An ounce of prevention
by Jonathan Rosenblum
July 7, 2004
Long-time readers of this column know that I have a great weakness for meshugoyim l’davar echad: the Sarah Schenirers of our generation who set out to right whatever is wrong and to fix whatever needs fixing. Their vision of what must be done gives them no rest.
Such "meshugoyim" do not wait to make sure all the funding is in place; they plunge in. They are perfectly capable of taking the money laboriously accumulated over decades for their children’s simchas to self-finance their projects. Mike Tress, the legendary builder of the Agudah movement in the United States was one such person. He drew on his own savings, sold his stock portfolio, took out mortgage after mortgage on his home to ensure that the vital wartime rescue work of Zeirei Agudath Israel went ahead. When Jewish lives were at stake, there were no chesbonos (calculations). Whatever he had he gave.
I have a weakness as well for good ideas, for models that have been proven to work in one place and that can be duplicated elsewhere. Bais Yaakov and Hatzola are but two examples.
A few years ago, I met a meshuganeh l’davar echad who has produced just such a model in my very own Har Nof neighborhood. Rabbi Yaakov Rushnevsky, a veteran mechanech (educator), has devoted himself to addressing the sense of failure experienced by far too many of our children in school. In a society that places such a heavy emphasis on intellectual prowess and academic success, failure in school almost inevitably leads to low self-esteem in all areas of life.
And in a society in which long-term Torah learning is the norm, a young boy who finds himself struggling to keep up with his classmates is likely to feel that he is trapped in a life in which he is doomed to failure. And he may come to resent the society that he views as having consigned him to the also-ran category.
It has been said that all unhappy people and families are unhappy in their own way. But, in fact, there are clear patterns of unhappiness and dysfunction. Failure in school is the best single predictor of eventually dropping out all together from chareidi society. Each of those drop-outs represents a tragedy not only for himself but for his entire family. And when the number of such drop-outs reaches a critical mass, as they have in many communities, they become a rapidly spreading cancer. The drop-outs find one another, and attract others into their orbit. The most important thing the street offers is balm for battered egos and a sense of being accepted that too many youngsters do not find at home or in school.
The reasons for failure in school are also many, but again they tend to break down into certain recurring patterns. Learning disabilities – e.g., difficulty reading, attention problems, hyperactivity – are the most frequently found factor. A traumatic family situation – e.g., severe economic pressure, death or illness of a parent or sibling, divorce – is another frequent factor. Some children are shy and just get lost in large classes of up to forty students.
No family is immune from many of these problems, such as learning disabilities or illness, or their consequences. Sometimes the very success of other siblings in school can put unbearable stress on a perfectly normal child, who nevertheless feels himself unable to live up to the standards of his particular family.
As he contemplated the teenage drop-out phenomena, Rabbi Rushnevsky wondered if there was not some way to nip the problem in the bud. The teenage years are, in the best of circumstances, ones of emotional turmoil. Those who have been suffering for years in school are the most vulnerable. In addition, the pressures of more intense Talmudic learning can break many boys who have until then been barely holding on.
Even though many drop-outs eventually return to chareidi society, the investment, both familial and communal, is usually immense. Nor are the lost years easily recouped or the scars of their experiences healed.
Far better to start working with kids at a much earlier age, before their sense of failure becomes engrained, Rabbi Rushnevsky reasoned. To that end, he started a program called Chevrutah in Har Nof and two other nearby chareidi neighborhoods in Jerusalem. The core of the program is to provide boys experiencing difficulties in school with an avreich as a private tutor three times a week.
The focus of the Chevrutah is repairing the boy’s broken self-esteem based on concrete achievement. The individual tutors begin by focusing on one particular subject area so that the student experiences the sense of achievement that goes with command of the material. The individualized attention and warmth of the tutor is often all that is needed by boys who have difficulty learning in a large group setting or who simply have fallen between the cracks in large classrooms.
Each of the avreich/tutors is trained by Rabbi Rushnevsky in how to win over his young charge with warmth and constant encouragement. Nor are the tutors left to their own devices once they begin teaching. Each tutor meets with a supervisor at least once every two weeks to discuss the talmid’s progress and ways of dealing with any difficulties that have arisen in the tutorials.
Those supervisors (one for every thirty students) are also in constant contact with the student’s cheder rebbe. The purpose of those discussions with the rebbes is not just tracking the talmid’s progress in the classroom, but, even more importantly, to allow the supervisor to sensitize the rebbe to the needs of the students. Without that ongoing contact with rebbes, too frequently a whole month’s progress in the private tutorials can be erased by a harsh or sarcastic remark from the rebbe. Because the supervisors are, in most cases, themselves veteran mechanchim, they know how to talk to the rebbes, and are less threatening to the rebbes than parents, and, as a consequence, much more effective getting through the message of positive reinforcement.
Chevrutah has also opened up an afternoon kollel for cheder rebbes, where they both receive pedagogical training in how to deal with problems of classroom management, such as how to teach boys of differing abilities and strengths in one classroom setting. In addition, the rebbes have time to prepare their teaching materials and to discuss their presentation with other experienced rebbes.
Rabbi Rushnevsky has also assembled a group of top-flight educational psychologists who serve as consultants to the organization. When students need psychological or educational evaluations, Chevrutah consults with its team of psychologists, and, where the parents cannot afford evaluations, Chevrutah subsidizes them itself.
Chevrutah also conducts monthly parenting workshops focusing on methods of developing a child’s confidence and sense of self-worth. Communication skills, discipline, displaying affection, and earning respect are just a few of the topics covered.
By involving tutors, parents, and rebbes in the process together, Chevrutah has created, according to Dr. Mayer Fialkoff of the Ministry of Education, a model without parallel anywhere in Israel, and capable of serving as a prototype for other communities in Israel and around the world.
Recently the chareidi communities in the Negev towns of Netivot and Ofakim, invited Rabbi Rushnevsky to give a series of lectures to describe Chevrutah. At the end of the lectures, the leaders in both communities begged him to set up a branch of Chevrutah and to train the staff. All that is needed now is to find the money.
Saving children who are floundering in school costs money. But each of those children saved represents an entire world; each of them could be our own child. Asked how much should be invested in a child failing in school, HaRav HaGaon Rabbi Chaim Kanievsky answered that in some cases the family should even lessen its food budget to provide tutoring: "From hunger, even if the situation is bad, the talmid will not die, chas ve’Shalom. But for those talmidim in danger of dropping out, strengthening them is a issue of pikuach nefesh mamash."
And as always, an ounce of prevention is a good deal cheaper, both emotionally and monetarily, than a pound of cure.
Related Topics: Israeli Society
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