By Daniel Rose
I believe at the heart of all education can be found the values of compassion and love. While having these values alone is not enough to make one a master educator, or even a successful one, I believe that all good educators enter and remain in the field from reasons of love and compassion, and all too often unsuccessful educators seem to have forgotten to orientate their professions around these values, and fail to use them as their guiding principles.
Every now and again you come across an educator with the soul of an angel who reminds you of these truths. Of why you became an educator, that education is the most dignified and holy of professions and that it is a privilege to be able to call yourself an educator. Menachem Gottesman is one such person, and the tale he tells in Not At Risk, the story of the creation of the Meled school and the impact it has had on numerous lives, is enough to clear the mist in the brain caused by grading and report cards and the day to day grind of the profession, and remind us of the love of teaching and of students that we had when we first started.
Gottesman, who made Aliyah in 1977 from the US, founded Meled (Mercaz L’Mida Dati) in 1995, as an alternative religious high school for students who struggled to fit into the mainstream religious school system. He was inspired by his own parenting challenge when his own son was kicked out of his yeshiva high school at the age of fifteen, and the realization that while the non-religious school system in Israel offered alternative programs for students who were not thriving in the mainstream system, there was no equivalent for students from religious homes, and many were dropping out of the system entirely.
Not At Risk tells the story of Meled from its genesis as an idea in the mind of its creative and passionate founder, until his retirement in 2012, leaving behind a vibrant and successful school built on love and acceptance, with a multitude of “live-saving” stories from graduates now living full and accomplished adult lives. Many of these stories form the core of the narrative of the book, each one more inspiring and heart-warming than the next.
The book opens with a brief presentation of the three educational thinkers that influenced Dr. Gottesman and his approach to youth and education. The British educational thinker A.S. Neill, whose philosophy of education places freedom and choice as central to the educational process, led to the creation of the world renowned English boarding school Summerhill.
The research and method of therapeutic communication developed by the psychiatrist and psychoanalyst Dr. Milton H. Erickson provided three core principles that helped create Meled’s healing environment: to respect and value the client’s beliefs, to trust in the capacity to change, and to protect the integrity of the client. Finally Dr. Gottesman describes how the spiritual outlook of Rabbi Dr. Joseph B. Soloveitchik contributed vastly to his understanding of humanity.
Summarizing the need for the existence of Meled, Gottesman says that “the common symptom presented by students in need of Meled is what I have come to understand as a wounded heart” and this has informed every element of the school he created. From the accepting atmosphere of the intake interview (where the prospective student upon hearing of their immediate and unconditional acceptance to the school, realizes that the aim is for them to interview the school and it’s director rather than the other way around) to the ultra-autonomy given to the students, allowing them to decide for themselves if and when they attend classes, and which classes they wish to sign up for, the focus of this school is fitting the school to the student’s needs rather than the other way around.
The cornerstone of the school’s healing environment is the interpersonal relationship between the staff and students, and uniquely the barriers and distance between staff and students are smaller than mainstream educational institutions (for example, the teacher’s room famously looks more like a student common room than a refuge for the staff). Every member of the staff plays a critical role in creating a supportive, loving, and non-judgmental environment, with the adolescent at the center. This includes not just the faculty, but the administrative and secretarial staff also. Often, the closest relationships developed are with the young women who are performing their National Service at the school.
The best way to understand the special nature of this school and its founding head , is to hear the stories of the students in their own words. The book is peppered with narratives from students, past and present, and makes the most inspiring of reading. I have shared just two excerpts here from students describing the long term impact Meled has had on their lives.
I got to Meled after having attended an ultra-Orthodox boarding school. Having had enough of the harsh life there, a life where people were always trying to find what was wrong with the students and what they could criticize, I decided to get up and go… Meled led me to change dramatically. As I mentioned, I came to Meled with no self-confidence and very confused for many reasons. Because Meled’s attitude is to say first, ‘You are under no obligation to study.
When you want to, you will do it,’ and also, as Menachem says, “The ball is in your court,” I slowly opened up. I began to respond to the counselor who helped me emotionally, and to the teachers who helped me academically. National Service volunteers gave me private tutoring in order to help me close academic gaps. I changed. Slowly, I decided to appreciate myself, to not be so afraid, and to understand that everything is possible. The possibility of being myself was there…
To me, Meled is family, a second home. Meled made me who I am today. I came to Meled after two years during which I had not really been studying. At the time, I would only go to school every once in a while, because I wasn’t able to get along in that framework. It was difficult for me to learn, mostly because of my learning disabilities and difficulties in getting along with the teachers, and even with the students sometimes…
Always, from my very first moment at Meled, I was accepted for who I am and how I am. They related to me as if I were the important one… From the moment I started at Meled, I saw that it was like a family – students sat in the secretary’s office talking with her about their philosophies of life, or they sat with the teachers and laughed with them. Most importantly, they sat with Menachem and talked freely with him about everything, and he and everyone there would listen to you and you’d see and feel that they were really listening.
Not At Risk: Education as a Work of Heart is a must read for all reflective educators who want to be inspired by their profession again, as well as for parents who are searching for some perspective in their most challenging and meaningful mission. This book will appeal not just to those educators who find themselves in non-mainstream education with youth at risk, and not just to parents who are struggling to find an environment and framework for their children in which to thrive.
The lessons and inspiration found on the pages here are universally applicable, because the values of love, compassion, and respect for children should be the basis of all education. Menachem Gottesman saw the Tzelem Elokim (Image of God) in each of his students, and fiercely protected their dignity and self-worth in every element of his educational approach and vision. This is a message each and every one of us needs to take with us into our lives every day.