did not like the fact that I used soldiers rather than the anatomically correct dolls that were used by the agency in play therapy. I scheduled a conference with Blos and my supervisor. We both presented out views and he quietly said, “Why of course little boys from Brooklyn play with soldiers.” That was the end of that difference.
During the time I was at Smith College School for Social Work, Lydia Rapaport was a bright light in a sea of drab people. She died too early from a mistaken medical diagnosis but her writing still inspires me (Rapaport, 1968). Her paper “In Defense of Social Work is a classic. She begins by saying, ‘No other profession is as self-examining and critically self-conscious as social work (Rapaport, 1960, p.62). In it she analyzes the stresses on social workers with the aim of helping them to increase their professional comfort.
This brings me to Baltimore’s Fred Berl (1903-1981). During most of the thirteen years I worked part time at what was then the Jewish Family and Children’s Service, Fred was the Director of Professional Services. He was born in Czernowitz Austria and earned a degree in economics and sociology in 1926 and a PhD in economics in 1929 at the University of Leipzig. He moved to Germany after his father died in 1930 (Kaplan, 1981). His family quickly assessed the import of Hitler’s rise. His brother Adolph, a physician, soon came to the United States. In 1933 his sister Elsa went to Palestine and Fred followed the next year. He found life there very hard and came to the United States in 1935. For the next five years he barely existed as a research assistant at the Harvard Business school and then at the Associated Jewish Philanthropies of Boston. In 1940 he moved to New York and attended the New York School of social work. Over the next several years he worked in New York and Boston as a caseworker, supervisor of youth services, district supervisor of a family service agency, and as a consultant to the United Service for New Americans.
In 1950 Fred Goldman had the genius to invite Fred to come to Baltimore. I met him in 1962 when the School placed students in the agency. From the beginning it was a pleasant experience. He and Elsie Seff provided a magnificent field work experience. Fred was a short soft spoken man with sparkling blue/grey eyes and a perpetual smile. He did not say a lot in a case conference. Usually he would wait until the end and then get to the heart of the matter in a few words. He was equally clear that when I worked part-time at the agency that my School role was totally separate from my role as a worker.
Those who knew Fred had no shortage of encomiums to describe his impact on them and clients. When he retired in 1974 he was named Maryland Social Worker of the Year by NASW. Two of his colleagues, Ruth H. Lebovitz and Anita S. Weiss gathered many of his published and unpublished articles into a memorial volume (Berl, 1988). Nothing reflects Fred the man so much as the fact that those who put the book together put his title, Ph.D., when they identified him as the author. He rarely used this label. He writings spanned the profession. They included pieces on the impact of social change on social work development, professional practice, psychological theory, and Jewish identity. Some of these papers reflect the preparation he did for doctoral seminars he taught at the National Catholic School of Social Service.
Interestingly, one of the papers in the book is also a defense of casework under the title, “Assault on Clinical Practice.” He begins by noting that, “The question has arisen whether clinical family and children’s services are still useful for the changing needs of a changing society…” (Berl, 1988, p. 21). He then proceeds to analyze the stresses on workers and practice that raise this question for social workers in general and Jewish agency workers in particular. Perhaps it is no accident that people like Berl and Rapaport were so quick to identify when the profession was under attack and that taking pride in one’s profession was one way to overcome these attacks.
There is one aspect of my experience with Fred that others have not mentioned. That is that he had the gift of finding the positive in any situation he was involved with. He did this with clients, students, and the workers he supervised. He could always find something that someone could do. Working with him and watching him in action added immeasurably to my learning.
Fred salvaged these difficult situations without ever compromising professional standards. He did not accept sloppy work. He found ways to change it. In a little essay on “Why I Write,” he says, “As a young field, our theory and our practice suffer from undue repetition. We tend to go in cycles; we often tend to start all over again instead of building on what has been achieved and is clearly established. A healthy profession needs to be able to define its frontiers or knowledge, those parts of practice which are not under control of valid professional method and on which we have to invest more to arrive at such condition.” (pp. 231-232) These words are as true today as when he wrote them.
Fred will continue to be remembered in many ways. The “Fred Berl Manuscript Collection” is in the Archives of the Butler Library at Columbia University in New York. There is a scholarship in his name at the Haifa University School of Social Work. This fund is slowly growing and soon will provide tuition for a whole year. Fred Berl represented a standard of service, teaching, practice skill, and scholarship that we need to continue to emulate.
Berl, F. (1988). Social change and social work practice: Writings of Fred Berl. Baltimore, MD: Jewish Family Services.
Blos, P. (1941). The adolescent personality. New York, NY: D. Appleton-Century Company.
Boyers, R. (Ed.). (1972). The legacy of the German refugee intellectuals. New York, NY: Schocken Books.
Kaplan, L. L. (1981). Fred Berl 1903-1981: In memoriam. Journal of Jewish Communal Service, 58(1), 76-77.
Rapaport, L. (1960). In defense of social work. Social Service Review, 34(2), 62-74.
Rapaport, L. (1968). Creativity in social work. Smith College Studies in Social Work, 38(3), 139-151.
How to Cite this Article (APA format): Chaiklin, H. (2011). Fred Berl (1903-1981) — Fred Berl and the spirit of social casework. Social Welfare History Project. Retrieved from https://socialwelfare.library.vcu.edu/people/berl-fred/