Menachem Gottesman, PhD. and Leah Leslie Gottesman, MA, “Not At Risk: Education as a Work of Heart”, Menorah Books, 2018.
A Special School in Israel
I have spent my entire adult life, some 55 years, in the field of education both in Israel and here in the United States. and even though I am semi-retired, I still teach several classes a year. It is a profession that is never boring and a profession that has kept me young. I love to read about new ways of educating others and so when I heard about “Not at Risk”, I was anxious to read it. Basically, this is the story of Jerusalem’s Meled School and Dr. Menachem Gottesman’s alternative education environment in response to the problem of high school dropouts hanging out, if not living, on the streets. One of the things that I learned when I lived and worked in Israel is that Israeli students are not like Jewish American students who come from homes where education is a top priority. Working with adolescents is a demanding job and it often takes a village to get a job done the way it should be done. Not every student can sit through six academic classes a day and not all-educational pedagogy is for everyone. It often takes open-minded educators, therapists, parents, and professionals to work with adolescents and those who do will find this book to be a wonderful tool.
Jerusalem’s Mercaz L’Mida Dati Learning Center or Meled has been responsible for transforming lives of youths and restoring families for over twenty years. This is no doubt because the people who work here care deeply about their jobs and the people they work with. This is the story of a educational work that is not only groundbreaking but also so very important. We hear the story of this program from its founders as they share the amazing work they have done and continue to do. We learn of personal experiences of faculty members and parents and we read personal stories of former students. “Not At Risk” tells its story through the words of its founders, and details groundbreaking educational work, sharing not only experiences and insights of faculty members and parents, but heartwarming, and at times deeply painful, personal stories of former students.
Dr. Menachem Gottesman has had years of work child development and when he sat down to find a way to deal with at risk youth, he went to three main sources for help—- A.S. Neill’s philosophy of education, the therapeutic method developed by Dr. Milton H. Erickson, and the spiritual outlook of Rabbi Dr. Joseph B. Soloveitchik. I must say that these were quite a change from the educational philosophers that we studied when I was a graduate student in education. I think what is so important here, it that the education system seems to be constantly criticized yet without an alternative making that criticism almost useless. If you want to repair, there must be an alternative in place and not after the fact. Dr. Gottesman did his homework well and he was ready to implement a program after careful study. Meled has succeeded and it is a model for open-minded educators, professionals working with adolescents, and concerned parents.
In Hebrew Meled stands for Merkaz L’Mida Dati and it is the Alternative Religious High School, or Religious Learning Center in Jerusalem that was begun in September 1995 as a pilot project, and has since grown in reputation and effectiveness. Dr. Menachem Gottesman had been involved studying blind individuals and working on programming for them in the U.S. and Israel. He became interested in adolescents who did not seem to fit into not been able to fit into the formal structure of typical religious schools in Israel. Using the aforementioned three sources, Gottesman developed new educational principles for Meled. Reading here what students have to say, we see that this alternative school has been able to save children by helping them to turn their lives around.
Gottesman dealt with students who had been depressed, abused, without a sense of self-esteem and/or a lack of self-confidence, whose families had alienated them, that were uninterested in school or studies and who had experimented with alcohol and drugs.
Because he was willing to listen to what these students had to say, he was able to help control their educations and what they did on a daily basis. Dr. Gottesman was able to give them the emotional and academic support that these students needed. Those that graduated from Meled felt good about their lives and were optimistic about what the future holds. They were able to finish what was requited of them academically
Most graduates of “Meled” are described as optimistic about their futures, completing appropriate academic challenges, find their places and begin having families of their own. Of course what was going on with Meled as Dr. Gottesman got his program going was political but ultimately, the school received official recognition and financial support from the Israeli educational establishment.
In “Not at Risk”, we have testimonials from students, parents and staff members. Gottesman, himself, supplies anecdotes and additional stories and in these he describes what the children had to deal with and how their poor circumstances affected them.
The school’s rules are minimal. Students are not allowed to physically harm each other, drugs and alcohol are prohibited, as is theft. Otherwise, it is up to the students to behave. Students determine when they come to school a truism that Gottesman fondly and frequently invoked, and it is left to the student to determine when they will come to school, what subjects they will study, how many of the national matriculation exams they will prepare for, and in which extra‐curricular activities they wish to participate.
Both Gottesman and his wife are totally devoted to the student body and there have been times when they have taken students in as foster children to make sure that those who go to their school have a proper place to live. The school staff, including the secretaries are committed totally as well. Everyone is a resource. When it happens that students have to be committed outside institutions, or have problems with the justice system, Gottesman and members of the
Meled staff are there to support them even away from school. Students continue to maintain connections with their former principal, teachers, counselors, and tutors by inviting them to share in these occasions. Some who once were students at “Meled,” now work there and have become role models and inspirations for the members of the current student body.
Two of the unique aspects of Meled are smaller student load for teachers and doing away with homework and exams and replacing them with small group study sessions. This provides more time for l interactions (one‐on‐one discussions, tutoring, and soul‐searching). Openness is required and teachers are trained for that by going to hours of observations and acclimation.
Gottesman says emphatically that school is not only interested in instruction, but also in dispensing “therapy,” staff members are “therapists” in addition to being educators. This is a new concept in which the educational institution is conceptualized as existing in order to serve its student body and Gottesman has brought the theory into reality and we see how much work that this has taken.