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The Transformer

May 9, 2009 | by Rachel Ginsberg

Professor Reuven Feuerstein has changed the lives of thousands of disabled children around the world.

Reuven Feuerstein is the quintessential believer in the power of the human spirit. Just ask 16-year-old Alex, the English boy who had half his brain surgically removed and who experts said would, at best, attain the mental level of an idiot.

Alex Oliver is not Jewish, but for the past year he has lived in Jerusalem, at Professor Feuerstein's Center for Learning Potential, where his progress has defied his dismal diagnosis by the British medical community. Alex was born with a disorder of the blood vessels in his brain, leading to epileptic seizures. From infancy to age seven, Alex's fits were kept in check by daily doses of powerful drugs, yet he hadn't learned to speak. One day his brother accidentally took Alex's medication and lost the ability to talk. Alex's brother didn't say a word for five days, behaving much like a severely mentally handicapped child. At that point, Alex's mother, Helena, realized how Alex's medication had handicapped him, and understood that if she ever wanted him to have a shot at a normal life, he had to get off the medication.

Undaunted by pessimistic medical predictions, Mrs. Oliver collected a team of neurologists and a neurosurgeon to remove the damaged left half of Alex's brain; they hoped this would enable the right brain to begin functioning properly. The operation was a surgical success; when the drugs were halted, Alex even began to speak. But after years in a special school, Alex was still unable to read, write or do arithmetic.

Then Mrs. Oliver contacted Professor Feuerstein. Known as "the Transformer" to the parents of thousands of disabled children around the world whose lives he has changed, he gained notoriety in England a few years ago. At that time he became the unintended hero of a scandal involving former Cabinet Minister Lord Cecil Parkinson and his illegitimate handicapped daughter, Flora Keyes, for whom Feuerstein cared in Jerusalem.

Flora had developed a severe form of epilepsy as a baby. When she was four, brain surgery controlled her seizures but left her with severe learning difficulties and an IQ of 48. Psychiatrists in England wrote her off as incapable of integration with ordinary children and uneducable.

A British television documentary team filmed Flora's progress in Jerusalem. Over a period of three months, Feuerstein transformed Flora from a child who could not sit still for more than 30 seconds, who could not concentrate and would not listen, into a young girl who loved to study and was able to sit quietly and pay attention. Lord Parkinson, wanting to save face over the embarrassment of abandoning responsibility for the daughter he had never seen, made sure the film was never aired, successfully petitioning the High Court that the publicity would be detrimental to the girl.

The unwitting winner in the episode was Feuerstein. During the legal haggling, censorship rules required that the girl be identified as "Child Z," but Professor Feuerstein was mentioned as the girl's miracle worker in every newspaper article.

"Alex is starting to achieve what everyone said was impossible."

Mrs. Oliver followed the case and thought her son Alex might have a chance at a normal life with Professor Feuerstein's help. After Feuerstein administered a battery of tests to Alex at his Jerusalem institute, he determined that the boy could be taught to read and write.

In less than a year Alex has made spectacular progress, all the more surprising since the left brain -- the part Alex is missing -- is thought to be responsible for language acquisition.

"He is starting to achieve what everyone said was impossible," says the professor. "He can add four-digit numbers together, he can read by phonetically decoding words, and he can write beautifully."


Professor Feuerstein calls the system he has developed over the last 50 years "cognitive modifiability." He starts with tests designed to identify the source of the child's intellectual deficit. He then imposes a rigorous regime of cognitive exercises, which he believes gradually builds up some of those deficiencies. "I have a belief that people can be changed for the better," says Feuerstein. "I have a system for how to accomplish that. It's not miracles, just a lot of hard work."

Reuven Feuerstein, an Orthodox Jew who is readily identifiable by his trademark blue beret and flowing white beard, looks like a cross between a Biblical prophet and a 19th-century French artist. At his International Center for Enhancement of Learning Potential, Feuerstein is revered by the 150-member professional staff, which considers him the genius of transformation. He is referred to simply as "The Professor" both by the staff and children.

Reuven Feuerstein was born in Botosan, Rumania, in 1921. He escaped to Palestine in 1944 and began his life's work with children of the Holocaust, helping them overcome the traumas and handicaps they had acquired because of the Nazis. Since then he has evolved a series of systems for working with children who manifest a range of difficulties -- from being slow learners to having almost no response to those around them.

The Feuerstein Theory, technically called Structural Cognitive Modifiability and Mediated Learning Experience, and the Feuerstein Method, called Instrumental Enrichment, are founded on the premise that intelligence is not a fixed quality, determined at birth by one's genes. Rather, it is a variable that can be developed at every stage of life. "Human beings," insists Feuerstein, "have the characteristic of being able to modify themselves no matter how they start out. A person can overcome even inborn barriers and traumas."

Special children need more input than others, but Feuerstein has proven thousands of times that children classified as hopeless can reach surprising levels.

Special children need more input than others, but Feuerstein has proven thousands of times that children classified as hopeless can reach surprising levels.

