Bnei Brak, Israel – Aug. 4, 2016 - Slowly, Bnei Brak is changing. Old small buildings are disappearing and being replaced with new, bigger and better modern structures. Changes are not just physical, slowly differences are being felt in the way children learn in Bnei Brak and in Haredi communities across Israel.
Twenty-three years ago, Rav Avroham Gombo and Yitzhak Levin began Achiya with a few students in a maze of tiny rooms off a small alleyway in Bnei Brak. Today, towering above Ba'al Ha'Tanya Street is The Harry and Jeanette Weinberg Early Learning Center, headquarters of Achiya. Situated off the tiny street that even WAZE had trouble finding, and located next to neighborhood nursery schools, the four year old state-of-the-art building is home to an organization which has changed and continues to gradually change the lives of thousands of children and their families.
Achiya recognized a worrisome pattern: boys who fell behind in the early years of school were at risk of becoming alienated from their studies--losing their sense of belonging and even straying from their values and community. If learning challenges could be identified and treated with early intervention, the entire course of a child's life could be transformed. The need for early intervention programs for reading and other learning challenges has grown and developed over the years, to include occupational, language and speech therapies and more. Rav Yaakov Weingarten wants "students not just to read, but be able to learn independently."
Head social worker at Achiya, Sharon Moscoviz, believes in a "holistic approach" where each child's needs must be understood and treated individually. For the past five years, she has worked to meet those needs, which entails much more than learning to read, but also overcoming other learning challenges. Both parents are required to participate in helping their child. Fathers and mothers come in together, and families work together. The last ten years have brought great change. Besides providing the services of a social worker who handles each case, there is "no vacuum," with 14 different types of therapy currently being offered, including music, art, play and various emotional therapies. At present, Achiya serves thousands of students, but there is a waiting list. 250 trained professionals are employed, with 150 based in the Bnei Brak center. Achiya had 2,300 students in 2013 and 8,619 in 2015.
Wide corridors, bright and cheerful, with high ceilings, and huge windows located at the end of the floor which look out over Bnei Brak make for an inviting welcome. The second floor learning center is for boys, age 5-15. Twenty-three melamdim use 12 private tutoring rooms to teach reading after cheder hours, from 3-7:00 pm.
Information boards are placed on each floor, not only for notices of programs and information, but also featuring hand-written thank you notes.
A separate floor in the building provides services for children with disabilities. 40,000 treatments were provided by professionals. In the holistic approach, doctors, physical therapists, emotional therapists and others work together as a team. Dealing with the haredi population, therapists are trained to be sensitive to cultural considerations. For example, BJL learned that reading material that contains stories about dogs as pets is not appropriate in a haredi setting. A special day this week was planned for mothers of children with Down Syndrome.
Over 2000 melamdim have taken part in workshops and training to learn how to identify indicators of learning challenges from ADDHD to dyslexia and varied development delays. Advanced ADHD testing services are also provided.
On July 31, Achiya held a conference with over 360 melamdim participating. For many of the early childhood educators it was life changing, as seen by responses on their conference evaluation forms. Workshop bags given out at the conference included games and glue. The day was planned to present not only insights and knowledge, but also practical tools to enable them be better teachers. Rav Haim Moscoviz (no relation to the social worker) coordinator of the conference and melamed at Achiya for eight years, was extremely pleased with the success of the event. Rav Yehoshua Miller, Achiya reading specialist, demonstrated how a trained pedagogue can turn an incorrect answer into a learning experience for a young student.
Achiya's Teacher Training College, with emphasis in special education, had 12 students in its first year in rented space.. Now 6,000 graduates are servicing schools from Zefat in north to Ofakim in south. When a melamed recognizes a problem and brings it to the principal, who contacts the family, it can make a wondrous impact. Improvements go through the home and other siblings can be positively affected as well
Offerings of new "creative thinking" workshops by Achiya are getting boys to ask questions and improve their thinking abilities. It also has a ripple effect. Excited about what they experienced, the boys go home and show siblings. Plus, parents share these new learned activities in other groups, with other parents and schools.
The US Embassy ran a joint program with Achiya for melamdim to learn basic English and US history. The first year had 30 participants. It has grown with an additional program for advanced English for melamdim.
Trying to make everyone comfortable is not a simple task. The separate changing rooms to the hydrotherapy pool, which serves children and adults, have been designed to accommodate both mothers and fathers both bringing their children. Physical therapy treatments in the pool are for individuals and groups. Inclusion is important to the staff, and developing social skills is also a priority. The pool was busy with a woman's therapy session when BJL toured the facility. Tzivia Greenberg, director of resource development at Achiya for 11 years, provided a photo of the special treatment pool to include in photo essay. Greenberg is grateful for the generous donation from Baltimore's Harry and Jeanette Weinberg Foundation which enabled Achiya to build its home and headquarters.
The final stop on BJL tour was at another floor of of the building. It houses the shell of the first Bnei Brak children's library for community use. The goal is to stock it with 10,000 books. It is only waiting for funding. Good quality Yiddish books for children have been another Achiya project, as well as teaching Hebrew to children from Yiddish speaking families. Story hours and providing a data base for research studies are two of the many goals of the future library.
"There are many voices in the Haredi community speaking out on issues from the core curriculum to army service and workforce development, “CEO Levin told BJL. "Here at Achiya, we are working on one mission only: we want the Haredi community to have access to state-of-the-art therapeutic methods to help children overcome learning challenges. Our teachers' colleges throughout Israel provide Haredi educators with professional training so they can identify our children's needs for early intervention. We put a special focus on boys. We want all our children to achieve their full potential. When Achiya does its work, our children will be ready for the future, and whatever it brings."
Maran Harav HaGaon Yehudah Leib Shteinman, Maran Baal "Shevet HaLevi" (HaRav HaGaon Shmuel HaLevi Wosner), Maran HaRav HaGaon Chaim Kanievsky, the Admor of Modzitz (Harav HaGaon Chaim Shaul Taub), and Maran HaRav HaGaon Shimon Ba'adani are among Torah leaders who have visited Achiya, endorsing its mission to provide tools for success in classroom and success in life.
Photos of gedolim displayed in the building are included in photo essay, as are other scenes from BJL's exclusive tour of Achiya headquarters in Bnei Brak. There is another branch in Elad, perhaps for a visit on another day.