Charity Begins at School

Pupils at a democratic religious school for girls run a volunteer center that assists needy people, and a kindergarten for children with autism

Elkie answers the telephone. She is a slender girl with delicate features. Her chestnut hair is tied back and she wears a long skirt that almost covers her shoes. Next to her sit two of her friends, who are also talking on telephones. Their girlish faces, which seem not to have crossed the threshold of adolescence yet, grow serious as they look at the computer screen in front of them. Their young appearance is deceiving: These three girls, students in the ninth grade at Ulpanat Yeshurun in Petah Tikva, are able to send trucks loaded with furniture and crates of food from city to city with one tap on the computer keyboard. They are in charge of complicated logistics that could confound people much older than they are.

In a small room at this religious high school for girls, a telephone center for the voluntary charitable organization Koach Latet, which provides food and equipment to the needy, has been set up. This is the heart of the organization, which has dozens of branches around Israel (as well as two abroad), huge warehouses for storing the equipment and foodstuffs, four trucks, a team of drivers and scores of volunteers. Part of this complex system is operated by ninth- through 12th-graders who work in shifts. Some of them man the telephone line during school hours, and some of them do so after school until 11 P.M. All the work is done completely voluntarily.

Every day, about 50 calls come in from people who want to make donations. These are carefully noted and then the teenagers on duty decide on a timetable - the date and time when a truck will pick up the goods from the donor's home and travel to a warehouse. From the warehouses, welfare workers from the various cities take what is needed for the people under their auspices.

"This is not simple work," explains Elkie with a grave expression. "Everyone wants the truck to come to them right away. We organize the order of the visits by the trucks to the houses. The routes are worked out by the drivers."

No, she doesn't mind missing recess or making up class material she has missed because of her volunteer work. She sees no problem with it at all.

Helping the autistic

Apparently, the girls at the school no longer get too worked up by the "revolutionary" ideas of their principal, Rabbi Shai Piron. A few years ago, the charismatic Piron turned the rather typical, gray high school that he took charge of into a prestigious democratic school with a waiting list. At the time, it was one of the first schools in the religious sector to accept the philosophy of the Israel Democracy Institute. Today there are several religious schools that call themselves democratic and allow their students some degree of freedom of choice, among them high school-level yeshivas (religious schools for boys - Piron himself will be opening one next year, adjacent to the girls' school).

However, Ulpanat Yeshurun keeps right on innovating. In addition to the telephone center, this year, in coordination with Alut, the Israeli Society for Autistic Children, the volunteers are also running a kindergarten for children with autism. Next month, a clubhouse for children and youth with autism will open in the same premises in the afternoons.

At the school, which has a student body of 1,400 girls - many of them full of youthful enthusiasm - the great potential for volunteering was discovered some time ago. Indeed, volunteering has always been part of the curriculum there. But the aim of setting up mifalei hessed (charity projects), as they are called (until a more successful name is found for them) at the center of the high school, explains Piron, was to change patterns of thinking and lead to long-term commitment.

"When I hear the advertisements of all sorts of charitable organizations, I always think: Who are these organizations? They exist thanks to the schoolchildren who go from door to door for them," says Piron, "but usually the students do not get credit for their work and they do not feel any commitment to the cause for which they are soliciting donations." The thought, then, was "to set up something of our own, with a sense of belonging."

The connection with Alut, relates Piron, began by chance after he saw Itzik Weingarten's play "And Then We Hugged," about people with autism. When the decision was taken to set up a volunteer center at the school, he naturally thought that the girls could not help but be moved by the autistic children. "When an adolescent girl of 15, eaten by frustration, meets exceptional children, the way she relates to the world changes. She builds a new life experience."

The establishment of the volunteer enterprise is only one of the conclusions made following a long process of reformulating the definition of the school. As with every subject at Ulpanat Yeshurun, the democratic process involved lengthy discussions in the various "circles" at the school - the teachers, the parents and the students.

Thus, for example, as the result of such discussion, the old structure of the class was abolished and instead of the single homeroom teacher - or "educator," as he or she is called - each group of pupils is assisted by a system of "listeners": members of the school staff, ranging from the guidance counselor to the secretary, whose role is to listen to each student and guide her. Seventy such listeners received training in counseling students. Listening corners in various styles (from casual cushions on the floor to a rather bourgeois living room) were scattered through the building for the convenience of the students. The volunteer center was established as part of the crystallization of the perception of the school as an institution that serves the wider community.

"Concern with the freedom of the individual is liable to lead to exaggerated concentration, as we see it, on the individual. We came to the conclusion that this could lead to egotism," Piron explains. "Therefore, it was important to expose the girls to the whole matter of giving."

A life-saver

What is interesting is that this religious girls' institution chose not to serve the religious community specifically: Indeed, Koach Latet does not serve any defined community, and apart from one ultra-Orthodox boy, most of the autistic children in the kindergarten are not from religious families.

For the parents of the autistic children, the school's hospitality was a life-saver. The kindergarten that was established is unique, and is operated according to a treatment method that is relatively new in Israel - Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA), the analysis and modification of behavior. It is attended by nine 3-year-olds who have been diagnosed as autistic. This group began treatment by this method about a year ago in another Alut framework, Alutaf, at Assaf Harofeh Hospital in Tel Aviv. However, after they completed that program, which is for very young children, no suitable setting was found for them.

ABA is a structured method that must be followed conscientiously, outside kindergarten hours as well. By this method, the child is taught a certain action - for example, to ask for water when he wants to drink - and this is repeated again and again. In accordance with this sort of conditioning, a demand to drink is ignored if it is expressed nonverbally, by screaming or by pulling the adult in the direction of the fountain, as autistic children tend to do. The proponents of this method of treatment, who base themselves on research studies, claim that major progress starts after a year and a half of treatment (and, indeed, of the children who began the group at Assaf Harofeh, two have already been mainstreamed into regular settings and another will be mainstreamed next year). However, there are very few early-childhood settings for autistic children and they do not work by this method. Many children do not get a placement at all, but remain at home until the age of four. Establishing a new kindergarten was thus essential.

The volunteer initiatives at the school have no additional economic value at all, according to Piron. On the contrary: The school has given up the valuable space of its shelter, which could have been used for other needs, for the kindergarten, and has relinquished the room that hosts the telephone center. But the facts on the ground are impressive, they say at the school. Next year, hopes Piron (who says he has received a promise to this effect from the Education Ministry), a separate building will be built for the autistic children on school grounds.

One does not get a particularly heartening impression upon descending into the shelter, but inside, the workers have managed to give the kindergarten a surprisingly cheerful appearance. Now Piron is hoping that this model of a volunteer center within the school will be copied at other schools.

There is also another way of looking at the activity at Ulpanat Yeshurun. It seems as if the issue of democracy has lost something of its charm these days, when it is hard to market liberal ideas, and especially at a national religious school. The solution arrived at here, however, was a return to tradition, to charity, to the comforting sense of community. There is still an announcement hanging at the school about a meeting that was held several weeks ago at a school affiliated with the ultra-Orthodox Carlin institutions. When his pupils arrived there, relates Piron, it turned out that they were not allowed to meet with the ultra-Orthodox girls and the meeting held with the teachers was a failure.

Piron likes these human conjunctions. But he is a realist. The era of encounters with "the other" that were so popular in recent years is apparently over. "The truth is that we tried to meet with ultra-Orthodox schools, with Arab schools. It didn't really work," says Piron, just before the visit to the kindergarten for children with autism was over. "Here there is a new potential around which it is possible to get the girls enthusiastic, to pull them forward. Small children in the school are something vibrant and lively. They will not remain indifferent."