A couple of new programs

The Feuerstein Institute is helping young adults with cognitive disabilities learn skills to develop healthy, committed relationships.

MK Shai Piron, Mayor Nir Barkat and Rafi Feuerstein (photo credit: Courtesy)
MK Shai Piron, Mayor Nir Barkat and Rafi Feuerstein
(photo credit: Courtesy)
When Odelya Gabai was an infant, a doctor told her parents that she would never eat by herself or even talk. Years later, her mother took her back to the same doctor to show him how wrong he had been.
Gabai, 27, has Down syndrome – though it is not obvious from her appearance, as her case is mild. She holds a steady job and is about to begin a monthlong program to prepare her for studying psychology in Bar-Ilan University. She is also an enthusiastic participant in Hazon – a new center at the Feuerstein Institute in Jerusalem that aims to prepare highfunctioning young special-needs adults for social relationships and marriage.
The Feuerstein Institute, which Prof. Reuven Feuerstein founded in 1965, is an international education, treatment and research center dedicated to teaching individuals how to learn. Feuerstein, who studied with Swiss developmental psychologist Jean Piaget in the 1950s, understood that intelligence is not a fixed entity, many decades before recent research showed that the brain has plasticity – the ability to change and adapt itself. He developed an educational technique that utilizes mediation to facilitate the development of learning aptitude and the enhancement of intelligence, and his method has helped children and adults with cognitive disabilities improve their learning abilities significantly.
Hazon, which is Hebrew for “dream” or “vision,” is also an acronym for the Hebrew words meaning society, intimacy and marriage, and the center is based on the conviction that people with special needs – like everyone else – have the right to social relationships and marriage. The center consists of two interconnected programs: the Pre-Marriage Intervention Program for Young Adults with Special Needs, developed and orchestrated in partnership with the Ruderman Family Foundation; and the Program for the Development of Social and Interpersonal Skills, in partnership with the Welfare and Social Services Ministry.
Based on a combination of workshop-style classes, psychodrama, social games, and individual and couples guidance, the twin programs aim to give young adults with cognitive disabilities the understanding, skills and support to develop healthy, committed relationships. Among other things, participants learn about dialogue, empathy, and what it means to be connected to and belong to someone.
“The major issue is that lo tov lehiot adam levado – it is not good for a person to be alone,” says Feuerstein, who is now 92. “The mental, emotional and behavioral aspects of being part of a couple are very attractive.”
He explains that practical skills such as shopping sensibly and household management can be taught, as can interpersonal skills such as how to listen, compromise, and do things to please your spouse.
The sexual aspects, too, he says, are addressed as a part of the whole that is marriage.
In the past, marriage for the special-needs population was discouraged, even prevented. But attitudes are slowly changing. Part of Hazon’s initiative is to involve leaders of different groups in society. The center’s advisory board includes rabbis, lawyers, doctors, educators and other public personalities, who offer input on questions that arise in the program as it evolves.
The Pre-Marriage Intervention Program focuses on existing couples at various stages of the relationship. The Feuerstein Institute – which plans to open branches of the Hazon program in other parts of the country in thenear future – has provided support and guidance to special-needs couples in the past, but not as part of a structured program. Hazon is a fulfillment of a vision that Feuerstein has had for many years – to guide and support couples, while providing a framework in which they can learn the practical, interpersonal and social skills necessary to make a marriage succeed.
In addition to helping people with cognitive disabilities, the Feuerstein Institute rehabilitates stroke and trauma victims, runs a special education school for children and youth, and has developed a course called Ela, which trains people with special needs to work as kindergarten assistants and in nursing homes. The institute works with the IDF as well, running a program for the Israel Air Force in which the Feuerstein method is applied to train the cadets for high-level service. Today, Feuerstein is researching the method’s application in preventing dementia among the aging population.
“My father developed his method based on the idea of human modifiability,” explains his son, Rabbi Rafi Feuerstein, the institute’s vice chairman.
“The method stresses the significant role of the mediator in the cognitive development of the individual – teachers and parents who select stimuli and mediate strategies in order to enhance learning.
The idea of modifiability can be applied in different populations. People can keep learning – they can be taught how to learn.”
The Feuerstein method takes a positivist approach, focusing on what clients are able to accomplish instead of on their limitations. Today, educators and psychologists learn this method not only in Israel, but in 80 training centers in 40 countries.
“We find the open window in each individual,” says the younger Feuerstein.
Gabai has gone through a lot in her 27 years, including the death of her father at the age of 12. But she has also been lucky – she has a loving family and a mother who has always fought for her rights. As such, not only has being born with an extra chromosome not held Gabai back, it has pushed her forward.
Every day, she takes two buses from her home in Moshav Beit Meir to her job in an accountant’s office in Jerusalem, where she helps the staff with clerical jobs and runs errands for the office. She enjoys her job and is a devoted worker, yet looks forward to the opportunity to learn more: Her upcoming pre-university studies are an initiative of the Bar-Ilan psychology department, which will be welcoming five students with Down syndrome in the coming academic year.
While she confides that talking about the loss of her father makes her feel like crying, it is hard to imagine her sad, as she has a ready smile that lights up her whole face – especially her eyes.
“Regular society has to learn to accept us the way we are,” she says of people with special needs. “We are equal to everyone else.”
She believes that people with Down syndrome have their own talents and can contribute a great deal to society and to the nation.
“When you smile at someone, they smile back at you,” she says. “Our warmth and love can help old people, children and babies. When we are within regular society, we improve it; the strength of people with Down syndrome is that we accept people for who they are.”
She is clearly excited about the Pre-Marriage Intervention Program, which began last spring. When asked, she says she has one reason and one reason only for taking part in the Hazon course.
“I want to find a boyfriend,” she says with a twinkle in her eyes. She dreams of one day becoming a bride.
Shira Ruderman, the Israel director of the Ruderman Family Foundation, believes that “marriage is a normal stage of life that people with disabilities should be a part of. They have the right to build relationships and be part of family life.”
She says her organization’s main focus is “the inclusion of people with disabilities in society, both in Israel and in the US – in education, housing, employment and other aspects of society.”
The private family foundation, which is based in Boston and Israel, has worked together with the Feuerstein Institute throughout the planning of the Pre-Marriage Intervention Program, which Ruderman describes as “very innovative.”
Hazon is not in the business of making shidduchim (matches) as such, but in creating an atmosphere that will give the participants an opportunity to meet potential partners.
Among the participants in the pre-marriage program are Shimon and Rivka (not their real names), an engaged couple with special needs. Each of them has different cognitive and social challenges, but this does not prevent them from understanding and appreciating each other.
They are both religiously observant, are both in their late 20s, and were introduced through a rabbi who knew both their families.
Rivka works in a sheltered employment setting, and Shimon assists a sofer, or scribe, in his work. Their wedding is only weeks away, and they are busy with preparations.
“We are learning how to get along, to respect each other, to compromise,” Rivka explains in a soft voice.
Shimon adds that they have psychodrama sessions in which they act out situations and how to deal with them.
After their wedding, they will be living in a sheltered housing facility, where they will have the support of professionals who will help them adjust to married life.
They will be the first married couple living in the facility.