Until Isralowitz’s research, almost no information had been collected on the use of drugs and risk behaviors for communicable diseases among FSU immigrants in the United States.An Israeli researcher has been tapped by US government agencies in helping to identify the drug and alcohol problems faced by immigrants to the US from the former Soviet Union.

For more than a decade, Prof. Richard Isralowitz has been grappling with the problems of drug and alcohol abuse in immigrants to Israel from the former Soviet Union, researching its extent and nature, and targeting successful techniques for combating it.

So when U.S. government agencies considered dealing with the same problem in the United States, it was natural for them to tap into the Israeli academic’s expertise.

Isralowitz, a professor at the Charlotte B. and Jack J. Spitzer Department of Social Work at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, received the 2004 U.S. National Institute on Drug Abuse “Distinguished International Scientist” Award in its International Program – the first Israeli to receive this honor.

Since the mid-90s Isralowitz’s work at BGU has focused on promoting research on substance abuse, with a focus on immigrant populations in Israel. Almost a quarter of all drug addicts in Israel come from the Russian-speaking population, and because of language and culture differences, they have been notoriously hard to reach.

“What we have done is made strategic contacts in the field and come together to determine what the needs are of those coming from the FSU. We have generated unique studies, collecting quantitative data, and expanded on it in a major effort to study the FSU population,” Israelowitz said. “I would say that BGU now is perhaps the principal institute of higher learning in the world that is concentrated on this part problem area – drug use among immigrants from the Former Soviet Union. I have a staff of three Russian speakers, who are looking at multiple issues, studying sub-groups like youth, women and the elderly, infectious disease and the impact of acculturation on the drug problem.”

So when the US government turned to him for help last year, he was ready. His team consulted drug use experts from national, state and local government agencies, universities, research institutes, and hospitals. Community-based treatment facilities were consulted, and Isralowitz conducted interviews with 27 experts about drug use among FSU immigrants. Information was collected and compiled on psychosocial characteristics, drug use patterns, service utilization, treatment barriers, infectious disease risk behavior, and acculturation.

Until Isralowitz’s research, almost no information had been collected on
the use of drugs and risk behaviors for communicable diseases among FSU immigrants in the United States

“There was a near-total absence of information in the United States about drug use patterns, risk behaviors, infectious disease prevalence and service utilization,” he told ISRAEL21c.

Since 1989, with the fall of the Soviet Union and removal of exit barriers, approximately 500,000 people have immigrated from the FSU to the US. Among this population were some significant social and health problems: in the FSU there are very high rates of drug use and infectious diseases, such as HIV/AIDS and Hepatitis C which are associated with risky injection practices.

Although the vast majority of these immigrants have adapted and succeeded in the US and Israel, the problems still need to be grappled with – and right now, according to Isralowitz, Israel is several steps ahead of the United States.

Isralowitz is continuing with his cooperative approach: BGU is actively working with UCLA in ongoing research. This spring, the Fulbright program is sponsoring a visit to Israel by a top researcher from the National Development Research Institutes on drug-addicted populations, focusing on the problem of hepatitis C.

A third country has also entered the picture: Germany, which also has a significant population of immigrants from the FSU. In May, experts from Germany will come to BGU to study the issue of the spread of infectious diseases through needle-sharing and other practices. The Germans, Isralowitz said, are very concerned with hepatitis in particular.

“We have moved beyond just looking at drug problems in Israel, to looking at the FSU immigrant population worldwide. In the spirit of networking and pulling together, we are both addressing concerns in Israel and in the wider world.”

Isralowitz said he is pleased that his work is able to benefit multiple countries.

“It’s rewarding to be a bridge in this area,” he said.

He is particularly interested in bringing his work to the next level – from academic research to trying to help to solve the problems he is investigating.

In that vein, his BGU team has developed material on drug awareness which have put on a Russian-language website in the US – a website that is aimed at the Russian community in Seattle, Washington.

“Currently, this is the only website dealing with issue in Russian language that communicates information about the drug problem,” Isralowitz said. “We hope it can communicate to this population. Eventually, we hope that with donor support, funding to expand the website and make other materials available in Russian. Currently, there is a gross lack of information written in Russian, both in Israel and overseas. Awareness opens the channels of communication and leads to prevention.”

Isralowitz has had a long and distinguished career in the field of social work. With experience in the field in New York City, he completed his PhD in Social Policy and Management at the Heller School at Brandeis University. He served on the faculty at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, and served there as Director of the Graduate School of Applied Social Sciences’ Research Center.

In 1983, he moved to Israel, joined the faculty of BGU and later, became a member of Kibbutz Revivim. He has served as Director of the Hubert Humphrey Institute for Social Research and Community Development at BGU. Currently, he serves as an advisor to both the Israel Ministry of Foreign Affairs for social research development in countries throughout Africa and the Middle East, and as an academic advisor to the US/Israel Educational Foundation.