Walking with Greatness: Prof. Reuven Feuerstein, z"l

Arutz Sheva interviews Dr. Jerry and Shoshana Lafair, personal physician and longtime friends of the man who changed the world's definition of cognitive ability.

Rochel Sylvetsky

OpEds Rochel Sylvetsky
Rochel Sylvetsky
]Yonatan Zindel Flash 90

Professor Reuven Feuerstein – Israel Prize laureate and clinical, developmental, and cognitive psychologist world-renowned for his revolutionary theory of modifiable intelligence -  and his soft-spoken, gentle wife, Berta, once  joined us and our good friends, Jerry and Shoshana (Rosa) Lafair for an informal Independence Day picnic in the Jerusalem Forest.  

Berta (who passed away several years ago) and Shoshana had remained as close as sisters since their childhood together in Switzerland; Jerry, a noted pulmonologist at Hadassah, was Reuven's personal physician and friend, and often accompanied him on his trips abroad.

Prof. Feuerstein, his ubiquitous beret cocked jauntily on his head, promptly went off with all the children – looking for all the world like a fatherly Pied Piper of Hamelin – to explore the forest and search for fossils, a passion he had inherited from his mentor, Swiss developmental psychologist and philosopher Jean Piaget.

The youngsters returned happy as larks, unaware of the fact that it was "the Albert Einstein of Cognitive Psychology" – to quote Prof. Pnina Klein of Bar Ilan University – who had shared his extensive knowledge of flora and fauna, as well as fossils, with them.

"How much love he had for children, for every human being and for G-d's world", Shoshana Lafair recalled, as I spoke to the Lafair's about the great man who single-handedly and with dedicated determination changed the way the world defines intelligence and how it looks at children with special needs.

"Not only love", she continued, "but a talent, a genius, for establishing contact with others. You felt that you were the most important person in the world to him when he spoke to you."

Perhaps that explains the story Jerry told me. It was also told at the funeral, crowded with people from all walks of life who came to show gratitude to the 92-year-old revered, but down-to-earth, mover-of-mountains.

His children described the love of G-d, Torah and all of mankind with which their home was permeated. Figures ranging from the venerable Rabbi Chaim Druckman to Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat, senior IDF officers, academics and Welfare Dept heads  extolled the contributions of Feuerstein's revolutionary methods to the welfare of countless human beings - while describing his unaffected selflessness and caring.

"A mother had brought her autistic daughter for evaluation and the child ran back and forth obliviously, whirling around the room, then lifted her hands threateningly at him. Feuerstein, then 80 years old, pretended to be frightened and she laughed. She did it again and he hid under the table. So did she and did it again. She ran and he ran with her. You can lift your hands again, but first I want to give you a kiss, he said, and she let him peck her on the cheek. Now you can lift your hands again if you kiss me, he said, and she did. Then he ran with her and told her to kiss her mother this time. She did and her mother burst into tears. That was the first kiss she had ever been given by her child."

"Reuven gave an international workshop every year in Shoresh, near Jerusalem. People came from all over the world and trained to use mediated interventions to modify intelligence. Modify was his code word. He posited that we can modify, change, advance everyone and created the methodology for doing so."

"His groundbreaking theory was that a person's Intelligence was not a fixed attribute, not a one-time measured given  What if, he theorized, intelligence  can be taught and is in fact the ability to learn? The tool he created for what he therefore called Dynamic Assessment was the Learning Propensity Assessment Device (LAPD). It became a worldwide tool."

I knew about that, from my years as an educator and a short period during which, at his request, I helped organize the many facets of the Feuerstein Institute's work for him. At that center in Jerusalem, not only special needs children, but also the IDF had groups of soldiers  enhancing their cognitive skills so as to perform at top potential, I once observed an LAPD session with a child, a master class given  by Prof. Feuerstein himself and will never forget the happiness of that child, who for the first time knew the answers after  being taught through mediated learning.  It was a humbling experience.

Jerry continued: "Professor Feuerstein believed in modifiability and he acted on it in the centers opened in 80 different countries, including a youth village in Rwanda and a center for the Maori in New Zealand."

"No one  was left  outside, no one was unteachable", said Shoshana, a former early childhood educator, "and that is how groups of special needs youth were inducted into the IDF, Ethiopian immigrants whose cultural associations prevented their succeeding in IQ tests had their true abilities discovered – Reuven's theories of intervention (tivuch) allowed them to reach their real potential. His years as head of psychological services at Youth Aliyah in Europe after WWII gave him special empathy for immigrant children - although he contracted tuberculosis there and needed care all his life."

"Yet Reuven and Bertha, who had receptions held for them with thousands of  VIP's in places as far away as Brazil and Australia, had a simple, unadorned and warm home in Kiryat Moshe, Jerusalem. Friday nights would find many of these well-to-do figures joining the family for the Sabbath meal, which included Reuven's explanations of Jewish tradition and the torn off pieces of challah he passed around the table. He did not care about honor and material things, he cared about changing children's lives. Berta was his partner in that, as in everything else."

"He didn't give anyone an easy time, insisted that they do their best and more –  and they did." This included one of his grandsons, who was born with Down's Syndrome and spoke beautifully at the funeral.

Eldest son Rabbi Rafi Feuerstein, one of the heads of the Tzohar Rabbinic Organization and his father's close assistant, will continue the work of the Feuerstein Institute. He made a point of thanking the Lafair's for their friendship at the start of the words he said in his father's memory at the funeral.

"Reuven wanted to reach every child that needs help", said Shoshana, "and continuing that is his legacy."