Until a year and a half ago, Daniel was a completely normal teenage boy. He lived a pleasant and ordinary life with a loving family in France. But one day, as he was swimming in a pool, Daniel suffered cardiac arrest, and durign the minutes that passed until he was rescued, his brain was deprived of oxygen. He sunk into a deep coma, and after two weeks, the doctors declared there was no hope of his regaining consciousness.
Daniel did regain consciousness, but he could not speak or function at all. His family tried all kinds of treatments in institutes, but to no avail. A leading French expert on anoxia - the state in which organs and tissue are deprived of oxygen for some time - stated that Daniel's condition was irreversible.
The family had resigned itself to the child being in a vegetative state for the rest of his life, when they heard about the unique methods of treatment developed by an Israeli psychologist by the name of Reuven Feuerstein, of Jerusalem. A short while later, they arrived with Daniel at Feuerstein's International Center for the Enhancement of Learning Potential.
This institution, called the Feuerstein Center for short, was founded in 1992 in Jerusalem's Rehavia neighborhood. Located in the Variety Center, facing the Knesset building, the facility is entered via a cul de sac - ironic, considering that the professor's therapeutic method is based on the belief that every person can find a way out of his problems: The right method has only to be found.
The center has 150 psychologists, teachers, therapists and support staff. Some 60 patients live there for various stages of rehabilitative treatment; the center also offers outpatient services for people, both children and adults, with severe disabilities, who are brought in by their families for individual sessions, according to their needs.
As has happened with many other patients of the 88-year-old Feuerstein, his treatment worked wonders for Daniel. He began speaking again and today is able to take care of himself alone and prepare light meals; he is even taking a course at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.
At the Feuerstein Center, one sees many patients from both Israel and abroad - people with autism or Down syndrome, people who have suffered a stroke, or people who have been injured in a car accident, during army service or in a terrorist attack. Despite their grave handicaps, following intensive treatment with Feuerstein's methods, they have begun functioning again at one level or another; many have been able to go on and study in regular frameworks.
In his familiar beret and with his white beard, the Romanian-born Feuerstein, a professor of education at Bar-Ilan University, moves around between his patients, in their various activities, like a benevolent grandfather. Every patient gets attention and encouragement from him, and regards are passed on to their families. He inquires how Menny, who was wounded in the head during military action, is doing. He waits patiently until Anthony - a soldier who was injured in a road accident five years ago and arrived at the center unable to speak - manages to say "Happy holiday!" (We visited the facility before Pesach).
"That's fantastic," says Feuerstein. "There was a time when he had to use a board with letters to communicate. This is exceptional improvement." At the same time, he relates how a well-known person in Israel left the hospital without being able to speak, read or draw a straight line after suffering a stroke, and a year and a half later, after extensive sessions at the center, he has returned to work.
"Our method assumes that there is a need to invest [in the patient] - to find ways, to develop methods and plans that will help the person to change himself beyond what people thought he was capable of," Feuerstein explains. "The conventional method is very 'fixed' on the concept that a person is able to achieve only what heredity has made possible for him.
"I have developed a worldview that is so different from conventional psychology, that for decades I was frequently attacked. People called me a dreamer of dreams, an unjustified optimist, and assumed that the mind could not be changed and that it had no possibility to produce new neurons in place of those that had been destroyed," he says.
The system developed by Prof. Feuerstein has been subject to as much professional scrutiny as a treatment and education method can be: To date, hundreds of articles and some 80 books - not including those by Feuerstein himself and his associates - have been published in more than 10 languages about the method and the theory behind it.
Feuerstein completed his doctorate in developmental psychology in 1970 at the Sorbonne University in Paris. Since then, he has been awarded numerous international honors, as well as the Israel Prize for Social Sciences in 1992.
Feuerstein tells the story of a yeshiva student who suffered head injuries after a terror attack. His doctors predicted that if he survived, he would remain a "vegetable," but today he functions normally and is working in the field of computers. He proudly displays a book of poetry published by a boy with Down syndrome who was at the center, and points to a picture of a girl from Holland who had a severe case of the same syndrome, was operated on in Jerusalem and spent two years being treated at the center.
"Since then, she has completed high school and studied at university, plays five musical instruments and drives a car," says Feuerstein, adding that her brain damage did not prevent her even from parachuting free-fall. The same young woman also went on to learn his method, he adds, "and has begun teaching it in different parts of the world. When I gave a lecture in Prague, she lectured there too beside me. That was an experience for me."
The two doors to Feuerstein's modest and book-lined office are left open most of the time, in the event that his secretary wants him to sign a letter, a staff member wants to exchange a word with him, or children from the center want to bring him a gift.
