Everything Is Okay, Except when It Isn’t: A Fresh Approach to Jewish Education

Review: Not at Risk by Menachem Gottesman Ph.D. with Leah Leslie Gottesman, M.A.

cover of Not at RiskI cried while reading Not at Risk: Education as a Work of Heart, the story of the alternative Jerusalem high school Meled. Meled, which stands for Merkaz Lemida Dati (center for religious learning) was founded by the book’s author Dr. Menachem Gottesman, after his own son was expelled from a yeshiva high school. Gottesman soon found that unlike in the secular system, the national religious Jewish education system offered few opportunities struggling students whether for academic, familial, or emotional reasons, or simply because the children did not comply with rigid expectations of religious observance.

I experienced something similar when one of our children was kicked out of yeshiva high school a few days after the start of 11th grade. Many view the long hours of yeshiva high school to be counterproductive not only to Jewish observance and to personal development, but to serious learning of Talmud. Fortunately, in recent years, many yeshiva high schools are offering a less pressured curriculum.

Although that yeshiva would have taken my son back had he agreed to conform, he found a high school that, like Meled, offered a welcoming “home” to large numbers of yeshiva “dropouts.”

In the book, written with his wife Leah Leslie, Dr. Gottesman describes how he based the school’s philosophy on the works of A.S. Neill, author of Summerhill, A Radical Approach to Child Rearing; psychiatrist Milton H. Erickson; and Rabbi J. B. Soloveichik. Enlisting men with protektzia, such as Rabbi Daniel Sperber, who wrote a foreword to the book, and now deceased Knesset Member of the National Religious Party Hanan Porat, Meled received recognition from the Jerusalem municipality and the education ministry. Originally, only boys attended but after a few years of separate programs for boys and girls, it became fully mixed in 1998, with great success.

Gottesman structures the book around stories about the former students, and the accounts of the students themselves via a questionnaire. The school offers a welcoming and nonjudgmental approach, training its staff members to abide by it consistently. In turn, the students internalize the message and relate to each other in similar ways. Many graduates shared the heart-breaking situations that led them to consider Meled, with each one explaining how the staff and students enabled them to began studying again at their own pace, with satisfaction and enjoyment. Most of the students ultimately found a field of study that they enjoyed, whether or not they completed their matriculation exams.

Many students mentioned Meled’s unique intake interview. After rounds of unsuccessful interviews or long periods of absence from school, the children expected a grilling. But instead of asking for excuses and promises, Gottesman focused on listening to the students and explaining what the school can offer them. He assured them that they did not have to attend class or study until they wanted to. The main rules are no drugs and alcohol in class. While Jewish studies are offered, there is no requirement of religious observance. Staff members go out of their way to help the students succeed in their studies, but above all to make them feel valued as individuals.

Gottesman describes the intake interview as follows:

When doing intakes at Meled, I have often been presented with a background of upheaval, of chaotic experiences including school failure, abuse, strife and/or trauma. Therefore, I deliberately marginalize the applicant’s history, avoiding any listing of rejections. the focus, instead, is on relating to the adolescent on the basis of projected success. The message conveyed is that we have never changed a student; the students create their own change with our help. Moreover, others who had faced challenges similar to, or even more difficult, than those faced by any individual interviewee have succeeded in overcoming them. Our interview is about allaying the anxiety of both parent and child and instilling hope.

So why did I cry? I went to a large academic secular high school, which was right for me in many ways. But I felt sad for my younger self that, unlike at Meled, my school offered so little acknowledgment of my emotional needs and difficulties.

In Israel it’s common to say hakol beseder, with means “everything is okay.” But at Meled, staff members respond to that statement saying,  “except for what isn’t okay. If something isn’t okay, it can be fixed, but if you don’t know it isn’t okay, you have a problem.” Within families, schools, and ourselves, things can fester because we believe they can’t be fixed. Fortunately there are places like Meled that can help “fix” the children from our community that need it most.

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