How a New York rabbi made his dyslexia work for him
By Ilan Preskovsky
Rabbi Shaul Shimon Deutsch is a highly respected rabbi, author, and curator of the acclaimed Living Torah Museum in Brooklyn, New York (see the story “Bringing the Torah Alive” in our last issue), but it wasn’t an easy journey to become the man that he is today. His childhood years, in particular, were beset with an undiagnosed learning disorder that frustrated young Shaul Shimon to no end – a frustration that was only exacerbated by teachers who didn’t know what to do with him and instead branded his ceaseless questioning as disruptive, rather than what it truly was: a cry for help.
The learning disorder was, as it turns out, a fairly routine case of dyslexia that could easily have been treated if he was born just a few decades later. In the years since Rabbi Deutsch’s childhood in the ‘70s, dyslexia has been identified as perhaps the most common learning disorder, affecting a good 5-20% of children and adults in the United States alone. It’s also been estimated that some 80% of those with reading difficulties are dyslexic. It has also proven to be highly manageable, as those with dyslexia now commonly do fantastically well in both school and life.
Dyslexia, very simply, is a brain disorder that causes a disconnect between hearing speech sounds and their related letters and words. As such, those with dyslexia may, among other language-related issues, have trouble spelling, delineating between similar words, or finding the right words in answer to a question. Reading, in particular, can be especially frustrating for those with dyslexia, which, in turn, can capsize their academic careers before they even get off the ground.
This is crucial to understand: dyslexia may be the cause of language-processing issues in both children and adults, but it has no relation whatsoever to the overall intelligence and capabilities of an individual with the disorder. Indeed, though it’s something of a myth that those with dyslexia are automatically more intelligent than those without it, the challenges that come with overcoming the specific learning difficulties associated with dyslexia often force students to both work harder than their contemporaries and to more fully develop in non-language-related areas.
Dyslexia may not magically make someone smarter – indeed, dyslexia can be particularly debilitating for those with a below-average IQ – but there’s a reason why there are so many brilliant and successful mathematicians, scientists, artists, musicians, and businessmen who are dyslexic. Both with and without the aid of speech-to-text technology, it’s even possible to be a great writer with dyslexia!
All of this, though, is highly dependent on dyslexia being properly diagnosed and treated. Being an undiagnosed dyslexic can cause a snowball effect of extremely low self-esteem, vastly misunderstood academic abilities, anger, rebelliousness, and, ultimately, highly dysfunctional behaviour. It’s why dyslexia is of such grave concern to teachers, parents, and educational psychologists and why the correct diagnosis could make all the difference in the world for an individual child.
Rabbi Deutsch may prove that a love of learning alone can help those with undiagnosed dyslexia overcome their disability and transform themselves into highly successful human beings, but his own experiences prove even more definitively why overcoming dyslexia yourself should certainly not be anyone’s preferred course of action.
What’s wrong with me?
The picture that Rabbi Deutsch paints of his early school years is not a rosy one. “I was unable to read until I was twelve years old. I would sit in class and watch the other kids around me learning and I would ask why it was so hard for me. When they spoke, it sounded like they were on a train; their words flew by so fast. Even in second grade, I couldn’t even learn the aleph beis and would cry myself to sleep wondering what was wrong with me.”
Dyslexia is not a new diagnosis, but whether it was just a matter of the times or that the more cloistered community of Crown Heights simply hadn’t had much exposure to secular psychology, his teachers had absolutely no idea what to do with him. “I would ask so many questions, trying to understand what was being taught and the teachers just thought I was being disruptive and I got in trouble all the time.”
One night, after crying himself to sleep, young Shaul Shimon decided enough was enough. He davened to Hashem for help and realised in the process that if Hashem does everything for a reason then there must surely be a reason why his brain worked the way it did. From that point on, he decided to pay special attention in class to all those words that were flying around him. He realised that if he didn’t do his best to memorise all that information whizzing by him, he was likely to forget it all by the next day.
Turning Difficulty into Success
After doing this for a while, it started to become clear that his difficulty processing language didn’t affect his memory. As he gained a greater appreciation for his tendency to think visually rather than verbally, it became increasingly clear that he had a perfect, photographic memory that allowed him to remember hundreds of thousands of pieces of information as pictures in his mind.
He also didn’t give up on reading and after putting in an untold amount of time and perseverance, his ability to read steadily and exponentially improved. When he was twelve, he even decided to take the next step and tried learning to read the Torah. Again, after much hard work, he succeeded in this too. Sadly, this was all done without the help of any of his teachers. Years later, Rabbi Deutsch makes no bones about it, “I learned how to do all this on my own.”
It was, in fact, against this background that his lifelong interest in Jewish history and archaeology began. He constantly heard his teachers referring to all sorts of items found in the Torah and Talmud that are no longer in use, but without ever explaining what these items actually looked like. Rabbi Deutsch’s visually-oriented mind had little on which to grasp and he would ask question after question in an attempt to gain a greater understanding of what his teachers seemed to take for granted.