Feuerstein suggests that we have coffee, and leads me to the cafeteria at the building's entrance. It is run by Laurent, a Frenchman who was wounded in the second intifada when a bolt pierced his head during a bomb blast.
"No one believed he could be rehabilitated," Feuerstein says. "He was in such serious condition that when his brother came to the hospital, from the United States, he was not allowed to see him. After the injury, he was almost incapable of walking or talking and his vision was impaired."
Today, Laurent is married, with a child.
Feuerstein: "For four years, we worked with him on language, on walking, on cognitive activity. We built him a framework that would serve as an intermediary step between what he is doing now and what he will do when he opens the gourmet restaurant he wants to have. At present he is working in the cafeteria four or five days a week. How is the coffee? Good, right?"
Feuerstein may be nearing 90, but only now is his body beginning to show serious signs of aging. He uses a walker, sometimes even a wheelchair, but that does not prevent him from being completely involved at the center. His mind is lucid, his energies are limitless and he is full of enthusiasm. Throughout the interview, he refers frequently to the lack of belief he encountered vis-a-vis his methods, over the years, from contemporaries in psychology, and the feeling of victory he has today.
"Conventional psychology did not consider it possible to take a boy with Down syndrome and to bring him to the kind of level we have been able to reach. The youngsters you see here arrived without being able to read or write - and today they are doing their bagrut [matriculation] exams," the professor notes.
"It was a very difficult struggle. I was one of the founders of the psychologists association in 1954. I am invited to lecture all over the world, but I haven't been asked even once to present the fruits of my labors in a talk to psychologists in Israel.
"Psychology tried to be an exact science and the psychologists worked hard and presented studies that justified the claim that genetics was the decisive factor in the development of human abilities. I was opposed to that and claimed that in order to make a person become static he has to be killed. This approach, which you still find in existence today, causes a great deal of damage. It suggests that an individual is not able to change - and as a result, those who believe that do nothing to make it possible for a person to change."
Feuerstein notes that scientific research has borne out many of his theories. "Once upon a time it was thought that something that died in the brain had no possibility of being renewed. Today science has proved that damage to parts of the brain is not the end of the story. The part of the brain that is not functioning may be able to operate neurons from the part that does, and to bring back functions that have been lost. In addition, new neurons are formed. It is possible to change the brain at any age, even in old age. It has been proven that the more functions you load onto the brain, the more you help to change and formulate it.
"Many years ago, I spoke about how the day would come when a person would be able on his own to choose the genes that control his life. There is quite a bit of evidence that we choose for ourselves from a pile of genes. The brain is formed by the spirit and this has tremendous significance. This raises the question of man's free choice. He can choose the structure of his thought and his personality."
Feuerstein's method involves use of different exercises, each of which is intended to act on one or another function that has been damaged. These could include the inability to concentrate or to focus visually, to join two letters together to make a syllable, to plan in advance, or to process data or think in abstract terms.
"With the exercises," he says, "the patient learns not to be impulsive, and is given the tools to solve problems and to improve his orientation in space. We don't teach content but rather ways of thinking, we create patterns of action and the ability to think logically - how to get things done."
Feuerstein's treatments are relevant not only for people with brain damage or other disabilities, but for anyone who has to adapt to new situations. This is why experts from his center have, for example, consulted with 220 large companies in France, including the electric corporation, the postal services, as well as auto manufacturers Peugeot and Renault, which have undergone many changes in recent years.
Pilots in the Israeli air force use exercises developed by Feuerstein, with the purpose of perfecting their performance.
"We are living in a period when previous knowledge cannot help us if we are not trained to absorb the new knowledge," he explains. "The method is not aimed merely toward a child with problems. It is good also for people in industry and people who must think."
In addition to the theory of cognitive modifiability, Feuerstein developed what is called the mediated learning experience, which emphasizes the role of an educator not merely as a means for conveying information or inculcating skills, but also as a mediator of reality.
According to this approach, a teacher must help create learning strategies that will encourage the pupil's thought processes, with the aim of modifying his impulses and shaping his concentration and understanding so that he can deal with complex problems.
Feuerstein: "If I want to teach the child about the Kiddush on Friday night, for example, as I am now teaching my grandson, I will recite the prayer slowly, in a certain way. I will look at the boy with my eyes and thus 'mediate' the knowledge for him. I'll also explain the significance of the text to him and stress that he is reciting the prayer like an adult."
Feuerstein's son, Rafi, 50, works by his side as deputy director of the center. An ordained Orthodox rabbi with degrees in psychology and philosophy, Rafi is one of the founders and leaders of the Tzohar organization of religious-Zionist rabbis, which aims to make their profession more sensitive and responsive to the needs of the public. After Rafi had a son born with Down syndrome, he joined his father's center on a full-time basis.
