Anxious parents around the country sent their children back to school yesterday.During the summer vacation, Metro visited the Achiya “Learn That You Can” Educational Intervention Center headquarters in Bnei Brak, to learn about its work to prepare haredi (ultra-Orthodox) children and their parents for the new school year.Achiya provides professional and therapeutic help for parents, educators and children in haredi schools to identify and treat learning disabilities and help children succeed in school.Education of haredi boys has been in the spotlight in recent months, with the abolition of a law that would have denied funding to schools that failed to offer secular education. But Achiya sidesteps politics, working with both secular and haredi experts and foundations to help children achieve their learning potential.“All of the communities, including Satmar, cooperate with Achiya and use our services,” explains Tzivia Greenberg, Achiya’s resource development director. “We accommodate the needs of the community, with the approval of the rabbis.”“Back in 1993,” continues Greenberg, “Achiya’s founders, Yitzhak Levin and Rabbi Avraham Gombo, recognized a problem in haredi education for boys.Traditional haredi education for boys focused exclusively on reading and preparation for Talmud study. Melamdim [the traditional term for male teachers] lacked the professional training to identify learning challenges, which often went unidentified and untreated. Boys who were unable to keep pace with their peers risked alienation from their studies, families and communities. Haredi schools for girls demonstrate greater openness to professional and therapeutic training and treatment.”
While Achiya’s work focuses on boys in mainstream elementary schools, it also offers early childhood development program to both boys and girls, including responses to special needs. Achiya’s four-story building in Bnei Brak, bearing the name of the Harry and Jeanette Weinberg Foundation, features spacious halls and study rooms. Thank-you letters from parents and motivational quotes line the walls. One note, written in verse, describes a child’s arrival at Achiya full of worries and doubts, and becoming a confident and competent student through the help of creative staff. Achiya has a smaller branch in the haredi town of Elad.Rabbi Chaim Moskowitz, who coordinates Achiya’s learning center, trains teachers to teach reading at Achiya’s Teacher Training College. While he received an academic degree, he claims that “the knowledge and training came from Achiya.” He explains the difference between hiring a private tutor and bringing a child to Achiya. “When you hire a private tutor or therapist, they tell you when the treatment is complete.But at Achiya, there is constant supervision, feedback and follow-up, to see if the child has benefited.”Moskowitz is coordinating two new groups for preschool melamdim, set to open in Bnei Brak and Modi’in Illit.“One principal plans to sign up his whole staff,” he reports. “The Education Ministry is demanding it, the community wants it and the teachers themselves want to do a good job for their students.”The teachers will attend two four-hour classes weekly, and receive guidance at the facilities at the Achiya headquarters once a year. The program trains teachers to identify the skills that children need, and refer them if they need extra help.“Early childhood education is not only reading, it is many other things,” Moskowitz says. “Teachers told me they felt guilty when their children did not succeed over the long-term.” Another program, Maagan Achiya, is based on a program in the state school system. Achiya developed it further, and adapted it for the haredi community.The program trains teachers to identify learning challenges and disabilities in the elementary school classroom.Avraham Tannenbaum, a developmental assistant involved in implementing the program over the last ten years in Bnei Brak, received a letter from a melamed after the program had ended.“Once [Achiya] stopped coming to my classroom, I began to understand that the responsibility for the children’s development was mine. I had to identify children with difficulties, and try to help them with my new knowledge.”Sharon Moskowitz (no relation to Rabbi Chaim), the head social worker, supervises the intake of new students at the Achiya center. “Every child who comes to Achiya has a need,” she explains.“The parents come and we open a file.In recent years, parents in the haredi system began to understand that they need to be involved. It’s not like it was before.”Achiya offers traditional therapies like speech and occupational therapy, as well as psychodrama, art and other therapies for emotional issues. The state-ofthe- art hydrotherapy pool serves both boys and girls with special needs as well as mainstream children. Plans are under way to build a community library to fill the entire top floor of the building, which will enable children of all abilities to read and enjoy informal learning activities together. The library will also help parents learn about Achiya’s full range of services.
