30 OCTOBER 2003


Professor Howard W. Polsky died on Sunday, October 19, after teaching at Columbia University's School of Social Work for 42 years.

Social work's Polsky dies after 42 years at CU

Polsky, who made lasting contributions to the field of social work, died due to complications following emergency heart surgery. A teacher, writer, and researcher, Polsky was “one of the first to bring social science knowledge to social work education,” said Ronald Feldman, former Dean of the School of Social Work. Polsky was a charismatic and enthusiastic teacher whose students became a veritable Howard Polsky fan club, according to colleague Shelly Akabas, professor of social work.

“He was a born teacher, who never stopped teaching whoever was around,” said Roni Berger, his wife and a professor at the Adelphi University School of Social Work. “If you were around Howard, you could count on learning something innovative and stimulating everyday.”

In 1962, still early in his career, Polsky published Cottage Six: The Social System of Delinquent Boys in Residential Treatment, a book that has since been translated into four languages.

According to Akabas, Cottage Six showcases Polsky's sensitivity to the ways in which the interdynamics of a group make up its group culture. This awareness, she said, consistently informed his subsequent work.

Polsky and Berger recently co-wrote From Custodialism to Community: A Theory Based Manual for Transforming Institutions.

“Given that both of us were independent, strong-willed individuals, we spent endless hours discussing, agreeing and disagreeing,” Berger said. “We would take an idea, toy with it, test it, challenge each other and out of this process clarity and new conceptualization and understanding would emerge.” The long nights of intellectual debate during the process of co-writing the book, she said, “are some of my favorite memories of Howard.”

Polsky also had a deep and continuous commitment to youth in distress in Israel. Both he and his wife served as members of the international board and professional committee of ELEM, an American-Israeli organization. They consulted projects and volunteered to train the organization's staff on their annual trips to Israel. Berger refers anyone who seeks to make a contribution in memory of her husband to this organization.

Polsky's How I am a Jew: Adventure into my Jewish American Identity, published in 2002, combines scholarly evaluation, memoir, and testimony. His best selling Everyday Miracles: The Healing of Hasidic Stories merges Hasidism and modern psychology. In the words of one reviewer, it “sheds new light on both.”

From 1987-89, Polsky worked as part of a planning and management team to help the New York City Fire Department achieve a workplace climate conducive to gender integration. From 1994 to 1998, Polsky was the principal investigator of the Child Welfare League of America's Odyssey project at Gould Academy in Chestnut Ridge, NY, a facility that treats troubled teenagers from New York's most disenfranchised neighborhoods.

Endlessly committed to finding broader applications for social science, Polsky saw Gould as a test ground. “What they have learned there can be duplicated in public schools in the criminalgenic neighborhoods that are falling apart,” he told an interviewer on News Hour with Jim Lehrer in 2000.

“He really cared about people, and was also very brilliant,” Akabas said. “By bringing these together he was able to help people accomplish things they wouldn't otherwise have done.”

Polsky received a B.A. from the University of Chicago in 1949 and later earned both an M.S.W. in group work and a Ph.D. in social psychology from the University of Wisconsin. He published over a dozen books including The Libido and its Discontents: The Cultural Separation of Love and Sex and The Future of Social Work.

Polsky is survived by his wife Dr. Roni Berger, son Joshua Polsky, daughter-in-law Jacky Sung, stepson Dan Berger and brother Milton Polsky.

See Howard Polsky books

By Sofi Thanhauser


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