The recent opening of a local Lakewood branch of the Bernstein Institute for Reading Difficulties from Eretz Yisrael has aroused the interest of educators, parents and schools alike. With many reading programs already flourishing in this country, we asked the Lakewood Bernstein Institute’s founding director, Rabbi Heshy Weber, why he deemed it necessary to bring an overseas “import” to our town.
Rabbi Weber, can you begin by telling us about your interest in kriah?
As a primary Rebbi for many years and then as the present Menahel of Cheder Bais HaTorah in Lakewood, I was keenly aware that some children encounter significant difficulties when learning to read. While a large percentage of these children are helped by the existing kriah tutoring programs that function in most schools and communities, this isn’t always the case.
A child who is barely literate is challenged by school. Think how hard it must be to daven or to try to understand a passuk of Chumash when you struggle to read the words!
Is it surprising that these children lack self-esteem, feel worthless and don’t relate well to their peers? Struggling students often get mocked and bullied too. It has been shown that many of those with reading difficulties develop behavioral problems and/or flounder in school.
Sadly, some of these children will eventually fall through the cracks altogether, R”l.
What brought you to an awareness of the work of the Bernstein Institute?
I felt that I couldn’t sit back and do nothing! Intent upon broadening my knowledge of kriah difficulties, I took several courses on remedial reading, consulted professionals and researched numerous kriah programs. As a result I discovered the widely acclaimed Bernstein Institute in Eretz Yisrael.
The Institute was founded over 30 years ago by Rabbi Avrohom Bernstein, a veteran Rebbi who turned his focus to the wide spectrum of kriah problems and developed an innovative program to address them.
The Institute, which now has three branches, is currently directed by his son-in-law, Rabbi Efrayim Schwadron, and is known as “Yad Aryeh” in memory of Rabbi Bernstein’s son Aryeh who was tragically killed with his entire family, zichronam livrachah, in 2010.
What drew you to the work of the Institute?
For one thing, its success rate! Thousands of children, teenagers and adults with every type of reading disability have learned to read at the Institute. Incidentally, their numbers include some children and teens from chutz laAretz who have spent a few months there and have effectively mastered kriah.
Bachurim in American yeshivos in Eretz Yisrael have also used the Institute to address long-standing issues that have impeded their learning.
But the success of the Institute was not its only attraction. I was surprised to hear that its students discover that learning to read can be enjoyable.
That sounds like quite a feat. Can you expand upon this?
The Bernstein method is the product of years of research and experience. While it’s a computer-based program that uses cutting-edge technology, it works in unison with a specially trained tutor who individualizes and guides the program to meet the particular needs of the student.
Unlike most conventional tutoring, “children” of all ages find it fun! The student feels that he (or she) is doing a series of computer games; he’s practically unaware that the “games” are addressing his processing and comprehension weaknesses and actually teaching him to read.
Another bonus is that the Bernstein method yields visible results. A student sees that he’s making progress after only a few sessions. This provides a tremendous incentive to anyone who has tried to learn to read for years without making headway. Now that he sees that reading is within his reach, he’s eager to continue and within a few months he usually acquires reading fluency on his own.
What was involved in bringing the Bernstein Institute to Lakewood?
After visiting the Institute, speaking to many of its mechanchim and verifying the accuracy of their results, I was convinced of the need to bring this program to Lakewood.
So together with Rabbi Yossi Gubitz, a renowned kriah expert, I went to become trained in the unique methods employed by the Institute and then returned to Lakewood to establish our own branch.
Rabbi Schwadron has been very supportive from the outset; in fact, he had already entertained the possibility of bringing the Institute to the U.S. so that more people could benefit from it. Before we opened, he even came to Lakewood to ensure the authenticity of our work.
Can you describe to us what goes on at the Bernstein Institute in Lakewood?
Following the Bernstein model, we’re an independent institute that services anyone who has not learned to read in a conventional setting. There are separate hours for boys and girls and sessions take place at convenient hours and are run by our select team of men and women who have been trained by Rabbi Gubitz. Sessions take place during the day and after school hours.
Is there a common denominator that describes your students?
Although our students differ in age and aptitude, they share the same frustrations, goals and aspirations. They want to read like everyone else! Many of our students are referred to us by their schools and mesivtaos, but sometimes it’s the parents who make the first move.
Children can join the Institute as early as first grade. Our oldest student to date is 18; after a long odyssey of failure, he finally feels accomplished.
As reading struggles often continue into adulthood, we are confident that adults will also seek out the Institute once “Bernstein” becomes a familiar name in Lakewood.
Does the Bernstein method work for everyone?
Together with other tutors, I evaluate each potential student before he is accepted at the Institute. Not every applicant qualifies. If, for example a child is unable to read because he has visual issues, we will refer him elsewhere because his concerns are outside our range.
For the most part, however struggling readers across the board can be helped. Those who come to us have tried everything and see the Institute as their last stop. With siyatta diShmaya it is their last stop and the beginning of a flourishing future.
For more information, the Bernstein Center can be reached at 732-595-2887.