Not at Risk: Education as a Work of Heart tells the story of an alternative religious high in Jerusalem that has transformed the lives of hundreds of its students. Written by Meled founder, Dr. Menachem Gottesman, it discusses the school’s educational philosophy, daily schedule, and keys to success working with teens at risk.
Yehudit Singer: Is there a consistent root issue you’re seeing in troubled youth today? Or anything consistent or thematic that parents and educators can learn to understand them better?
Dr. Menachem Gottesman: It’s not about troubled youth, but any youth that may face troubles. Look at trouble not as an adjective but as a verb. The core issue of such youth is the feeling of loneliness. Both parents and educators need to make adolescents feel part of the whole, that they belong. My experience is that most kids want to learn, that learning is synonymous with life.
What do you think has made Meled so successful in transforming students’ lives?
Instead of the standard requirement of fitting into a particular educational framework, at Meled the student is in the center, while the entire school is there to serve his or her needs. With essential “nutrients intravenously fed” to each student, according to individual specifications, students can undergo a transformative experience. This approach is explained in Not at Risk.
In your book, you drew upon 3 main sources to create a healing educational environment for at-risk youth: A.S. Neill, Dr. Milton Erickson, and Rav Soloveitchik. What about those three do you feel have specific and unique application for modern day youth? What is unique to them or their philosophies’ convergence that educators and parents can apply today?
Today, more than ever, human beings are viewed holistically. Formal education can no longer restrict itself to developing the mind alone, along with physical education. Thus, we propose a universal model that integrates Neill’s focus on freedom to choose vis-à-vis what and when to learn, Erickson’s affirmation of youth’s freedom to change – at many levels – and Rav Soloveitchik’s commitment to adolescents’ freedom to grow spiritually, which can be fostered between students and their mentors, as well as between students themselves.
Your own son was expelled from school, which propelled you to establish your own high school for teens who had trouble staying in a mainstream framework. Do you have any “if I just would have known” advice you can share?
In most cases, youth will be okay, in spite – or despite – parents, teachers, preachers, etc. Many even have the capacity to be great, so why not let them know that you know it. It takes creativity and self-trust to look at the student with different lens. So many of the so-called problems are in the eyes of the beholder, not with the subjects at hand.
Relating to the above, what advice would you give parents dealing with kids who are “off the derech” or seem to be heading down that path?
Widen the “derech”… and hold their hand.
You’ve fostered lifelong mentorships with the Meled kids who are now adults. It sounds like you’ve achieved miracles. Why did you decide to write this book? What is your goal in publishing your story?
It’s not my story, but the students’. I wrote this book to tell how kids, many of whom were misunderstood and/or rejected by the system, could become so great. Hopefully, by reading this book, it can become the narrative of far many others, as well.
Dr. Menachem Gottestman founded the Merkaz L’Mida Dati (Meled) Learning Center High School in Jerusalem after an extensive career in academia, research in education, and clinical consultation in the US and Israel. He received a BA in Psychology from Yeshiva University, an MA in Education and PhD in Child Development and Family Relations from Syracuse University. Dr. Gottesman made Aliyah with his wife Leah and their three children in 1977. Not at Risk: Education as a Work of Heart is published by Menorah Books, a division of Koren Publishers. It is available online and at your local Jewish bookstore.