Meled, a unique coed high school in downtown Jerusalem for dropouts – many of
them Anglos – from the city’s religious secondary schools, girls’ seminaries and
boys’ yeshivot, recently hired its first fund-raiser to meet the growing
challenge of serving students from observant and traditional homes who don’t fit
in in traditional educational frameworks.
For Malkie Ben-Zekry, 26, the
newly appointed director of development, working at Meled – a Hebrew acronym for
Religious Study Center – is like coming home. Herself an alumna of the class of
2003, she knows firsthand the despair a teenage dropout can face.
started high school at Amalia [a secondary school for religious girls]. In the
middle of ninth grade, I was ratted on for smoking a cigarette, and was kicked
out immediately,” she recalls. “I decided if my high school was turning its back
on me, I would turn my back on the system.”
For half a year Ben-Zekry
joined the ranks of disaffected youth who hang out downtown on the Ben-Yehuda
pedestrian mall and at the corner of Jaffa Road and Rivlin Street they’ve dubbed
Crack Square. Some turn to petty crime or prostitution to pay for drugs and
alcohol. Many are homeless, having been thrown out by their
“Finally I heard about Meled. I started studying again,” she
Ben-Zekry never completed her bagrut (matriculation exams) but
did a two-year stint in National Service – with troubled youth naturally – where
she received a certificate of excellence.
She credits Meled’s founder and
dean Menachem Gottesman with saving her life.
“He’s a legend,” she says
of the US-born psychologist who founded Meled in 1997. “This is an amazing
school that brings out the potential in every student – even those who have been
given up on by other schools.”
Ben-Zekry and Gottesman have four items on
their wish list: an afternoon drop-in center for informal education and
recreation; expanding the drama and music programs; renting and furnishing an
apartment for female students who have been asked to leave home by their
families; and establishing a new and larger facility.
building at 30 Hillel Street, which is owned by the municipality, is designated
as the site of the proposed future courthouse. Even if the government center is
not built, the cramped space “doesn’t give us any flexibility to serve our kids
more effectively. The school building is very inadequate,” notes
The educator, who has a rich background in academia and
clinical work in Israel and the United States, recalls during the tenure of
mayor Uri Lupolianski a potential donor came forward who was prepared to pay for
the refurbishing of a new school building. However, according to Gottesman the
mayor torpedoed City Hall providing a municipal property for the private
For Ben-Zekry and Gottesman, Meled’s top priority is simply
keeping its doors open. Two-thirds of the school’s NIS 2 million annual budget
is covered by the Education Ministry. The remainder comes from tuition fees, but
the majority of the 55 students currently enrolled are
subsidized. Indeed, the school provides a hot lunch twice a week. For
many of the students it’s the only meal they’ll eat that day, Ben-Zekry
Gottesman explains Meled is based on Summerhill, a revolutionary
British boarding school founded in 1921 with the belief that the institution
should be made to fit the child, rather than the other way around. While
offering a “totally non-pressurized environment” that is less rigid than other
high schools, Meled is an academic institution, he emphasizes.
prepare our students for bagrut. But that’s a double entendre. Bagrut also means
‘growing up,’” he says with a smile.
Citing the work of American
psychiatrist Milton Hyland Erickson, who specialized in family therapy,
Gottesman bases Meled’s approach on an “epidemic of love. We love kids.” The
school’s other cardinal principles are to accept each student as he or she is,
to create mutual trust, and to give and demand respect.
principles foster improved selfesteem, lead to a feeling of success, and enable
students to make better choices in terms of responsibility and
With more than 400 graduates since 1998, Gottesman has a
track record of returning teens to the framework of normal life. Many go on to
enlist in the IDF and pursue professional careers, he emphasizes.
kid who comes out of Meled is a hero, able to fulfill what he innately
However idealistic, Gottesman and his staff of 16 fulland part-time
professional educators, counselors and tutors recognize that some teens, whose
issues go beyond emotional trauma and learning disabilities, cannot be helped
“We know our limitations. We’re in a sense a cardiac care unit.
But if a kid needs a heart transplant we will send him to Returno or another
place that deals with drug and alcohol rehabilitation,” he
Like Ben-Zekry, Ariel Wilchfort, 27, is also a former Meled
student who has returned as a staff member.
Today he serves as the
spiritual adviser for the school’s students and staff while studying for his BA
Wilchfort recalls how painful it was to drop out of yeshiva
in ninth grade.
“They were about to throw me out. It wasn’t a place for
me. I got into trouble. I got into fights. The principal heard I played Gameboy
on Shabbat. That was the big boom,” he recalls.
After hanging out on the
streets for a few months, Wilchfort registered at Meled.
responsibility was put in my hands, as opposed to the institution’s,” he
Rachel Halali, 24, is yet another former student who today is
part of the Meled team. She had dropped out of a haredi school she found too
restrictive. Since September she has been the school’s secretary. Halali,
Wilchfort and Ben-Zekry all characterize Meled as a surrogate family for those
from broken homes.
“Every graduate here has a certain longing and comes
back to visit. I had a discussion with Menachem. He told me the secretary had
left, and asked me if I’d like the position. At first it was strange. I wasn’t
sure if I was still a student or now a member of staff,” Halali
Everyone loves to come back here, she concludes.
which Ben-Zekry adds “How many schools can say that?” Ahuvia Edelson, 17 and
finishing his fourth year at Meled, concurs about the school’s warm and
welcoming atmosphere that he contrasts with Jerusalem’s High School for the
Performing Arts, from which he dropped out.
“I wasn’t able to learn
there. There were too many students in a class, and too much noise. There’s a
lot of freedom here to choose how I want to study. It gives me
Like many students, Edelson has a learning
disability. Attention Deficit hyperactiviy disorder and ADD are both
common, he notes. Meled’s intimate student to teacher ratio and lack of
compulsory attendance suits his disability, he says.
Meled is a rarity
among Jerusalem schools in that it accepts students mid-term, Gottesman
notes. Enrollment creeps up as the academic year proceeds.
believe in the kids; 90 percent will graduate bagrut when they’re ready. They’re
square pegs in round holes. Our record of success is 90% – in life.” •