Feuerstein doesn't believe in IQ tests, which he says indicate what the child has learned, not what he's capable of learning. To Feuerstein, the key is to discover the barriers to a child's learning so that they can be bypassed.

"Our methods are based on the idea that every person has a healthy part," he explains. "We are not looking for the pathological part, the weakness, but the strength. We believe in reshaping the person through accessing his healthy part. The Torah teaches that people can be changed to come closer to God, in whose image we are all made."

Feuerstein's success stories are inspiring. They include the drama teacher who was brought to him as a child with an IQ of 60, and the mentally limited girl who finished regular high school, was an editor of the yearbook and became a parachutist. Then there is Jason Kinsley, a young man with Down Syndrome who wrote the book Count Me In. And Roman Aldubi, the yeshiva student whose skull and brain were smashed in a terrorist ambush of a youth group. Despite the doctors' dire predictions that he'd remain a vegetable if he survived, Roman functions normally and works in computers,

Many of Professor Feuerstein's clients are Down Syndrome children, once routinely institutionalized for belief that they could not function normally in society. Feuerstein has proved the experts wrong. Many of his clients attend regular schools and reach a moderate level of self-sufficiency.

In addition, Feuerstein, with top Israeli and European plastic surgeons, has pioneered the use of surgery to improve the appearance of the Down Syndrome child.

Chaya Shore recently gave birth to her 13th child, a girl with Downs. When the baby was just weeks old, the professor evaluated her. "What can I expect from her?" Chaya asked. "Grandchildren," he answered.

"When a distraught couple comes to me after having a Down's baby, I can't give any limiting predictions," he says. "Neither I nor they have any idea how far their child may go. One thing I tell them is to start preparing a dowry. Today many of my students are able to get married."


Professor Feuerstein's first experience with the learning disabled came when he was eight. He learned to read at age two, and was reading his mother's Tzenah U'Renah (a book of Torah stories popular in Europe) by three. One day, the elderly father of the town troublemaker, a 15-year-old boy who never learned to read, approached young Reuven with a request. Perhaps he could teach the troublemaker, the man's only son, how to say Kaddish.

"To help the father die happily, I took on the challenge. I found the key to unlock the boy's intellect. Today he is 84, with a slew of grandchildren and great-grandchildren."

When the war came to Rumania, Feuerstein was studying psychology at the university in Bucharest and teaching in a school that was set up for children whose parents had been taken by the Nazis.

"Afterwards, I heard that the school director told others, 'Reuven has a good heart, but he's stupid. Why is he teaching these poor children to sing, to think and to express themselves? He should be teaching them how to use a hammer and nails. That's what they need to know!' "

Feuerstein was active in underground work. On Erev Purim in 1944, coming home from a clandestine meeting, a Rumanian secret policeman arrested him. On the way to the police station, the officer arrested four drunkards. Feuerstein convinced the officer to go with him to get something to eat before the imminent interrogation. Feuerstein brought the entourage to the home of Rabbi Yitzchok Friedman, the Bahusher Rebbe, zt'l.

When the rebbetzin opened the door and saw Reuven flanked by an armed officer and four drunks, she immediately grasped the situation, seated the group, and plied them with liquor until they were out cold. Reuven was soon out the door, supplied with hamantaschen, and several days later made his way to a ship sailing to Palestine.

Feuerstein remained close to the Bahusher Rebbe, who escaped Rumania and settled in Tel Aviv. In fact, it was the Rebbe who gave Feuerstein his blessing for success as he embarked on his career in Israel. "I felt the Rebbe's words indicated my chosen profession was not just a privilege, but a duty," says Feuerstein.

"If you have two alternatives, don't make the pessimistic choice. Always choose like an optimist."

Arriving in Israel, Feuerstein joined a religious kibbutz. He studied in a teacher's seminary and began working with Holocaust survivors. In 1948, with the outbreak of the War of Independence, he contracted tuberculosis and was sent to Switzerland to recuperate.

In Europe, Feuerstein studied advanced psychology under the world-famous behaviorists Carl Jung and Jean Piaget. He returned to Israel in 1955 with an advanced degree, a great deal of theoretical knowledge, and some novel ideas how best to help the disadvantaged youth of the young country. He established two pioneer youth villages, and in the past 40 years thousands of productive citizens have been educated there. In addition, hundreds of educators and psychologists from all over the world have done their training in these villages.

Feuerstein received his doctorate in developmental psychology at the Sorbonne, in Paris. Eight years ago he received the esteemed Israel Prize in Education, which he simply added to dozens of other international awards he has collected over the years.

Feuerstein says it is his outlook on life that has led to his achievements. "If you have two alternatives, don't make the pessimistic choice. Always choose like an optimist. At least that will bring you to action, to test the waters. If you take the pessimistic route, you'll never accomplish anything. Even if you don't think you'll reach the highest levels, you still have to try to climb up."

If you wish to contact Dr. Reuven Feuerstein about a particular case, the address is:

The Center for the Enhancement of Learning Potential
Rechov Narkiss 47
P.O.B. 7755
Jerusalem, Israel

This article originally appeared in Jewish Homemaker Magazine

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