A new residential school, Meromim Israel, opens this month to serve a long-neglected segment of Jewish students: adolescent boys aged 13-17 on the autism spectrum. Under the direction of Netanel Goldstein, Meromim will combine individualized academic and therapeutic programs, recreation, and a nurturing residential environment to provide specialized therapy in an Israeli setting.
“High functioning” teens with autism have often fallen through the cracks in the day school system. Many face social and emotional difficulties which mainstream teachers find challenging to cope with, yet most will succeed (or even excel) at academic tasks. This makes most Jewish special needs programs unsuitable for them. As a result, many Orthodox children with autism end up in public schools or non-public, non-Jewish schools which specialize in maximizing the potential of the autistic student. Some of these children will thrive physically and intellectually in such settings, but flounder spiritually.
Originally from L.A., Meromim’s founders, Adam and Chani Rosenberg, sent one of their children to a secular residential program of this description in Utah. Upon their child’s return to Israel, the Rosenbergs dreamed of creating a non-profit, Jewish residential therapeutic center for teenagers with high-functioning autism. While their child is now too old for such a program, they knew many other families could benefit. They chose the name “Meromim,” alluding to “elevation.”
When the Rosenbergs sought an executive director who could help make this dream a reality, a friend connected them with Netanel Goldstein. A recent oleh, Goldstein has a BA in Psychology from YU and an MA in Adolescent Special Education from Hunter College. More importantly, he has extensive experience in special ed—at Camp HASC—and several years of teaching and school administration under his belt. He has worked in the past with autistic individuals across the spectrum.
Goldstein has seen abundant hashgachah pratis since his hire. “I have to say, from finding the right site, to finding staff members, it’s been a direct hand from Hashem.” That’s not to say there haven’t been bumps. “The greatest challenge has been bureaucratically, defining under whose auspices we fall under. Being that we are the first of its kind, we are paving the way both in terms of standards and bureaucratically.” Meromim is more than a school: it offers room and board, multiple types of therapy, job training, Shabbat observance, and more.
A program like Meromim is something for which Orthodox parents of kids with autism have yearned for a long time. “What has given me the most pleasure,” explains Goldstein, “has been hearing from families and therapists both in Israel and abroad how much this will help Jewish families around the world.” He acknowledges that sending a child away to school can be hard on the parents, not just the student, even when the school is a Jewish one. Yet, the school’s location in Moshav Luzit, just 20 minutes from Beit Shemesh, will connect students with the Land of Israel and allow them to receive specialized services without forgoing daily prayer, Shabbat observance, and the like. Running the program in Israel also makes it less expensive than secular residential programs in the U.S.
One of the significant challenges of students who have high-functioning autism is that they are often twice exceptional, having certain deficits, but also abundant talent and skills in other areas, even to the point of giftedness. Goldstein says, “Whether a student comes in with a specific skill or talent or not, our goal is to prepare the student and to give each student skill sets needed to succeed in the world. A recent article published on Wired UK discussed people with autism. In the article it mentioned how detail-oriented people with autism are.
“Our goal is to harness each student’s gift and use it for good, to show the student how much he can accomplish and all the options that are available to him.”
While planning and preparation began in the middle of last year, Meromim prepared to host students at the residence as of January 1st. Goldstein explains, “Our staff is in place, the rooms are furnished, the kitchen is available and ready to be used.” They are aiming to start with 10 students but will take students even before they meet that target.
The school offers both secular and Judaic studies, with a focus on project-based learning. Goldstein offers an example: “While the students learn math concepts, they will then use those concepts and apply it to designing and building a picnic table that sits at least three people comfortably. We will incorporate halachos of meals/bentching in that unit… Practicality leads to mastery and the students get attached to these learning experiences that will stay with them for the rest of their lives.” In addition to offering individual and group therapy, the school expects to include gardening, small animal care, equine-assisted therapy, and canine therapy.
I asked about a student who might want to attend college. “The students are not required to take the GED. [However,] our curriculum is aligned with the GED so when students return to their homes they will not have fallen behind in their secular studies requirements.”
When asked what part of his new job gives him the most pleasure, Goldstein says, “I personally enjoy broadening the world to individuals who see the world in a very concrete way. It’s like taking a blank water coloring book page and brushing water onto it to reveal the colors. The colors they begin to see; the improvements and jumps they make are incredible for them; the joy and nachas I get knowing I’m helping a student become more social or giving him the tools that he’ll use in the future to advocate for himself or solve a problem—there are no words to describe it. Additionally, it’s a tremendous feeling knowing that after a student finishes at Meromim, he can successfully reintegrate into his family, and the family—through our family therapy session—now will have the tools they need to live as one unit.”
This article originally appeared in The Jewish Home LA on January 23rd.