By Yaakov (Jack) Bieler
Imagine a school where the students determine when they come and go to school, what subjects they study, and how many exams they take. A school in which teachers and faculty show their students unconditional love, patience, and tolerance. An educational setting that welcomes students with open arms regardless of previous delinquent behavior or how many other schools have expelled them.
Welcome to Meled Jerusalem, the acronym for Merkaz L’Mida Dati, literally “Religious Learning Center,” but technically it is an alternative religious high school. Envisioned, founded, and led by Dr. Menachem Gottesman, a developmental psychologist, the school began in September 1995 as a pilot project, and has steadily grown in reputation and effectiveness ever since. Its history, educational approach, and success stories are detailed in Dr. Gottesman’s memoir, “Not at Risk” (Menorah Books, 2018).
The book was written by Dr. Gottesman and his wife, Leah. Mrs. Gottesman has a B.A. in English Literature and Education from City College of the State University of New York and an M.A. in Creative Writing from the English Department at Bar Ilan University. She divides her professional skills between teaching English, marketing, journalism, fundraising and tourism, and enjoys writing poetry and studying archaeology. Leah has been supportive of and involved with many aspects of the Meled School’s development since its inception.
Dr. Gottesman initially devoted considerable time and effort to studying blind people and designing programs for them in both the U.S. and Israel. He then turned his attention to engaging adolescents who, for various reasons, did not fit into typical mainstream religious schools in Israel. Employing an eclectic of theoretical constructs based upon the work of Alexander Sutherland Neill, Milton H. Erickson, and Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, Gottesman developed novel educational principles and directives for his unique institution.
From the students’ copious testimonies in the book, attending Meled dramatically turned around their lives and the lives of many other young people. They attest that prior to going to Meled, many had been depressed, lacked self-confidence and self-esteem, suffered from abuse at home, experimented with drugs and alcohol, were alienated from their families, and were uninterested in academic study.
Dr. Gottesman provided them with a sympathetic “ear,” a sense of control over their own education and daily activities, and the emotional and academic support that they needed to become successful.
Most graduates of Meled are described as optimistic about their futures. They have overcome their academic challenges, have happily created families of their own, and have taken up healthy and constructive places within overall society.
In addition to a description of the political issues that dogged this nascent religious institution as it gained official recognition and financial support from the Israeli educational establishment, most of Not at Risk is composed of testimonials by students, parents, and staff members. These accounts are supplemented by plentiful anecdotes supplied by both Dr. and Mrs. Gottesman, describing the daunting circumstances that affected many of the students.
While Meled does not accept those who are profoundly mentally challenged, psychotic to the point where the individual cannot cope with reality, or people exhibiting severe psychological pathology, for the many who attend, the school has minimal rules and expectations: students are prohibited from causing others bodily harm, using drugs or alcohol on school premises, and stealing. Otherwise, “the ball is in the student’s court,” a truism that Dr. Gottesman fondly and frequently invoked. Counter-intuitively, it is left to the students to determine when they come to school, which subjects they study, how many state exams they prepare for, and in which extracurricular activities they participate.
Perhaps the most extraordinary is the Gottesmans’ personal commitment to the students, such as the times they have taken students into their home as foster children in order to ensure they have a safe place to live. This holistic devotion appears to be complemented by the staff’s remarkable commitment towards the students, as even members of the office staff serve as resources for the students. When students needed to be committed to outside institutions or encounter difficulties with the justice system, the Gottesmans and members of the Meled staff support the students even while they’re away from school. As a result, or, as one might imagine, as a token of appreciation, many alumni maintain connections with their former teachers, counselors, and tutors, and often include them in celebrations even after they graduate.
There are also a number of former students who now work at the school. Naturally, those who were once Meled students and now work there serve as outstanding role models for the current student body. Even staff members who had a more traditional, structured upbringing and education show unconditional love, patience, tolerance, flexibility, and understanding on a regular basis to the students, both inside and outside the classroom, which is truly exceptional.
At Meled, teacher-student ratios are smaller than other Jewish schools, while the workload and exam schedule favor small learning groups. This structure creates more time for meaningful, one-on-one discussions, tutoring, and soul-searching. Clearly this type of intensive atmosphere demands a tremendous level of openness and dedication, both quantitatively and qualitatively, and supports Gottesman’s vision of the school focusing not just on instruction, but to dispense therapy, as well. Here, staff members ostensibly serve as “therapists” in addition to being educators.
One can imagine that this unique environment, and the expectations that come along with this approach, may be uncomfortable and unnatural for new faculty members. Therefore, due to my own extensive background as faculty member and administrator in Jewish day schools as well as thinking, researching, and writing about the challenges that such institutions face, I wonder how Meled identifies and hires new staff. What sort of training do new faculty members go through to ensure their success, particularly for those who have no previous experience working in a therapeutic environment?
The authors explain that newly hired staff members initially spend time observing students and get briefed on their backgrounds. However, it would have been helpful and interesting to read more details about the training process, especially with regards to teachers without experience in therapeutic settings. One would also like to know how many hours the staff spends in school. After all, the extent of dedication demonstrated by the staff goes above and beyond a typical workday. Surely juggling family responsibilities with total devotion to extremely needy students constitutes a significant challenge for anyone. Are faculty members married and do they have families of their own? Again, it would be interesting to read about these aspects in more detail.
In Jewish day schools today, there are inordinate pressures on students largely brought to bear by the dual curriculum. This stress often aggravates angst, low self-confidence, and other problems that we frequently see in Jewish teens. Therefore, aside from the logistical complexities that recruiting and training faculty might entail, it is refreshing to learn of an institution that is conceptualized to single-mindedly serve the student body, and that succeeds in working so patiently and lovingly with them. The Gottesmans’ radical approach towards their deeply troubled students allows them to think and act outside the framework of a typical school and develop the idea of being truly child-centered and “consumer-driven” with respect to their student body. This is an important emphasis that should be replicated in Jewish schools throughout Israel and the Diaspora. Moreover, Meled proves that a holistic approach that mixes therapy, warmth, patience, and education with a cadre of caring, dedicated staff could very much benefit adolescents in need.
“Not at Risk” therefore presents a challenge to the Jewish day school world: to translate theory into reality, to listen to students and support them. Dr. Gottesman’s model shows that it is possible to turn troubled teens into thriving, healthy people when the school’s attitude shifts from ‘at risk’ to ‘not at risk’. The Meled model is a refreshing inspiration that can and should be adopted, both in religious and secular communities alike.