June 22, 2024
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The Lessons of Meled’s Alternative Educational Model

Reviewing: “Not at Risk: Education as a Work of Heart.” By Menachem Gottesman with Leah Leslie Gottesman. Jerusalem, Menorah Books and Meled. Hardcover. 2018. ISBN 978-1940516745. $24.95

I can still recall the sense of elation when I first discovered the book “Summerhill” as an adolescent or emerging adult. “Summerhill” was a controversial school in England founded 40 years earlier by A.S. Neill. In some ways anticipating the progressive approach to education in our own time that would put children at the center of all learning, Neill suggested that students be permitted to learn how they themselves saw fit, free from the coercion of the adult world, especially their teachers and parents. They could choose what they wanted to learn and the pace at which they wanted to learn. They could even decide whether or not to attend class. What adolescent could resist, especially in the anti-establishment sixties when Neill’s work found a more popular audience in America?

Years later, however, I found myself on the other side of the desk, when rules seemed to matter more than ever, when curriculum goals emerged from a passionate idealism I had about what every child should know. I usually towed the party line when students pushed back about schools being coercive places. That, I presumed, was the nature of the circle of life—from starting out being anti-establishment wanting to change the system to becoming “one of them.” And as much as I tried to claim my own identity, as much as I may have had some impact on changing the system, at least within my classes, the truth is that in the end this was, after all, school and there was no wish to upend the system. There was however, one small group of students who challenged and continue to challenge our thinking. Those are the kids who simply do not buy into the system, the kids to whom the traditional curriculum does not speak, to the point that they feel not only coerced but chained and suffocated. Some of them go through the motions of attending but they are never present, some behave in ways that put them outside the pale, while others stay away altogether. These are the students who, on the face of it at least, don’t care about the learning, let alone the grades. And if we cannot hold grades over their head, if we cannot threaten their admission to college, then, say many teachers, what leverage do we have? Many, then, simply drop out of school altogether and many schools do not do much to support them.

Imagine the new elation, then, in coming across “Not at Risk: Education as a Work of Heart.” The book is the remarkable story of Meled, an acronym for a religious Zionist high school in Jerusalem (Merkaz L’Chinuch Dati) that is essentially a last stop for kids who have failed or have been failed by the regular educational system. These are kids who suffer from substance abuse, kids who have serious learning or emotional issues, kids who come from dysfunctional homes and, yes, kids who come from homes that we would deem normal and healthy. They are simply kids who have not found their place in the system and, were it not for Meled, would likely head down a road of disconnection or self-destruction.

The school was founded in 1995 by an American emigrant, Dr. Menachem Gottesman, against great odds and with a less than promising student body; these are the kids you might see hanging around downtown Jerusalem late at night, the ones who look lost or rejected, with multiple body piercings, male and female, the kids who had been kicked out of one or more high schools and/or out of their homes, most of which were religious, though you wouldn’t be able to tell from looking at them.

In a light way, the book highlights Dr. Gottesman’s approach based on the educational philosophy of Summerhill as well the therapeutic approach of Milton Erickson, which is described at its core as respecting and valuing the client’s beliefs, trusting in the client’s capacity for change and protecting the client’s integrity. Further, it posits that most therapy should be directed toward the right hemisphere of the brain, the one engaged especially by humor, indirect language, music and the arts. Finally, the school was guided in the spiritual dimension by the writings of Rav Soloveitchik, especially with regard to man’s ability to develop his tzelem Elokim, his being made in the image of God, by becoming a creator, especially in creating himself. Teachers, too, are mandated to help students realize that end by sharing and caring rather than by dominating or controlling.

The majority of the book is filled with poignant, uplifting and inspiring stories of success, most of them told by the students themselves, most of them years after leaving the school. Many never got their bagrut (the subject matter tests that are a prerequisite for university), at least not upon graduation, but nevertheless have gone on to live lives of meaning. Others have gone on to great academic and professional achievement and all seem convinced that they would never have done so without the unconditional love they received at Meled.

Indeed, the book feels like it suffers from a little too much self-congratulation at times. One would have liked to have heard more about the failures or perhaps more detailed information about the journey of individual students and how the school handled the day-to-day challenges that both students and faculty face. Still, the overwhelming sense that one walks away with is of a school, nay, a staff, who are deeply committed to accepting students where they are and working with them at that starting point.

The context of the school is so totally different from the one that we in the diaspora face that one wonders what relevance it might have. The presence of government support, even if limited, the lure of army or National Service after high school, the availability of certain kinds of personnel, the number of students and the severity of their challenges, all make it unlikely that diaspora schools can mimic Meled. Nevertheless, there was a time when there was once resistance in day schools to special education, until it became clear that we owed it to these students to address their needs and, in the process, we were brought to realize that the basics of special education are really the basics of what all fine teaching should be. So, too, “Not at Risk” reminds us that there other students in great need and, as important, that all of our students, especially the ones we tend to take for granted or seem too big a challenge, could use help with creating their own potential while enjoying our unconditional love. The right to empowerment, validation, security, the opportunity to be heard and valued, are not the exclusive domain of kids at risk but all kids. One of Menachem Gottesman’s mandates to his students that they subsequently repeat over and over again like a mantra is that “the ball is in your court.” The same could be said for all of us, teachers, parents and community, in meeting the needs of all of our children.

By Jay Goldmintz

Rabbi Jay Goldmintz teaches Tanakh and Jewish philosophy at Ma’ayanot Yeshiva High School for Girls.

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