Saving grace

Meled School provides 'intensive cardiac care' for religious teenagers who have dropped out of system.

meled 248.88 (photo credit: Michael Green)
meled 248.88
(photo credit: Michael Green)
Battling against the odds, Ariel Wilchfort tries to find a quiet space for us to sit down in the school office - a simple task made tricky when the small room is filled with five teenagers wrestling with each other. In the hallway outside, a boy of barely bar mitzva age lies on an orange sofa with his eyelids firmly closed, somehow oblivious to the commotion going on around him. Meled takes pride in being an unconventional school, the only one of its kind in Jerusalem that caters to religious teenagers who abandon or are abandoned by the mainstream school system. Despite lessons not being compulsory, the classes in the small school are bubbling with activity. Wilchfort, 24, spent more than three years at Meled and, after his army service, returned to the school to work as a youth counselor. "The school really helped me believe in myself," he says. "I don't know if I would be able to use my potential otherwise." Like most of the students at Meled, Wilchfort had previously dropped out - in his case from a yeshiva in the settlement of Hashmonaim. He found himself sitting at home or hanging out on the streets, until a friend of the family recommended Meled. Wilchfort is one of more than 300 graduates from the school over the last 12 years. After coming perilously close to running out of funds earlier this year, the school found financial support close to home and intends to continue serving the needs of the religious community. Passing a bench of teenagers puffing away at cigarettes on the way into the school, visitors are greeted by a sign declaring, "Welcome to the Meled Family," a motto put into practice by the staff and students. "Hey, what's up, Menachem?" asks one boy as he gives the head teacher a high-five. "Here, the student becomes the center, not the institution. It's usually the opposite, and we turned it around. The entire school has to address the needs of the student, and we are still a small enough school with a large enough staff to do that," explains Menachem Gottesman, the school's founder and dean. This term, the school has between 15 and 18 staff at any one time, teaching some 70 students out of a total capacity of 100. Apart from the low pupil-to-teacher ratio, the special relationship between students and staff is a key factor in succeeding with young people for whom mainstream education has failed. Discipline was one of the reasons Wilchfort stopped studying at his yeshiva at age 15. "You can be friends with teachers and have a different relationship with them; for example, if you don't have to go to class at a certain hour," he says. "You can connect to someone; you are more equal, and they are not above you. When the work is in your hands, you stop and think, 'What can I do to help myself?'" In addition to his military service, Wilchfort completed his studies at a pre-army yeshiva since leaving Meled. Gottesman describes the school as an "intensive cardiac care unit." The problems facing young people are violence, drugs, alcohol or abuse at home, but he believes that what hurts young people the most is their hearts. "It's the most difficult school in the State of Israel because it's based on non-coercion, both educational and religious. The kids feel free, but it's very challenging and demands lots of patience." Yael (not her real name) "grew up everywhere," including the United States, where her parents are from. After moving to Israel, she didn't attend ninth grade, so her school eventually dropped her from the register. "Once you're kicked out of a religious school, the others frown upon you," she says. She expected to spend her 10th grade sitting at home until her mother took her to visit Meled two days before the start of the 2008 school term. "It's depressing sitting at the computer all day. At first it's great, but no one feels good just doing nothing," she says. "I still didn't come to school all the time, but now I come every day. Meled gave me lots of confidence; my self-esteem was very low." Partly funded by the Education Ministry, Meled also relies on tuition fees to cover the remaining one-third of its operating costs, which can reach up to $200,000 a year. Tuition costs NIS 880 a month, but most students are subsidized, leaving a shortfall at the school, which Gottesman says is "always on the financial brink." Two months ago it came close to closing when funds from the ministry dried up, leaving a half-million shekel deficit. The ministry pays according to the number of students registered at a school at the start of the term. "But our school doesn't work that way. We start with small numbers, and it grows. Our students are dropping in," explains Gottesman. "We plan for 90 students but have just 40 [when term begins], but we still have to pay salaries." Eventually, salvation came from the school's board members themselves, an option Gottesman prefers to going abroad to places like North America, where Jewish donors are feeling economic pressure of their own. "It's connected to the financial crisis and also that charity begins at home," he says. "It's undoubtedly more difficult; the financial situation has affected companies and individuals that might have supported us in the past." Gottesman says that the school now is back to "business as usual," in the short term at least, and aims to continue providing a safety net for religious youth. Located in the center of Jerusalem, between Independence Park and Nahalat Shiva, the school is a stone's throw away from favorite haunts of teenagers at loose ends, including the Ben-Yehuda pedestrian mall and Kikar Hahatulot. "If they weren't here [at Meled], they might not have a place to go. The kids here could end up back on the street," Gottesman fears. Yael is in agreement, "If I wasn't at Meled, I'd pretty much be sitting at home."