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by Amihai Zippor – Tel Aviv, Israel
(Lubavitch.com) In 1960, when Michael Zarchin was six years old, he had yet to learn to speak normally. He could not read, write, or understand basic math. Psychiatric and medical diagnoses ranged from challenged to autistic, yet his mother believed her son was grappling with something very different.
Desperate for answers, mother and son traveled to London in 1962, to meet a leading neurologist. A series of tests revealed that young Michael suffered from dyslexia, a learning disability known to hinder the connection between the input of information and how the brain receives the data.
Today, dyslexia accounts for 80 percent of learning disabilities among children. But when Zarchin, author ofHaShlichut She-M’ever L’Milim, in English, The Mission Behind Worlds: The story of a boy who beat dyslexia, was growing up, the condition had yet to be studied. To make matters worse, researchers were based largely in the US and England, and no remedial programs were available in Israel. For the young boy, elementary school presented numerous challenges, both academically and socially.
Michael’s big break came in sixth grade, when a tutor began working with him to provide a better learning framework. Although Michael was still unable to read or write, his tutor kept the boy’s deficiencies secret from the other students, on condition that he review the day’s lessons with her each afternoon.
“My secret lasted three years though on one occasion towards the end of eighth grade a substitute insisted I write on the board,” Zarchin recalled. “In an act of desperation I imitated her continuously until the class broke down laughing and she ran off crying. I regret the incident, but fears of revealing my condition overcame me,” he said referring to the loss of self-confidence and emotional stress he would have suffered if his secret became known.
Like Zarchin, children and adults who suffer from dyslexia feel a need to keep their disability a secret, compounding an already stressful situation, and hampering their chances at getting the necessary help.
In 1970 Zarchin traveled to Philadelphia after Dr G.N. Getman, known as the father of developmental optometry, invited him to participate in a study on solving the effects of dyslexia. Neither Getman nor his assistant Dr. Stanley Abelman could speak Hebrew, but Zarchin who had been tutored in English, was able to communicate with the two doctors.
After seven months of diligent work, at the age of 16, Zarchin experienced what for him was nothing short of a miracle: for the first time in his life he was able to read and write –and in English. Throughout his childhood, Zarchin had believed he was the only person suffering from his condition, which he perceived as a punishment from God. But Zarchin’s progress was so remarkable that Dr. Getman publicized the results as proof that dyslexia is not just manageable, but can be overcome.
“He said here’s a boy who came from Israel, his mother tongue is Hebrew and look what we did working with him. They changed my brain,” said Zarchin. Using his newfound inspiration he continued learning in Israel with a mentor, which solidified his academic foundation and gave him the confidence to seek employment and eventually go into business before starting his own clinic catering to children suffering from dyslexia.
Today, Zarchin spends most of his days at the Tel Aviv clinic, where he employs the very techniques that helped him overcome his limitations.
“The work I’m doing with people is based on the senses and not just the standard five. The goal is for the brain to get the right message and once it gets the right message the problems start to be resolved,” he explained citing his personal experience. “It’s not about teaching details but helping the brain get a new message and teaching it how to learn.”
Not everyone agrees with Zarchin. Dr. Gad Dour of Machon Achiyah, a center for treating learning disabilities in Bnei Brak, is wary of his clinic’s non-scientific methods.
“The minute you go down this path you immediately have many possibilities that need to be checked with great vigilance because intuitive treatment isn’t always successful,” he warned.
But Judith Schwartz, an Israeli representative for the international Davis Dyslexia Association said that self-image plays an important role in the dyslexic’s mind. As someone who suffered from and eventually overcame the challenges of living with dyslexia, Schwartz was adamant that much of the social problem is a matter of perception.
“Yes, if it’s a challenge reading, talking, or writing more than the rest of one’s peers you’re going to look at things in a very different light and feel differently, but once you’ve got the tools you can achieve the same efficiency and in most cases a trained psychologist is not necessary,” she said.
RETURN TO ROOTS
In the 1980s Zarchin, who descends from a long line of Chabad ancestors and traces his lineage back to Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi, the founder of Chabad, began returning to his religious roots. His father, the only Holocaust survivor among all his relatives, gave up the traditional observance of his youth. Still, Zarchin was mindful and proud of his heritage.
“When I was growing up, every erev Yom Kippur was a special time at home when my father displayed pictures of family. Among the photographs was a picture of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, and Israel’s third President, Zalman Shazar,” Zarchin said.
“I always looked at the picture thinking ‘that’s a great man.’ Later I became interested in philosophy and contacted the Rebbe after people I spoke with said he can answer questions others could not.”
Zarchin told the Rebbe his personal story adding questions about life and God. In his response to Zarchin, the Rebbe advised him to write a book about his difficulties with dyslexia.
“Aside from being a private man with a dislike for publicizing personal issues, I was in the business world and didn’t understand what the Rebbe wanted from me,” he said. “Two months later I get a call from the Rebbe’s secretary. He tells me the Rebbe wants to know if I started the book. I told him I didn’t see the point in writing it because dyslexia wasn’t my field.”
Shortly after the Rebbe passed away in 1994, a friend unfamiliar with his story approached Zarchin hoping he might find a way to help him with his son who suffered from dyslexia. Hesitant at first, Zarchin volunteered to work with the boy.
“When we began to meet I realized there are things I didn’t think I could do. Then I took a few more patients, and after a while I fell in love with it realizing I have a special gift I was keeping to myself,” he said.
“At that point the blessing of the Rebbe became meaningful to me and I started writing the book.”
Three years later, The Mission Behind Words was published in Hebrew. During that time Zarchin also trained as a psychologist and opened his clinic just outside of Tel Aviv. An English language version of the book is in the works.
Combining the approach of Dr. Getman, Dr. Abelman, and his own experiences as a dyslexic child, Zarchin’s method creates a process whereby vision, audition, and the cognitive ability to interpret signals reach their potential.
According to Zarchin, most of the literature on dyslexia offers no real solution, but only possibilities for dealing with the challenges, and often in a very limited way.
Zarchin adamantly disagrees with this approach, and believes that dyslexia “can be solved completely.”