In the afternoon, there is nobody in the adult class of Kadima, the Haredi [ultra-Orthodox] school for special education in Netanya. One can learn about the nature of the curriculum of Haredi children with Down's syndrome from the display in the room: An exhibit of small buildings with straw roofs, displayed on a large table, is designed to illustrate a kosher sukka according to the tractate Sukka, which is studied in Talmud lessons.

The students in this class, aged 18-21, created the buildings from wooden sticks and straw. On the walls are summaries of the year written by the students. In childish, rounded letters, they write about what they enjoyed doing in the past year, and which teachers they liked. They weren't asked about next year. Even though some of the students have completed their studies, apparently their future in Haredi society, which is still deliberating the issue of integrating exceptional children into the community, remains unclear.

Last week the students, whose appearance suggest they come from both Hasidic and "Lithuanian" Haredi families, were observed planting in the yard, with great care and seriousness. David Feiler, their teacher, says they kept track during the year of various plants and recorded their rate of growth daily.

Moshe Weinberger, the director of Kadima, explains the idea of latent learning. It's not merely gardening, he says. Through their tasks, the students acquire basic math while internalizing work and study procedures.

In the pet corner, for example, in addition to the warmth one can give and get from the animals, the work is combined with recording and documentation activities, which are designed to improve reading and writing, as well as basic math exercises. Another lesson is how to take responsibility.

Recently a new greenhouse was dedicated. The spacious building, intolerably hot these days, was built with a large donation from a Dutch foundation. The Dutch ambassador showed up unexpectedly at the dedication ceremony two months ago, and the school, which is busy with its Sisyphean daily activities, enjoyed a moment in the spotlight.

The story of Kadima, which takes in children with what is defined as mild to moderate retardation - mainly children with Down's syndrome - testifies to a revolution in Haredi society concerning the exceptional child. During the past four years the school has been transformed from an institution that had steadily deteriorated until it was about to be closed into an "advanced center for development" according to its official definition. And the place, which today has 40 students, does seem to be trying to adapt itself to modern concepts of educating the exceptional child.

As often happens, Kadima was established by parents who were looking for a suitable framework for their child. In this case, the family was Haredi, and 16 years ago, there were no Haredi institutions for exceptional children. They established a boarding school, and their son is now its oldest student.

Previously, Haredi children were sent to non-Haredi institutions, where the parents had to get used to an atmosphere that didn't suit their lifestyle. Only in the late 1980s did the first Haredi institutions for exceptional children begin to appear. The most outstanding are the Siah Sod institutions for Down's syndrome children in Bnei Brak and Jerusalem, which do not use varied educational methods like Kadima.

At the same time, non-profit organizations [NPOs] for exceptional children were established. Two years ago, about 700 Haredi families left Yated, the representative organization for parents of Down's syndrome children and established their own Haredi NPO, called Yad Al Halev. Yisrael Neuman, its head, says there are more than 700 Down's Haredi children in Israel, but he has no current statistics.

The lack of statistics is no accident. For years, Haredi society kept exceptional children out of sight, for the primeval fear that they would spoil the chances of a shiddukh [a marriage match] for the other children in the family. A few years ago, journalist Dudi Silberschlag published an article on the subject in his newspaper Bakehila, in which he wrote, with the requisite caution, that the Haredi community can learn something from Western society about the attitude toward exceptional people.

Silberschlag, an activist in Haredi organizations for exceptional children, has contributed a great deal to providing information about the subject. He says the fear of spoiling a shiddukh has declined significantly in recent years with a reduction in ignorance. Nowadays Haredi young people go for genetic testing to the NPO Dor Yesharim before entering the marriage market, and the results are discreetly preserved in the NPO's data base. Before each shiddukh, the NPO checks whether the prospective couple are carriers of a hereditary disease. Down's syndrome is not hereditary, but still carries the same stigma.