"Elhanan was treated at home with the system and today he is taking his bagrut exams," says Rafi Feuerstein; he and his wife, Tal, who also works at the center, have seven other children.
Filling up hotels
Feuerstein's method has been disseminated and applied in more than 40 countries worldwide, he notes: "It is in use in Latin America and in North America, we train people from Sweden, Norway and India, and are in a dialogue with the education ministry of Holland. The European Union sends some 50 people to study with us every year. At present we are training people in South Africa and representatives of the Brazilian education ministry have said that they want to introduce it in all their classes between 7th and 12th grades. They were suffering from large numbers of drop-outs and wanted them to remain in school. Forty people studied with us for four months and returned and trained 12,000 teachers under our guidance."
Rafi Feuerstein, who walks in and out while I am interviewing his father, adds: "Not a week passes without some delegation arriving here from some place. By our calculations, in 2009, we were responsible for some 7,000 nights at hotels in Jerusalem."
On the other hand, Israeli schools have not integrated the Feuerstein system into their curriculum on a regular or widespread basis. Feuerstein says, "Until the 1990s, we taught the system in 1,350 classes, including at special education schools. We have research in which we proved that not only the children but the teachers underwent a change. Today we would not get a teacher who would say that a pupil is not able to change. I would tell him that he is not able to teach and to mediate, and that it is he who has to go and study."
Why did they stop teaching the system in Israeli schools?
"They didn't stop completely, but it is not what it used to be. The diagnosis and the enrichment program are expensive. Both teachers and pupils have to be trained and this demands that the Education Ministry allocate teaching hours. Many children who require help do not get it today."
Isn't it frustrating that in Israel, of all places, the system is not accepted?
"It is mainly strange. This method can be important for every single child. We reach those who need it in particular, but it should have been adopted here as a flagship program." He adds gently: "I have no complaints to the blessed Lord. They say no prophet is accepted in his own town, but I work here."
In one of several professional articles Reuven and Rafi have written together, they express profound criticism of the local school system: "We have a vision of a report card with two columns. The first has a grade that reflects the pupil's level of knowledge, while the second contains the level of thought processes that the pupil has showed in the subject. We have a vision where there is less of an effort to diagnose which definition to attribute to the pupil and more of an effort to define the deficiency that explains his failures.
"Everyone who uses a computer and is not a professional knows how to deal with some of the basic problems with his computer. Does the teacher know how to handle the 'human aspect' of his pupil? The answer is no. Does the pupil learn in an organized fashion how to study and think? The answer is also no. There is a hidden, invisible assumption here, which has not been formulated with transparency and awareness, but it exists - otherwise we would not be able to explain the paradox.
"The education system does not genuinely believe in its ability to create a change in the pupil's intelligence. It is as if the teacher says: 'I have 35 pupils in the class and every one has his own intelligence quotient, I will teach one lesson but everyone will respond to it in a different way because every one of my pupils has a different cognitive processor. I do not have the power to change my pupils' intelligence. I can merely use what exists.' That is the assumption, but it is incorrect."
The Education Ministry spokesman said, in response to a question from Haaretz: "The special education branch is familiar with Prof. Feuerstein's programs and tools, and applies them in some special education frameworks. In the past year, there were a number of meetings between members of his organization and inspectors in special education. They discussed ways of cooperating and of fostering professional development of the teachers.
"Special education teachers are entitled to study at the various courses offered by the center and these courses are recognized for remuneration and as professional advancement under the New Horizon program. All the programs in special education include developing the pupils' thinking through a variety of methods and means including instrumental enrichment - a tool developed by Prof. Feuerstein."
A teacher at age 8
Feuerstein's first experience with learning difficulties began in his childhood. He was born into a Hasidic family in Botosani, Romania, in 1921, and at the age of 3, he knew how to read in Hebrew and Yiddish. When he was 8, he taught an 11-year-old boy who was dyslexic how to read. He studied psychology at the University of Bucharest and taught at a school for children whose parents had been taken by the Nazis. In 1944, after being active in the underground, he fled to Palestine and began developing his theories when he worked with children who had survived the Holocaust and came to this country with Youth Aliyah.
In 1948, the young Feuerstein contracted tuberculosis and was sent to Switzerland to recover. There he studied advanced courses in psychology at the University of Geneva with the psychoanalyst Carl Jung and with Jean Piaget, a leading figure in developmental and cognitive psychology. After his return to Israel in 1955, Feuerstein spent several years working with young Holocaust survivors, and decided to devote his life's work to them.
