Feature Stories

Changing Course: Teachers Impact At-Risk Haredi Teens

By the time she was 15, Sari had already cycled through several schools.

Each time, it was the same situation. Though Sari’s homeroom teacher never noticed the stress she endured from the constant change and the struggle to keep up with her studies, she’d quickly criticize Sari for not upholding the strict behavioral and dress standards of her ultra-Orthodox school.

The continued rejection, coupled with her personal troubles, threw Sari into a state of emotional distress.

Then Sari enrolled at Tlamim — a high school for ultra-Orthodox girls who have dropped out of the mainstream school system. There, for the first time, she found a principal and teachers who accepted her.

Thanks to the professional training the Tlamim staff received from JDC specialists in working with students at-risk, Sari’s new homeroom teacher Chani understood it was critical to restore Sari’s trust in adults. Chani succeeded in helping Sari to gradually open up.

“I was a bit panicked when I first met Sari, given her forthright manner and the stories I heard about her. But from the first day, I realized that tikkun olam in Sari’s case meant that I would have to work with her intensely to overcome her past,” Chani said. “I both accepted her for who she was, and prayed that her behavior would be forgiven.”

Chani was trained through JDC’s Elecha, a pilot program that began operating in 2011 in partnership with Israel’s Ministry of Education and Haredi teacher seminaries.

Elecha currently trains educators from Beit Shemesh, Betar Illit, Bnei Brak, Haifa, Jerusalem, and Modiin Ilit — all home to large Haredi populations.

Despite the Haredi educational institutions’ traditional reluctance to cope with more challenging students, a new openness is emerging. It’s a move that’s particularly critical considering the high dropout rates among Haredi youth, the prevalence of poverty in the Haredi community, and the connection between poverty and lack of education.

Elecha trains educators to recognize and treat students’ needs before they reach crisis level. The program also helps each participating school cultivate an expert to serve as a mentor and resource for other school staff in dealing with emotionally distressed students.

In 2012, the program trained 575 Haredi professionals and teachers-in-training, up from 465 in 2011. Graduates of the program worked with 1,090 students and 370 parents at ten schools this year.

Alongside the teacher training, the JDC intervention also introduced a poetry workshop for Sari and her classmates. For Sari, poetry became a way to come to terms with her loneliness and also to recognize that she can find the hope for a better future:

“The darker the night sky, the brighter the stars
I will discover stars in the skies of my life
There are times when a stream is full while still disappointing
I will discover the water when I sing my song.”

Today Sari is much more comfortable within her ultra-Orthodox community and more capable of working through her feelings and thoughts.

She says she already knows what she wants to be when she grows up — a teacher for “lost” girls in the ultra-Orthodox community, like the woman who helped her.

As for Chani, she said working with Sari and JDC changed her for the better.

“Today I can say that an adult’s actions and words can lead children to such unnecessary negative places,” she said. “After my experience with Sari and her friends and thanks to the accompaniment I received from JDC staff along the way, I am now a more attuned mother and teacher.”

The Elecha program is generously supported by The Maurice and Vivienne Wohl Charitable Foundation and UJA-Federation of New York.

Tags for this story: Haredi

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