Professor Reuven Feuerstein who died aged 92 in April 2014 was one of the great child psychologists of the world, a man who transformed lives and led severely brain-damaged children to achievements no one else thought possible. I knew him and admired him, and I was recording a tribute to him when his son told me a wonderful story.
Feuerstein had been working with a group of Native American Indians and they wanted to show their gratitude. So they invited him and his wife to their reservation. They were brought into the Indian chief’s wigwam where the leaders of the tribe were sitting in a circle in full headdress.
As the traditional welcome ceremony began, the professor, an orthodox Jew from Jerusalem, was overwhelmed by the incongruity. He turned to his wife and said to her in Yiddish, “What would my mother say if she could see me now?!” To his amazement, the Indian chief turned to him and replied in Yiddish: “And what would she say if she knew I understood what you just said!”
The Yiddish-speaking Indian chief told Feuerstein his story. He had grown up in Europe as a religious Jew, but having survived the horrors of the Holocaust, he decided that he wanted to spend the rest of his life as far away as he could from Western civilization, so he joined the Indians and became their doctor. Feuerstein was the first Jew he had met in his self-imposed exile.
There are certain people around whom strange things happen and Reuven Feuerstein was one. Born in Romania, he studied psychology in Bucharest, but was forced to flee by the Nazi invasion. He settled in Israel after the war, and began by treating traumatised child survivors of the holocaust. Returning to Europe he completed his education at Geneva and the Sorbonne. Later he returned to Israel where he established the Institute for the Enhancement of Learning Potential.
He dedicated his life to children with disadvantages, some physical – autistic, brain-damaged and Down Syndrome children – and others cultural or social. His methods have been adopted in more than 80 countries. He was a genius, a magician, a small, slight man with twinkling eyes. Children opened up to him like flowers in the sun.
I tell his story because he was a deeply spiritual Jew. His methods were elaborate and his theories complex, but seeing him at work you knew that there were three reasons he achieved miracles. First, the basis of his work was love. He loved the children and they loved him. Second, he had transformative faith. Under him children developed skills no one thought they could because he believed they could. He had more faith in them than anyone else.
Third, he refused to write anyone off. He insisted that children with disabilities should be included in society like every other child. They too were in the image of God. They too had a right to respect. They too could lead a full and meaningful life.
I learned from Professor Feuerstein that faith really does change lives. The one thing that can rescue us from despair and failure to fulfil our potential is the knowledge that someone believes in us more than we believe in ourselves.
That is what God does. He believes in us more than we believe in ourselves. However many times we fail, He forgives us. However many times we fall, He lifts us. And He never gives up. As we say in Le-David Hashem ori ve-yishi: “My father and mother might abandon me but God will gather me in.” (Psalm 27: 10).
At the heart of Judaism is one utterly transformative belief: our faith in God’s faith in us. That, as Reuven Feuerstein, showed can lead us to a greatness we never knew we had.