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Marc Salem

Learning differences are not always obvious.

But to children who have them – especially those attending yeshivas with a challenging dual curriculum – it quickly becomes obvious that something is not working for them. They need a different approach.

“These are normal, everyday kids,” said Steve Fox of Teaneck, a board member and volunteer for P’TACH, a nonprofit organization, created in 1976, that creates programs for those children. “But they may have something like ADD or dyslexia that prevents them from succeeding in a regular classroom.”

“We believe every child has a right to learn,” reads a statement on P’TACH’s website. “[Our] mission is to provide the best possible Jewish and secular education to children who have been disenfranchised because of learning differences.” Significantly, the group stresses that the students’ problems stem from “differences,” not “disabilities.”

Fox explained that the name P’TACH had been chosen because its letters stand for Parents for Torah for All Children. But it also works as a word, he said – the Hebrew word p’tach means “open.” He noted the phrase in the siddur, “P’tach libi b’torahtecha” – “Open my heart to your Torah.”

“It was the first organization to start Jewish special education for kids in a Jewish day school,” Mr. Fox said. He pointed out that Bergen County students are among those served by its programs.

To accomplish its goals, the organization has established special classes and resource centers in conjunction with yeshivas and Jewish day schools throughout the United States, Canada, and Israel. Through its model programs, affiliated programs, and chapters, it now serves thousands of children.

Among the four programs owned and operated by P’TACH itself are the Yeshiva University High School for Boys (MTA) and the YU High School for Girls (Central). Mr. Fox estimates that over the past several decades, hundreds of Bergen County students attending those schools have benefited from P’TACH programs.

Mr. Fox noted that one advantage of situating the program in a regular school is that P’TACH students who are strong in a particular subject can be mainstreamed for that subject, participating in a regular class. They can also join the rest of the school population in clubs and on sports teams.

“There are few places where kids with learning differences can go to get the proper attention,” he said. “Here the classes are smaller and the teachers are trained in special education.” The organization also has developed educational materials for teaching both English and Hebrew.

One Teaneck father, whose 17-year-old son attends a P’TACH program at MTA, said one benefit of the program is that his son’s classes are small.

“It’s helped him a lot. He performs better in small groups,” he said, noting that his son has a hard time with focus and concentration. “They’re doing a good job of helping him with that.”

Now in his third year of the program, his son also has made many friends.

“They stress that everyone is equal, and focus strongly on everyone getting along with one another,” the father said. “They emphasize that everyone has their own strengths, whether they’re in P’TACH or MTA or any other school. That’s very important.”

He noted also that his son is receiving “an excellent academic education. The teachers are very dedicated and very available. You can email or phone them at any time. There’s also a resource hour where my son goes to get help with homework.”

At the beginning of the semester, the family was notified that the 11th grader was ready to take the Regents examinations (those are the statewide tests high-school students take in New York).

“He took two regents and he passed,” said his father, adding that not only is his son doing well and getting good grades, but that his improvement has been continuous. When he is ready, he will be mainstreamed wherever possible.

“They give a child self-confidence, build self-esteem,” the father said. “When they do well, they really commend them and encourage them.” This, he said, carries through to life outside school as well, where his son has begun to forge new friendships.

Mr. Fox has been involved with P’TACH for some 30 years. Drawn in initially by a desire to help a family member, “I recruited my single friends and said we need to do something.” So they created a young leadership division, running singles events to raise funds for P’TACH.

He noted that one side effect of those events was bringing young Jewish people together. “There’s a couple in Bergenfield who met on one of our annual boat rides,” he said.

On November 15, P’TACH will hold a fundraiser at Teaneck’s Rinat Yisrael to help provide scholarships for local students. The mentalist Marc Salem, who recently moved from New York to New Milford “to be closer to my grandkids,” will be featured. (The performer noted, however, that he also has grandchildren in Israel.)

Mr. Fox said he knows Mr. Salem “from way back when. We reconnected and he immediately said yes. He knew about P’TACH and was strongly supportive.”

“I’m a giant fan of P’TACH,” Mr. Salem said. Not only does Mr. Salem perform, he also is an educator, author, lecturer, and consultant. “I’m a fan of most children’s kiruv and outreach movements,” he said; indeed, “children is where I donate my Jewish time.”

Raised in an Orthodox home, the son of an Orthodox rabbi, Mr. Salem – born Moshe Botwinick – has impressive credentials. With an advanced degree from New York University and a Ph.D. in developmental psychology at the University of Pennsylvania, he has taught at NYU and other universities.

Outside of academia, he was hired by the New York City Police Department to train officers on how to spot liars, helped train members of the secret service, and served for 10 years as a research consultant on Sesame Street and Rechov Sumsum.

In addition, he had his own Broadway show, “Mind Games,” and has written a book called “The Six Keys to Unlock and Empower Your Mind: Spot Liars & Cheats, Negotiate Any Deal to Your Advantage, Win at the Office, Influence Friends, & Much More.”

Mr. Salem has appeared on Oprah, The Morey Show, CNN, and in theaters throughout the world. His segment on 60 Minutes [http://vimeo.com/22261325] gave him international recognition.

He said he uses his training as a psychologist to help him “read people, pick up impressions.” Discounting the idea that he has any kind of “magical” ability, he joked that “If I have a sixth sense, it’s a sense of humor.”

He did note that at least part of his ability is genetic. “It’s 50 percent heredity,” he said. “My dad, a rabbi, could read people quickly.”

So with good genes and the ability to read what he called “micro-expressions,” Mr. Salem, who has been fascinated by body language since he was a child, did his graduate work with Ray Birdwhistell, the founder of the field of kinesics, or nonverbal communication.

He said that most people “look but don’t see. It’s a matter of observation, of listening, of using the senses we have to the fullest extent.”

He noted that while he occasionally gets things wrong, he’s had years of practice, and thousands of college students to practice on.

His Teaneck show, he said, “is not a lecture or a lesson. In a way, I’ll be the uncle and professor you wish you had.”

Mr. Salem said that while he has many strong spiritual beliefs, “I don’t mix religion with my stage show. It’s a family show,” he said, noting that while he reads people’s minds, “nobody is ever embarrassed.” Indeed, he added, he’s received the approval of various rabbinical groups.

He said that visual cues are very important in forming impressions. “During my shows, the house lights are all on. There’s no place to hide.” Still, although he is able to read thoughts, “I don’t pry.

“I’ll deal with people at that moment. I’m not interested in where they were born. There will be nothing that deals with past lives.”

Mr. Salem said most people can learn to do what he’s doing. At the show, he said, “I’ll demonstrate some things and how to do them. People will leave knowing things they didn’t know before. It will open your eyes. It’s fun. Just expect the unexpected.”

Information
Who: Marc Salem

What: Will bring his Broadway show Mind Games

Where: To Rinat Yisrael

When: On November 15 at 8 p.m.

Why: to benefit the P’TACH scholarship fund

Cost: $36 in advance, $50 at the door.

To order tickets: www.ptach.org