His teachers thought all the questions were just his attempts to disrupt the class, so not only were they of little help to him, they constantly called out and punished his so-called “bad behaviour”. Just as he had done with learning to read the Torah and memorise vast amounts of ideas, young Shaul Shimon went out of his way to try and learn about these items – first in books and then by visiting libraries that held these ancient objects.
Thus were the seeds planted for what would become the one-of-a-kind Living Torah Museum and only one of the many steps that the rabbi took in ensuring that his undiagnosed learning disability would not define him. From obtaining semicha to learning multiple languages and becoming something of an authority on Jewish archaeology, Rabbi Deutsch circumvented his own dyslexia to a full and, by any measure, successful life.
A great blessing
More than that, he actually credits his dyslexia for being a major contributing factor in all his achievements and successes. Or, more succinctly: “It is one of the great brochas in my life that I am dyslexic. It is not always the ones that have it easy that go on to become successful.”
Despite and, indeed, because of his own success with not allowing his dyslexia to cripple him, Rabbi Deutsch is keenly aware of just how quickly a lack of diagnosis and proper help can seriously hinder the progress of a child with the disorder. His wilfulness and persistence allowed him to largely overcome his own dyslexia, but he knows how difficult it was doing it on his own and how easily he could have been left behind had he not been fortunate enough to be born with a photographic memory and an unyielding need to learn as much as possible.
In his role as a rabbi he noticed that history was repeating itself, and kids with dyslexia – particularly yeshiva students in his community and others like it – still weren’t being properly diagnosed and, if they were, they were more likely to be written off as “dumb” than to have their unique way of processing information nurtured by their educators.
Not that he entirely blames the teachers and rabbis at these schools for not giving dyslexic kids the attention they deserve. “Most teachers are just trying to get through the day, trying to control classes of thirty kids. It’s much easier to focus on the majority of their class than the few who fall behind. They also just don’t have the tools and the knowledge of how to connect with these kids.”
Taking his struggle public
This understanding, however, did not change the inescapable fact that this problem still persists in religious schools and the very idea that kids today should go through what he did as a child and as a teenager became entirely unacceptable to Rabbi Deutsch. That’s why seven years ago, Rabbi Deutsch revealed that he was and is dyslexic. He has, in the years since, talked about his own struggles with the disorder and became a passionate advocate for dyslexic students.
Over the years, he has talked time and time again about his own story and he has gone to yeshiva schools throughout the United States to tell dyslexic kids that there’s nothing wrong with them and that they’re certainly not alone. “Kids with dyslexia aren’t dumb and are often brilliant” has become something of a mantra for Rabbi Deutsch as he visits school after school.
More than just providing a sympathetic voice, though, Rabbi Deutsch made it his mission to hold workshops at the schools he visited that would provide educators with a greater understanding of what dyslexia is and the tools to help them connect with and properly educate their dyslexic students.
During the years that Rabbi Deutsch was left alone to try and understand his own mind, he started to learn more and more about dyslexia and in what can only be called a ‘Eureka!’ moment, he discovered a programme that would confirm many of his own thoughts on the disorder and would provide plenty in the way of new information about dyslexia and how to best treat it.
The programme, whose origins stretch back all the way to the 1930s, is called the Orton-Gillingham Approach. To quote its official website, “the Orton-Gillingham Approach is a direct, explicit, multisensory, structured, sequential, diagnostic, and prescriptive way to teach literacy when reading, writing, and spelling does not come easily to individuals, such as those with dyslexia.”
It is, in short, something that Rabbi Deutsch desperately wishes he had access to when he was a boy and it is the basis of his own programme that he uses to try and help yeshiva teachers with relating to their dyslexic students. The great tragedy of these schools not already having a system in place for those whose learning requirements differ from the norm may be all the more disheartening because there are such tried and true methods available for properly teaching dyslexic students. At the same time, though, it doesn’t take too long for Rabbi Deutsch to give these educators a crash course on the subject that can so profoundly change the life of kids, teenagers, and adults who can otherwise so easily be left behind.
Rabbi Deutsch’s course is all about helping educators understand that dyslexia is not the result of a lack of intelligence, but simply a neurological condition that requires those who have it to process information in different and often highly creative ways. Rabbi Deutsch’s own visually-oriented way of thinking is the perfect case study and the workshops he has given at these schools haven’t just been well received, but have made a real, practical impact on the life of both teachers and students.
Rabbi Deutsch may ultimately be best known for his incredible work in bringing Jewish history to tangible, vivid life through his singular Living Torah Museum, but, in retrospect, his work with tackling dyslexia in yeshiva schools may well be just another expression of that same impulse; his own need to learn about history through visual, even tactile cues led to the creation of something that offers a unique learning experience to all students of Jewish history. So too, his own experiences with non-normative self-education no doubt greatly informs his ability to teach such methods to educators, which, in turn, ensure that there will no longer be a need for students with dyslexia to be self-taught in the first place.