This Day in Jewish History

1921: A Man Who Could Fix Broken Brains Is Born

Reuven Feuerstein realized that the human touch could get through to even the most damaged of brains.

Reuven Feuerstein, garbed in black beret, blue shirt, dark blue sweater and dark blue blazer.
Emil Salman

August 21, 1921, is the birthdate of the late Reuven Feuerstein, the developmental psychologist from Jerusalem who shed light on the deepest mysteries of the human brain. Feuerstein created breakthrough methods to help people with brain defects and injuries, achieving results with cases other doctors had dismissed as “hopeless.”

With his kindly, white-bearded countenance, and his omnipresent beret, the Romanian-born Feuerstein was regarded as something of an angel by the thousands of patients and their families who were helped by him over the years. 

Reuven Feuerstein was born in the city of Botosani, and grew up as the fifth of nine siblings in a Hasidic family in the city’s Calechima slum. He could read both Hebrew and Yiddish by the age of 3. Later, he studied at a yeshiva in Kishinev.

For once, tuberculosis was a good thing

Feuerstein’s education and life were interrupted by the rise of the Nazi-aligned National Legionary regime, in 1940, with its racial laws, and later by the occupation of Romania by the Germans. He studied education at the Teachers College of Bucharest and then psychology at an institute sponsored by the city's Jewish community.

At the same time, in the years 1940-1944, he served as the administrator of a school for children with learning disabilities.

Finally, in 1944, Feuerstein fled Romania for Palestine. Once in Jerusalem, however, he earned his teacher’s certificate from what is today the David Yellin college. And in the years leading up to independence, he worked with child survivors of the Holocaust as they arrived in the country.

Feuerstein had the opportunity to pursue his doctorate when, in 1948, he contracted tuberculosis, and was sent to Switzerland for treatment. There, at the University of Geneva, he studied with the great educational psychologist Jean Piaget, as well as his partner Barbel Inhelder and psychologist Andre Rey.

During the first half of the 1950s, Feuerstein served as director of psychological services for Youth Aliyah in Europe, the division of the Jewish Agency that cared for and educated young people at risk both before their arrival in the country and during their first years here. Specifically, he worked with two groups of Jews who were preparing to make aliyah to the young state – survivors at transit camps in Poland, and immigrants from North Africa in similar camps in southern France.

It was during these early years that Feuerstein began to understand the importance of “mediation” in learning, that is, the involvement of another individual in helping the learner gain access to the material being learned.

In studies with Moroccan immigrant children, for example, he demonstrated how their performance on IQ tests could be significantly improved simply by having the questions administered by a live human being.

Not a village, it takes a person

Gradually, Feuerstein’s interest gravitated from focusing on culturally deprived individuals to working with people with organic problems, be it Down syndrome, autism, stroke or even brain injuries.

Feuerstein's genius lay in developing methods, labor-intensive ones it should be said, that yielded great improvements among individuals who sometimes seemed beyond repair. Sometimes, he claimed, the therapeutic work even led to structural changes in his subjects' brains.

Eventually, Feuerstein developed his own theories about how people learn, and his own diagnostic methods. He also undertook studies to test the effectiveness of his methods, and invited from outside others to do the same.

Over the years, thousands of studies have served to establish the validity of the work Feuerstein and his colleagues did at the International Center for Enhancement of Learning Potential, in Jerusalem. Therapists from many countries have come to learn his methods too.

Inevitably, perhaps, his admirably scientific approach yielded lots of jargon – concepts like "Structural Cognitive Modifiability" and equipment such as the "Learning Assessment Propensity Device" – that can make it difficult for laymen to understand Feuerstein’s achievements. The bottom line, however, is not only that, in Feuerstein's world, no one is beyond being helped, but also that the brain itself if far more elastic than once thought, if only one knows how to work with it.

Feuerstein was married to the former Berta Guggenheim, who died in 2006. They had four children, the oldest of whom, Rabbi Refael Feuerstein, succeeded Reuven as the head of the center.

Reuven Feuerstein died in Jerusalem on April 29, 2014, at the age of 92.