"I examined them with conventional tests and with the variables Piaget had formulated. All of these showed they were suffering from retardation. I understood that this was not compatible with what I believed - that the children had a chance to advance - and out of this need, I started to see the children raising their level. I began formulating a theory that dealt with the ability to undergo modification. I assumed that every person can be changed without a connection to whatever brought him to his present condition, his age - we received even 17-year-olds - or the severity of his condition. We thought it would be possible to overcome those obstacles and to fulfill the potential of the human being to change by special methods."
"I was lucky that I worked in Youth Aliyah, one of the most humane educational frameworks that exists in the world. The extent of the staff's humanity made it possible to take children who were defined as retarded and troubled, and to bring them to a stage where they could fit fully into the country. These are children who lost their parents and went through a terrible hell in the camps, who were wounded both physically and emotionally, did not have the chance to study - but nevertheless their achievements were no fewer than those of the children born here, and perhaps even higher. In Youth Aliyah, my worldview was accepted and I received help in realizing it, to do research and to use the new methods I had developed."
During his work, Feuerstein brought about the closure of 10 institutions for special education for children. "They hated me for that, but I saw the disaster involved in it. Peoples' lives are destroyed when they are kept in a homogenous environment. I started to fight, and by 1964 I arranged places for all the children in kibbutzim, I pulled them out by the ears and arranged frameworks known as mechinot [preparatory courses], with staff who are familiar with the children's disabilities, know what to work on and teach the child intensively for a year and then place him in a regular framework." Three of the four programs he established remain in existence to this day.
The need to save children motivated Feuerstein to take his activity to the developing world as well. "Three years ago, at the conclusion of a large conference in Paris, I got up and said: Look, everything I did in my life was done with the conviction that I have to save the children who survived the Holocaust. Today a holocaust is taking place in Africa. People are dying there like flies. And I am not merely talking about Rwanda and Darfur. They are dying of AIDS, malaria, starvation and a lack of knowledge about how to subsist. I said: Gentlemen, we must help Africa."
Thus, with the aid of the Joint Distribution Committee and the Yemin Orde youth village network, a village was set up in 2008 in Rwanda with the aim of providing living quarters and education for some 500 of the 1.2 million children who were orphaned as a result of the 1994 genocide. The educational program in the village is based on the Feuerstein method and the teaching staff were trained in Jerusalem. "Children of the murderers study there as well. It is a school that tries to bring peace and we teach, supervise and build a framework," he says.
Still going strong
Reuven Feuerstein does not stop initiating and planning. His next mission is to set up a large campus to treat people according to his method, and to teach it as well, alongside others: "The establishment of the campus - a place that will make it possible for people to come and learn, and to return and teach - is the next step. We wish to answer the needs of hundreds of people who wish to come and study with us, to spread the concept and our techniques to all those in need. In Africa alone there are currently five universities that wish to send people to study with us. There is a need today to set up an academy to train people who will teach how to work with the brain damaged, with autistic children, with people suffering from genetic disorders and those who have undergone severe traumas.
"One has to work with such people 30 hours a week, or it doesn't work. They come tired after their journeys and therefore it is important to provide them with a place to sleep, with all the necessary equipment, with a swimming pool, with a place for physiotherapy and everything that is needed. I also want to set up a framework for autistic children and children who have Down syndrome, with the assumption that everyone will gather together in the dining hall, both students and lecturers. I am interested in special children meeting regular children, regular adults, and reaching a stage where they have to adapt themselves to norms of behavior. That is one of my great dreams."
When will this happen?
"I would have liked it to happen yesterday. I hope we'll be able to set up the center in a year or two. I am not so young and I still want to have the privilege of seeing this happen. We are busy with it now. One can make a tremendous difference with a not too large investment. I assume we won't start to build but will take something that already exists. I pray to God that I will manage to see it.
"For 50 years I carried out a struggle in conditions that were not easy and I forwent many things. I studied music and painting and botany and biology, but I cut down my fields of interest so that today I suffer because of this. I used to go to concerts but I've stopped listening to music. I felt that the field I worked in was more important. I also stopped studying Gemara to the extent I had. I sacrificed something. I ask myself whether I fulfilled myself and others."
And what is your answer?
"I fulfilled myself through the fulfillment of others, out of an awareness of the concessions. That is why it is so important to me to see the campus established. Despite the proof, there are people who continue to hold the mistaken conception that this is how a person was born and this is how he will die. What decides whether a person will change or not, is the need. I had the need to see people changing. I had the privilege. It is a miracle as far as I'm concerned. I went through the Holocaust, the wars in Israel, I fell ill with TB, I went through very hard times. But I saw clear proof that a human being can change."
You are on the verge of 90 and still lucid and active. What is the secret?
"The need keeps me going. The need to fight still exists."