Friday, July 17, 2009

Thursday Afternoon

Did you ever have something happen in the middle of the day (or week or whatever) where you thought, "This was so wonderful, nothing can match it or even top it?"

It often seems to me that bad/difficult/sad things come in twos or threes (or sometimes more), but good things seem to come as single events. I once asked a rabbinic colleague why that might be and he supposed that the bad things are an abberation and once they begin, we seem to be more attuned to additional ones. Haven't yet decided if I agree with him or not.....

Anyhow, I digress.

Thursday afternoon was just as rich and mind-bending as Thursday morning was.

After we left the Rabbanit, Steve, Neal and I went with a group from Congregation Olam Tikvah in Faifax, Virginia to visit Meled. Founded in 1997 by Dr. Menachem Gottesman, Meled is an Alternative Dati (Religious) High School for New Beginnings. Dr. Gottesman says, "Our students have dropped out or have been ejected from traditional educational settings due to a variety of reasons; some of our students have had difficulty in dealing with the academic rigors of high school while others have issues of substance abuse, anti-social behavior, have been abused or come from dysfunctional home settings." Meled students learn to "drop in" and, when they are ready, they learn to value learning for its own sake, not for the ability to pass the exit exams.

Menachem describes his school as a "cardiac care unit" - he and his staff teach the students that they are loved and valued and trusted. In turn, that helps the students learn to love and value and trust again. Until the hearts are mended, the kids aren't available for learning.

He talked about the difference between Meled and other high schools in Israel: at Meled, the program and curriculum are "child-centered:"

At Meled we convey acceptance, continuously, of youths who have experienced alienation at school and, possibly, at home. We provide choice: each student decides what he or she can realistically undertake to learn, under the guidance of the school's professional staff. We encourage being part without forcing the issue. We reward with love each student's showing up. We respect differences. We affirm Jewish values.

As Menachem spoke, my eyes filled with tears. As he shared his students' individual stories, I saw pictures in my mind's eye of kids I've known. From my earliest years as a social worker (where my caseload consisted of abused and neglected children), through my years as a teacher and then a director - there have been children I've worked with at each of those points, who hungered for acceptance and sometimes who had learned to push people away before they could be pushed away.

I've seen the pain in their eyes as we've tried to make these "square pegs" fit into our "round holes." In order to fit, they must "shave off" parts of who they are - and, in doing so, begin to doubt their worth. "If they really knew what I was like," the thinking goes, "they wouldn't like me."

Menachem Gottesman and his staff refuse to allow kids to be thrown away.


When Menachem heard where Steve and I were going next, he smiled. "Do you know Caryn?" one of us asked. "Do I know Caryn?" he repeated. "Of course I know Caryn - we work with some of the same kids!"

"Caryn" is Caryn Green. Eight years ago, Caryn started Crossroads. Crossroads works with English-speaking kids who are in trouble. Some are abused, some are runaways, some use drugs. Many are kids who were just not able to make the transition from the English-speaking communities they were born into and the Hebrew-speaking communities they found themselves in when their parents made aliyah. Almost all the Crossroads kids are from traditionally observant families.

Where did Caryn meet these kids? On the street, where they hang out. How does she get the to come to Crossroads? She doesn't "get them to come" - she offers help: a place to hang out, to listen to music, to eat, to talk to someone, to be. Because they've gotten to know her and trust her on the streets, they feel safe in asking for help.

Crossroads opens at 3 pm each day and stays open well into the night. Between 700 and 1000 kids pass through its doors each year. They take art classes and cooking classes-- or hip-hop, a new offering this summer. They work on resumes, and brush up their job skills. They learn how to fill out applications - for university, for the army. They hang out, in a place that feels safe to them.

With Caryn's help - and that of her staff of four and a half social workers - they learn to put the pieces of their lives back together, to find a safe place to live, to learn that while it's good to set their achievement bar high - it's even better to have options.

We had the privilege of visiting with a "graduate" of both Meled and Crossroads while we were visiting Caryn. He is a young man from a troubled family who has completed his army service and is ready to go to University. He's not quite sure where - but he has goals, skills he's learned along the way, and a keen sense of self-awareness. His biggest concern now? His younger brother, who's struggling with some of the same issues he struggled with. "I keep telling him I believe in him," my new friend said. We talked at length and I could assure him that the belief of an older sibling could be pivotal in helping a younger sib find his/her way.

Going through my mind, as I listened to Menachem and Caryn and my new friend was something that was written in my 9th grade yearbook (1968, Edgewood High School, Madison WI) by Molly McGuire - one of those very popular but incredibly nice people that you're sometimes lucky enough to meet.

Molly wrote: Our lives are shaped by those who love us and by those who refuse to love us. Molly - if you're out there - your thought has echoed in my mind many times in the last 41 years.

Caryn and Menachem exemplify "those who love" who "shape our lives."
A full day indeed.

Meled and Crossroads are two projects supported by the Mitzvah Heroes Fund.

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