Kadima director Weinberger believes its children should be returned to the community. One of the significant changes he has made in this direction was closing the dormitory. "Exceptional children don't have to suffer twice, and to be away from their families," he says. Now, at the end of the school day, a fleet of cars waits to bring the students back to their homes, from Bnei Brak to Hadera.

Working with Sarid

It wasn't like that at the beginning. He found the school at a low point, with no new students joining. But even when there were only seven children left, Weinberger didn't give up. He met with Yossi Sarid, then minister of education, and described his vision - a modern Haredi school for special education.

Weinberger, who has impeccable Haredi credentials, remembers with appreciation how Sarid supported him and intervened to prevent the closure of the school.

Weinberger set up a pet corner, which at first contained only two skinny goats, but it gradually expanded. Now it even includes a small stable with two horses, and the children have therapeutic riding lessons. Occasionally, religious kindergarteners and school children from Netanya come, tour the school and meet the Kadima children. About a week ago, the pupils had the experience of watching (in a supervised fashion, together with their teachers) the birth of two kids, from beginning to end. It's hard to imagine that in the regular Haredi education system.

Kadima's educational infrastructure was constructed gradually, with the help of professionals. About three years ago, Professor Shunit Reiter of Haifa University advised the Kadima staff on how to construct a program of study and work according to her model of "life education" (study aimed at having the children integrate into society).

Later the school worked with Hannah Avisar of Tel Aviv University, whose field of expertise in the education of exceptional children in development of communication through work in the pet corner.

Now Kadima employs 28 professional staff members, including psychologists, occupational and speech therapists, a specialist in therapeutic riding, et al - only some of them Haredim. Weinberger even contacted an adjacent yeshiva whose students serve as tutors for Kadima children. Recently the school had a visit from young yeshiva students who are studying for a degree in educational consulting at the Ahia institute in Bnei Brak. Weinberger says that Haredi institutions such as his are crying out for Haredi professionals, and he has no doubt that many institutions are eagerly awaiting these young yeshiva students.

In the meantime, he devotes time to locating and training a suitable staff. David Feiler, for example, joined during the past school year. Before that he worked in the regular Haredi school system, but it looks as though here, with the handicapped students, he is enjoying more freedom of activity and has a chance to express his musical and artistic talents.

Atypical case

As a member of the Lithuanian Haredi community, who was educated in prestigious Lithuanian yeshivas such as Kol Torah and Hebron, Weinberger, a 40-year-old father of nine, is not a typical product of his society. He completed his high school matriculation examinations, and studied for a degree in administration at Bar-Ilan University. Afterward, he established a textile firm, which did well but failed when the textile industry collapsed. When the company shut down and he sold his apartment to cover its debts, he came to Kadima. In the interim he even managed to serve as a manager of orchards in the Sharon region.

Clearly Weinberger appreciates hard work, including manual labor. He says that this is a heritage from his father, physicist Prof. Zvi Weinberger, who when he was president of Machon Lev did a great deal to promote professional training for yeshiva students. He solves the dissonance he experiences as a member of Haredi society, which values a life of Torah study more than a life of work, by expressing nostalgia for the yeshiva. He says his heart's desire is to return to study in a kollel [yeshiva for married men]. But for now he has work to do.

Hanging in Weinberger's office is a plan for a residential village for the retarded, which he plans to establish in the area of Kiryat Sanz [a Haredi community in the northern suburbs of Netanya], so that its residents will be part of the Haredi community. One of the subjects which concerns Haredi society today is the future of retarded adults. For example, the NPO Aleh, established by a Haredi group, which helps Haredi and secular children, had a cornerstone-laying ceremony a few weeks ago for a village in the Negev to provide housing for the retarded, including Haredim.

Does the distant location hint at an intention to keep them apart from society once again? An Aleh activist says there is no chance that a local authority in the center of the country would set aside a large expanse of land for such a village. The question is why not try to integrate them in small frameworks near their families.