Achiya also developed a program to increase language development in boys’ preschools in the most insular haredi communities.According to Greenberg and Sharon Moskowitz, the preschool melamdim didn’t understand the importance of two-sided communication. They talked at the children, not with them, and focused on reading while ignoring other required skills. “This especially applied to the hassidic communities,” noted Greenberg. “A serious gap was the lack of books in the preschools. The importance of play and physical development was also not understood.”In Israel, children in preschool choose a book to take home each week. When Achiya went to look for suitable books for this population, they couldn’t find any. So the center prepared a series of color picture books for preschool in Yiddish, the mother tongue of most of the children.“While Hebrew is essential for integration into society,” explained Greenberg, “we know that children need to have good language skills in their first language.”In seven communities throughout Israel (in 12 classes in each locale) JDC-Israel has been a partner to Achiya in a three-year pilot program to nurture language and emotional development.The teachers received intensive workshops and language enrichment, and counselors helped them implement their knowledge in the classroom. Two melamdim in their 50s reported that the program contributed to their own vocabulary and enriched their communication with the children. “If you think about the cognitive impact for children aged four to six, whose language is improved – it affects their entire future,” emphasizes Greenberg.Achiya cooperated with the Bernard Van Leer foundation to implement a program to introduce children to basic scientific concepts. “We had to get permission from the rabbis, who initially allowed it only for preschools,” recalls Greenberg. Called “Wonders of Creation,” topics include gravity, mass, center of balance, kinetic force and sound. A related program invites mothers of boys aged four to eight to the main branch of Achiya for a weekly session.“It’s a big sacrifice for a mother of a large family to spend time once a week with one child after school,” notes Moskowitz.“The program is making such activities acceptable in Elad and Bnei Brak.”Moskowitz spoke with Metro about how a child gets ready for first grade.“We think of a short period of preparation, but the child has been preparing since birth,” she explains. “Thousands of developmental stages must occur before that and they can’t be skipped. So it’s better to have early identification of any problems to prevent issues over the long term.”“The parents also need to be prepared,” Moskowitz continues. “They need to understand the issue of separation – if a child can’t separate from a pacifier, he may not be prepared to separate from a parent. How does the child separate when leaving for kindergarten? Does he sleep alone? Even a very small thing has to be experienced correctly.”Parents also attend a session, designed help their children make the transition effectively.Achiya’s program for readiness for first grade, led by a speech therapist and an occupational therapist, imitates the school classroom. “We use workbooks.In every class we work on a different skill, like language and motor development, organization, holding a pencil, counting, and cutting.“It’s important to practice sitting at a table from an early age with stickers, crayons, coloring books, and games,” explains Moskowitz. “The children need to learn to pay attention.”According to Greenberg, Achiya’s strength lies in the way its services accommodate the unique needs of the haredim.The swimming pool offers therapy to boys and girls separately. The therapists, who come from all sectors, dress appropriately.The instruction materials have pictures of haredi children but no pets, as they are uncommon in the community.The cost is also accommodating.“Usually, an hour of tutoring or therapy costs NIS 80 to NIS 120,” Greenberg notes. “We charge NIS 50. Sometimes, Kupat Ha’ir [City Fund, a prominent charity] pays for the tutoring, because they see it as essential for the welfare of the family.”Moskowitz provides additional examples.“Let’s say a mother is coming to us because of an issue with one of her children. She is pregnant with her 10th child. In a secular setting, she might be questioned or criticized regarding her pregnancy. Here, the staff understands that large families are the norm. They are aware of the type of behavior expected at the Shabbat table in a haredi home, and the centrality of the commandment to honor parents.”Because the parents feel safe, they often bring up issues with siblings.“It’s common for a mother who is here because of one child to say, ‘Can I ask you a question about my other child?’” says Moskowitz.Achiya’s programs impact the entire family. Children who learned science concepts talk about them to their siblings.When a child brings home a book, the whole family reads it. Parents who attend a lecture on readiness for first grade can take action to prepare their younger children better. “The 8,600 children served just this past year by Achiya exert a tremendous amount of influence in the community,” reports Greenberg.One mother called to thank the staff at the Achiya center for helping her son with his learning disabilities. “The mother’s other son also had ADHD,” according to Greenberg, “but Achiya’s program for ADHD wasn’t around then.Her son is now in jail, and the mother is sure that a program like Achiya provides could have changed his life. “ Achiya’s co-founder, Rabbi Yitzhak Levin, concluded, “Achiya is not engaged in issues of workforce development.But there is a natural link between early intervention for children and their readiness for all opportunities as young adults. Boys who overcome learning challenges build their capacities to shape their own future.”For more information on the Achiya Center: Tzivia Greenberg (03) 676-1166 x9222 or achiya.org