Special-needs school in Israel has local involvement

Special-needs school in Israel has local involvement

During the January war in Gaza, residents of Englewood and Teaneck responded generously to a call for contributions toward a therapeutic retreat for some of Israel’s vulnerable southern families. What the donors might not have known was that the retreat’s host, Jerusalem’s Yeshivat Bnei Chayil, has Bergen and Passaic County residents among the students in its alternative high school for English-speakers.

Matara Alternative Residential Program began three years ago, when distraught parents who were unable to find a residential setting for their sons in the United States were referred to Bnei Chayil director Dr. Stuart Chesner by educational specialists at the Joint Distribution Committee of the Jewish Agency.

Alan Simanowitz works with a student. Photos courtesy of Yeshivat Bnei Chayil

Chesner founded and now directs the program; former North Jerseyite Alan Simanowitz is its educational director. Its six 14- to 18-year-old students receive the same individualized approach as in the 152-student parent school, which is now in its 16th year of providing an alternative education for Israeli boys in grades 7-12 with learning, behavioral, or emotional difficulties.

“Almost every one of the Matara boys has ADHD,” attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder, said Chesner, a clinical psychologist. “One has Asperger’s syndrome, another has clinical depression, and one has a history of alcohol abuse. Like our other students, they are at risk but have academic potential. In America, most of these kids would drop out of Jewish education and disappear.”

Simanowitz describes these boys as “square pegs who don’t fit into the round holes of traditional schools.”

Chesner said choices for such students in a Jewish framework are so limited that one student’s tuition is being paid by members of his hometown synagogue.

That the program is located far from home is a positive aspect, said former Teaneck resident Susan Wolf, the yeshiva’s director of development and one of 10 staff members of Matara.

“There is a big problem of stigma in America if a kid is in a special school, but if they leave for Israel there is no stigma attached to the school they are attending,” she said. “At home, these boys are known as losers or the black sheep of the family and this breaks them out of that pattern.”

“There is nothing like this in New Jersey,” added Simanowitz, who before immigrating to Israel three years ago was a learning disabilities specialist in private practice in Teaneck and also worked as an administrator and learning specialist for public school districts in Bergen County.

“I dreamed about doing a program like this in the States,” he said. “But one of the reasons it works here is that we have taken the kids out of the environment where they faced failure. Being in Israel is a plus because the whole land is our campus. We take the kids on trips and team-building activities throughout the country – we call it ‘Land of Israel therapy.'”

The program devotes half the day to Judaic studies and the other half to secular studies. Some of the boys are on an American college-prep track through the University of Missouri’s distance learning program. The others are studying toward the Israeli college entrance exams or the American graduate equivalency diploma.

All the boys board with families and receive individual and group counseling, music education, and martial arts training. A wilderness therapy program is soon to follow.

“We are also developing a new program for practical Jewish living, since a lot of these kids have what we call a ‘false self,’ an external appearance of being Orthodox or chasidic that is deceiving because although they’ve been in a Jewish environment they’ve been alienated and are unable to achieve in that environment,” said Chesner, a Yeshiva University and Case Western University graduate. “The idea is to coalesce the external and internal self so they feel more competent and connected.”

How much they want to take on is up to them, he added. “There is no religious coercion, but we don’t allow any anti-religious coercion either, which there often is among boys. They have to be respectful of the tradition whether or not they choose to adopt it.”

Simanowitz described the program’s founding student, who was not and is not religiously observant. “He had previously been in a residential treatment program for video-gaming addiction and depression,” said Simanowitz. “He spent the first few weeks lying in a corner of my office in a fetal position, refusing to go to classes. We gradually found an ‘island of competence’ where he was able to feel good about himself. He got his diploma last November with a B average in a challenging academic program. His mother told me, ‘You saved my son’s life.'”

Simanowitz said he has received inquiries about opening a similar program for girls.

“We have almost all the answers in education,” Chesner said. “It’s just a matter of money and resources.”

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