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Nitzan, Israel's largest organization dealing with learning disabilities, is set to launch an on-line network to connect people and resources involved with meeting the challenges posed by the problem throughout the Jewish world, the organization has announced.
Learning disabilities are estimated to afflict up to 10 percent of children. A preschooler who struggles to form a rhyme, a fourth-grader who confuses multiplication and division signs and a high schooler who repeatedly spells the same word in different ways in a homework assignment are all examples of potential learning disabilities.
These disabilities, usually found in children possessing above-average intelligence, are believed by experts to have neurological origins. The affected children's brains are "wired" in such a way that they have trouble processing certain kinds of information, such as the order of letters in a word (dyslexia), mathematical concepts (dyscalculia) and a spatial sense of their surroundings. While intelligent, these children can seem slow and have trouble in decision-making and staying focused.
The problem is particularly acute in the Jewish world, according to Prof. Yitzhak Ersoff, director of International Relations for Nitzan.
Most, if not all, Jewish schools around the world lack any serious way of dealing with the problem, Ersoff told The Jerusalem Post this week, causing frustration and anger among many schoolchildren, and driving them away from education.
Israel is no exception. Unlike in the United States, in Israel "there isn't even a law requiring that people with learning disabilities be educated in the way they need to be, or requiring schools to identify learning disabilities and to set up plans for [dealing with] them," Ersoff complained.
An education professor with a doctorate in law, Ersoff is a recognized expert on education law and disability education. "Personal Zionism" brought him to Israel, he says, where he has embarked on his ambitious goal of bringing American-style learning disabilities programs and legislation to the country.
Now, a new initiative begun by Nitzan utilizing the unique combination of Ersoff's American educational experience and legal background seeks to redress this gap, both in Israel and throughout the Jewish world. Nitzan and Ersoff have teamed up to form an on-line network that will bring resources for overcoming learning disabilities to Jewish communities, parents and schools throughout the world.
"The basic scientific knowledge and educational research, what people need and how to provide it, is out there and has been for some time," Ersoff noted. Yet, while this knowledge has transformed the way American educators deal with learning disabilities, it has yet to filter into the Israeli educational system, leaving otherwise intelligent children with treatable learning disabilities to struggle needlessly in an educational system that is three decades behind in terms of assessment and treatment.
No one is more frustrated than Ersoff. "By definition, a person with LD [learning disability] is among our best and brightest. How can we waste such a resource? How can we ruin such lives? Einstein had LD. If Einstein had been educated in Israel today he'd have ended up a criminal, not a scientist," said Ersoff, who made aliya after making the connection with Nitzan's director Molly Danino at a conference.
"It's frustrating. Worse, it's heartbreaking," he added. "Legally, morally, educationally, we know what to do. Yet the fact is that many of our brightest and most talented kids drop out because the educational bureaucracy lacks the tools to support their needs."
The problem is particularly apparent in Israeli higher education. "College students [in Israel] are going through the same struggle American students went through in the 1970's,' he said. "You see one country starting to reinvent the wheel that another country has already fought all the battles to invent. Let's network them."
While the Israeli educational system lacks the basic knowledge to treat learning disabilities, the Jewish world has a great deal to learn from Israel's experience, and particularly from Nitzan, in teaching the Hebrew language and Jewish topics.
"Learning disabilities are neurologically the same no matter the language, but they manifest themselves as different problems," Ersoff explained. "In Hebrew, the three-letter roots mean that the words themselves look similar in slightly different letter arrangements," a significant problem for dyslexic schoolchildren. "In Israel, the focus is on teaching Hebrew, and that's a great benefit to Jews in the rest of the world. Israel can be a fantastic resource."
How would an on-line network of learning disabilities educators, parents, experts and activists actually help communities to properly identify and treat problems in their midst? It's simple, he said.
"The goal is to get people to share information, whether parent-to-parent, student-to-student, or teacher-to-teacher," Ersoff said. "We're calling it the International Dialogue Project. It's not a network of resources, but of people who know where to find them. Frequently the best resource for a parent is to talk to another parent who's gone through it. For students, cultural difference can be broken down that way. If you've got an eighth-grade student here who's frustrated every day and can't stand going to school, they will be put in contact with a similar student in the US. It's a wonderful contact."
"It sounds too simple," he added. "It's just a network. But I've been in these schools for years, and it's just not there. There are good networks for Jewish education, and people ask questions on how to teach [Genesis], or about holiday activities for Passover. But there's nothing for disabilities."
"We're hoping that that will enable both sides, in Israel and in the Jewish community out there in the world, to learn from each other and act as one community in a common goal," Ersoff concluded.