‘NOT AT RISK Education as a Work of Heart’

I often wonder why the universe gives such unbearable obstacles to so many wonderful people only to see how many of them use their circumstances to create something admirable and so very much needed.

Dr. Menachem Gottesman (photo credit: MIRI SHIMONOVITZ)
Dr. Menachem Gottesman
(photo credit: MIRI SHIMONOVITZ)
Tracey Shipley ONE OF the most daunting tasks for parents is to motivate their teens to attend, participate, learn and benefit from what a school has to offer. Through years of counseling teens and young adults, I have seen so many kids show resentment, by the time they reach high school, of even having to attend school. They boast that they already know it all, that they have better things to do and that no school will benefit them.
This is almost always a smokescreen for simply not feeling comfortable in their educational setting.
I went through this dilemma with my youngest daughter. She knew she needed structure but, when she found it, she couldn’t handle it. She was very independent and most schools didn’t like that.
They seem quite threatened by students who question and don’t go along with the flow of the school. There are only a few exceptions in Jerusalem; one of them is Meled – Mercaz L’Mida Dati Learning Center, which is introduced in an unusual book that has just been published, “Not At Risk: Education As a Work of Heart.” In it we learn about a different form of education that was developed at the behest of the author’s son who, at the time, was serving in an elite unit in the Israeli Defense Forces. Years earlier, when he had been expelled from his religious high school at the age of fifteen, no alternative solution had been offered. It had brought heartbreak to his family.
I often wonder why the universe gives such unbearable obstacles to so many wonderful people only to see how many of them use their circumstances to create something admirable and so very much needed. In “Not At Risk,” we meet one of these special people – Menachem, the proud founder of Meled, along with numerous graduates who so candidly share what are, at times, deeply wrenching personal accounts.
Dr. Menachem Gottesman, with a PhD in child development and family relations, made Aliyah from New York with his family in 1977. Eventually, he spent years researching the phenomena of the “Kikar Kids” of Jerusalem, those who did not fit into the standard school framework under the Ministry of Education. His research showed that eight to ten percent of school students actually drop out of the system.
Menachem believed that all of these students, whether afflicted with learning disabilities or other special needs, were in need of the same thing: a haven, a safe harbor.
For students from the religious community, however, there was little in sight.
After battling with the Ministry of Education to get Meled off of the ground and now, after more than twenty years of success, Menachem has provided us with a much awaited book about his alternative approach to school, which is co-authored by his wife, also an educator. In it, we meet many of the teens who have come knocking on Meled’s door in the hopes of finding a school that would take them in. After expulsion from other programs – in one case, from as many as 14 schools – most of these teens had given up on the possibility of an education, other than that acquired from life on the streets. Feeling that the educational system had given up on them, they had given up on themselves.
What we learn is how, from the moment the student enters the school, this small man in suspenders named Menachem awaits him or her in his office. Almost immediately upon meeting the principal, the kid recognizes the love and acceptance in his eyes. The message conveyed is that each of these adolescents is an amazing young person with all the potential in the world. In his book, Menachem is quoted over and over again as saying to Meled’s prospective student, “The ball is in your court.” At Meled, the school should fit the student, not the student, the school. At this very first meeting, the teenager is also told that incoming students are expected to be late and skip school… but, when they do show up, they have an opportunity to learn.
Students are only expected to move at the pace that they can handle, actually choosing their own classes.
As a parent of a former Meled student, I remember Menachem telling me about one adolescent who was too weak from years of self-abuse in the streets to even make it up the stairs. After months of patience, he not only entered the school but became an active student. When Meled’s students are ready, Meled is ready for them. His former students share story after story about their often heartbreaking histories before reaching this school’s doors. In this book, Meled’s teachers also have the opportunity to share their experiences with these remarkable young people.
On more than one occasion, Gottesman was warned not to take a student who, in previous school settings, had been uncooperative or, at times, even violent. He was never stymied by a negative evaluation of a student. Each adolescent was, in his view, a potential success. And each and every staff member, along with fellow students, takes part in enveloping youth in love, acceptance and respect. So, while the teachers’ room overflows with students, guitars are played in the hallways and study rooms are full of students receiving hours of private tutoring from National Service volunteers – all a daily sight at Meled.
In this inspiring book, Gottesman speaks about his journey to establish a school based on three dimensions: educationand the staff knew that their philosophy of freedom, choice and trust would work with almost every young person. The proof was not just in the numbers of students that grew and grew, but the fact that most completed their twelve years of school, many eventually completing all of the high school matriculations, and still more who continued on to elite units in the Israel Defense Forces, higher education, the world of hi-tech, the rabbinate and even one on his way to be a judge. No less important, many of the former students are now married and parents of healthy, young children.
As a parent, there is nothing harder than relinquishing our desires to push and cajole our teens into learning and succeeding in their studies, not to mention choosing the right path in life with the least amount of risks along the way. Our inclination is to jump on board with our teens and row their boats along with them. In his book, Gottesman shares Meled’s philosophy of allowing its students to row their own boat, at their own pace and in their own direction, using the staff to simply point the way and be available as advisers when the student chooses to ask. No pressure is applied.
With Gottesman’s motto, “The ball is in your court,” Meled’s students can take total responsibility for their victories, as well as for their failures. Both are equally a part of their growth process. “Not At Risk: Education as a Work of Heart” is a book that should be read by every parent and educational institution, just as Gottesman’s endless love should be emulated by every professional working with kids of every age.
Tracey Shipley is a parent of a former Meled student and an addictions counselor www.jerusalemteencounseling.net