He's not the next Jonas Salk, but Dr. Dovid Lazerson, widely known as Dr. Laz, is a true Jewish doctor any mother could be proud of. His unique healing formula is not available in pharmacies, but it is highly effective in uplifting the spirit of others, including at-risk youth on the periphery
The CURE in four simple words stands for: Communication, Understanding, Respect and Education.
Dr. Laz honed his skills as a healer through years of teaching in Buffalo, New York's, challenging inner city. Years later, Dovid utilized his experience with the black community during the '91 Crown Heights race riots to build bridges and communication from the smoldering ash and shattered glass.
His maverick spirit that thinks way out of the box made him the right man at the right time in the right place, working with Richard Green of the Crown Heights Youth Collective and Rev. Paul Chandler of the Jackie Robinson Center. Their humor, ingenuity and open spirits were put to the test. Could they build bonds amid bitter hatred and suspicion?
The tools that would prove invaluable in Dovid's innovative educational work were acquired during his Buffalo childhood. As a teen he was an avid musician, fun-loving adventurer and outdoorsman, and became a teacher of life-guarding, scuba diving, high ropes activities and wilderness survival. After a stint with a rock band and a hippie-style search through alternate religions, he settled down to finish his Bachelor's at the University of Buffalo. In his senior year he took a course on Jewish mysticism with Chabad Rabbi Nosson Gurary. "We argued all semester, but I couldn't really land a punch," Dovid recalls. "Rabbi Gurary was too smart, too sincere, and too funny. He opened my eyes to realize that I had no bloomin' idea of Judaism's depth and spirituality. After graduation I checked out yeshiva for three weeks, and then stayed on for three years!"
Dovid's first visit to a yeshiva study hall gave him a revolutionary insight that enhanced his career as an innovative educator.
"I couldn't believe this was a study hall! Quiet? Do Not Disturb? Why, these guys were studying out loud, gesturing, walking around, with no teacher up front lecturing or controlling." Instead of passive listening, the chavrusas (study partners) wrestle with the text, debate and exchange ideas. "No sleeping through class here," he noted.
After yeshiva, the Lubavitcher Rebbe guided Dovid to complete a Master's degree in Special Ed. "I'd always rooted for the underdog. When I was in school, I was turned off, often in trouble, and hyperactive. I went into education with a promise—I will not bore the daylights out of my students!"
CURE: Alienated "Unteachable" Kids
Dovid completed his Ph.D. and worked in Buffalo's public schools to CURE the "dregs" of the school with his pet-filled classroom, sports, and hands-on action-filled curriculum. His yeshiva style chavrusa peer-based learning empowered the students, putting them in the novel position of giver and role model for the younger students they tutored. Dovid's ground-breaking success attracted national attention, was written up in the New York Times Education section, and he was named Buffalo's Teacher of the Year. He tells the humorous, insightful and touching saga of the interface of the young chasid and his street savvy students in his first book, "Skullcaps N' Switchblades."
Dr. Laz later became Special Education Director at Manhattan Day School, and was living in Crown Heights – "ground zero" – when the riots erupted.
Within a week of the riots Dovid met with Richard and Paul. "We had no agenda other than bringing our youth together. The media painted us as sworn enemies and fanned the flames, but we knew we had so much in common. Our first meeting had 30 black and Jewish guys sitting in a circle. It was hot and tense. But when it was over, no one wanted to leave. Something real was happening. I knew there was hope."
CURE: Racial Tensions
The discussion group evolved as understanding grew. Joint basketball teams, art mural projects, and a performing group coined the name that already was Dovid's path in life: Project CURE. Laz, Green and Chandler's love of music, sports, fun and the promise of youth was a winning formula.
CURE's basketball team, composed of blacks and Jews from Crown Heights, played two years in a row during the NY Knicks' halftime show, and has performed for the U.S. Congress, the Democratic convention, and was featured on Donahue, Montel Williams, CNN and ESPN. Taking a cue from Mayor Dinkins' imploring message to "increase the peace!", they continue to perform and spread their message of racial harmony.
Dovid kept a diary of his experiences with the riots and development of CURE, entitled "Sharing Turf." Showtime bought the rights to the diary and produced a movie "Crown Heights," that captures the tension and hope. Three of Laz's original songs are featured in the movie which stars TV show host and comedian Howie Mandel playing Dr. Laz.
Dr. Laz's dedication to using the CURE formula to heal an ever wider audience brought him to Miami in the late '90s to create a post high school mentoring and vocational guidance program called the Devorah Leah Center, and to develop groundbreaking programs for profoundly handicapped children at the Quest Center in the Browad County Public Schools.
Laz's "Sing and Sign Choir" includes non-verbal, autistic, Down syndrome, and other handicapped children who use American Sign Language to "sing alog" to the music. Lazerson developed a system for his students with profound physical challenges to use adaptive switches, such as knee and head switches, which activate drums machines and lighting effects. These unique musicians play for senior centers and public schools, where the audience is "blown away, there's not a dry eye in the house!" One elderly woman was so moved by the children's sincere expression, she was inspired to get up from her wheelchair for the first time in two years to dance!
"These kids are the best teachers and advocates for themselves. They sensitize others to see that they really are people and can give also," Dovid enthuses. "Music isn't just for hip and beautiful performing artists. It is the truly universal language of the soul, and these kids are bringing that message home."
In 2007 Dr. Laz was honored with the Teacher of the Year for the Broward County public schools, the nation's fifth largest school district. His students performed for more than 1,000 people at this special event. In 2008, Dr. Laz was one of five teachers selected from throughout the entire country to be inducted into the National Teachers Hall of Fame.
Dovid's lively approach breaks through all kinds of barriers—racial, handicap and cultural. He recently played in Switzerland, where the rabbi warned him, "The Swiss are very, very proper and reserved. They won't go for wild music." To the rabbi's utter amazement, Dr. Laz had them dancing on their chairs!
In the works is an innovative multi-sensory, experiential theatre and music experience, designed to engage and communicate with the most withdrawn children. Since Dr. Laz came to the Quest Center six years ago, he has become one of the most prolific grant writing teachers in the country. He has written and received more than 16 grants for his school and experiential music program totaling more than $600,000.
CURE: Kids on the Bottom Can Give
Dr. Laz recently applied the Talmudic chavrusa study system in an experimental program, in which youth in detention homes tutored others. There were profound changes for the kids with criminal records, "who were put in a responsible giving position for the first time." After publishing a paper about the study in a leading educational journal, Laz received inquiries about his "new, ground-breaking" method, and had to chuckle. "My method has a good track record, it's been around since Moses learned Torah with G‑d on Mt. Sinai—the first study partners!"
Dovid fills his "spare time" teaching grad courses in Special Ed at Nova University and developing challenge rope courses in summer camps. He continues to speak and play at performances and Shabbatons around the world, both individually and with Project CURE.
CURE: Hyperactive Kids
Dovid consults with parents about helping their hyperactive kids. He feels that medication has become a panacea that is applied too quickly, before fully exploring options like effective, personal relevant education. "Find children's passion. Give them a chance to develop their own special talent, through music lessons, martial arts and the like. I had a student who has deemed a hopeless student. I taught him lifesaving, which he loved. Once his passion was aroused and his confidence restored, he progressed to become an EMT. Today he is making $100,000 a year as a highly regarded physician's assistant."
What one multi-tasking ("hyperactive," he insists) guy full of energy and love of humanity can do! Increasing the peace and helping "underdogs" let their light shine makes Dr. Laz a most effective doc.
Feeling down, out of sync or uninspired? Take the CURE!
Check out Dr. Laz’s website for more info, pics, videos, music, etc.