Expanding the learning curve

Cissie Chalkowsky introduced a new style of education for children with learning disabilities.

Chalkowsky with Teddy Kollek. (photo credit: Courtesy)
Chalkowsky with Teddy Kollek.
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Nominated by a teacher in her school, Cissie Chalkowsky, founder of the Neve Ruchama School for Girls, was surprised when a friend, updated by the Internet, notified her that she had received the Distinguished Citizen of Jerusalem citation this year. The next day, Mayor Nir Barkat called Chalkowsky to congratulate her.
The Jerusalem Municipality’s website states that “For many years, Cissie founded and headed a few Jerusalem institutions, with innovations and initiatives in the field. Cissie is a pioneer and, above all, the Neve Ruchama Ulpana stands out, which gave a new message for education throughout Israel.”
Often called Ulpanat Cissie, or Cissie’s School, Neve Ruchama was founded by Chalkowsky in 1983 to help intelligent girls with learning disabilities/ADD/ ADHD maximize their potential. It has since educated thousands of students, trained hundreds of teachers and has become a role model for students who in the past had minimal scholastic success, dropped out of school or had little self-confidence. Today, the methods employed at Neve Ruchama are implemented in many Jerusalem schools.
Born in Chicago, Chalkowsky studied for a year at the Institute for Training Instructors Abroad (Mahal) in Jerusalem.
Her Bible teacher was renowned Torah scholar Nechama Leibowitz, one of her mentors. Chalkowsky returned to the US as an emissary and then made aliya in 1958. She studied sociology and education at the Hebrew University.
In the 1960s, religious boys studied in Bnei Akiva yeshivot, while girls had no equivalent option. Rabbi Eli Shashar initiated a new framework for girls and coined the term “ulpana.” He called upon Chalkowsky to help run the school, Ulpanat Kfar Pines, where she worked for three years.
“The students of the first graduating class of the ulpana had very few options available to them,” recalls Chalkowsky.
“Most religious girls served in the army in Nahal. So it was natural that Rabbi Shashar would create an option for his graduates, and he was among the initiators of National Service.”
Rabbi Yehuda Cooperman founded the Jerusalem College for Women, known as the Michlala, in 1964, a trailblazing Jerusalem institution – an academic framework for religious girls. Chalkowsky joined in his efforts for starting this college, providing the school with students. The Michlala trains teachers with academic studies and a solid Torah base. Classes were held in apartment buildings in Bayit Vegan before expanding to its current campus, also in Bayit Vegan. Cooperman influenced Chalkowsky, as well as another Michlala educator, Rabbi David Fox, a brother-in-law of Chalkowsky’s.
In 1967, Chalkowsky followed the Talmudic saying “If you want wisdom, go South,” after Rabbi Avraham Silbert of Beersheba’s Bnei Akiva Yeshiva asked her to open a Torah enrichment track for girls. After working and living in Beersheba for 12 years, Chalkowsky reflects: “I learned in Beersheba about a different Israel, where Eidot Hamizrah [Sephardim] were the majority. This was in the 1970s, when although Jerusalem’s religious schools had Eidot Hamizrah students, they were oriented to adopt Ashkenazi customs.”
Moving back to Jerusalem, Chalkowsky ran the Horev girls’ school dormitory for two years. She became aware of girls from different backgrounds who were intelligent but not succeeding in school and not able to attain matriculation levels. Turning to experts, she discovered they had learning disabilities.
“The students often lacked motivation and had a low self-image. We tried to increase motivation with methods such as Prof. Reuven Feuerstein’s instrumental enrichment program, adapted for verbal use,” she says.
At a meeting at the Knesset in the early 1980s, Chalkowsky met education minister Zevulun Hammer, who had heard about her desire to open a school for girls. He directed her to an unoccupied school building in Mevaseret Zion. In 1983, Chalkowsky founded the Becoming You Ulpana, which eventually became Neve Ruchama. It later moved to an office building in Givat Shaul and then Musrara until it found a permanent home in Kiryat Hayovel.
“When it started, there were many English-speaking students who came because we helped them adjust to the school system. Today, there are also many English speakers,” she says.
Seeking experts in teaching students with learning disabilities and ADHD, the school’s purpose is to provide students with the tools to learn. The staff is specially trained, and classes are smaller with the emphasis on the individual.
“The purpose wasn’t just to pass the bagrut [matriculation] exam but to change the lives of the students. It’s like wearing glasses to improve vision.
The glasses have to be suited to the eyes.
Students with learning disabilities need the appropriate ‘glasses’ to succeed in their studies,” says Chalkowsky.
In the school’s early years, many students felt a stigma studying at Neve Ruchama, as they were labeled as having ADHD or learning disabilities. But over the years, the attitude changed, and students felt grateful for the school that respected them, had expectations for them and helped them succeed.
“During the years that I was at the school [until 2011], there are no pictures of the graduates on the walls. They were embarrassed to be graduates of Neve Ruchama,” says Chalkowsky.
Clinical psychologist Dr. Stuart Chesner worked with the students on improving their self-image and helped them gain self-confidence. He went on to open and head Yeshivat Bnei Chayil for religious boys with learning disabilities/ADD/ADHD.
Chalkowsky describes a play produced by her students, which portrays a student reluctantly going to the school, evading her youth movement friends’ interest about which school she attends and eventually coming to terms with the school as a place that cares for its students, focusing on “becoming you.”
The girl in the play summarizes her feelings as follows: “I know I’ve solved the problem [of learning disabilities] for myself but haven’t solved the problem for the world.”
As a pioneer in teaching students with learning disabilities, Neve Ruchama offered courses in its methods for teachers in other schools.
Today, every school in Jerusalem has programs for such students.
“When you create a school for a certain challenge, success is when you can close it, when you find the solution.
The school has had to reinvent itself as the years go by,” says Chalkowsky.
She is a resident of Gilo, a neighborhood she describes as “pretty with a warm community.” Most of her family members are involved in education. Her husband, Rabbi Yehoshua Chalkowsky, taught at Machon Lev (Jerusalem College of Technology) for many years and today teaches a daf yomi Gemara class in Gilo.
Chalkowsky also teaches classes there.
Their daughter Esti is a principal in a school in Safed, after having run Neve Ruchama for many years. Daughter Yael is a social worker in the National Insurance Institute, Yehudit is a special education teacher, and Michal works in Hadassah’s MRI unit.
Chalkowsky derives satisfaction from meeting her graduates in all walks of life. They work in many professions, and some went into academia.
“They thought they wouldn’t learn.
With our dedicated staff, we taught them how to learn. Today, we have graduates in every field – the arts, design, computers, education, social work and business,” she says.
The slogan of the school “Becoming you” has become a reality.