Principal Player

Karen Tal hopes to apply the methods and values she inculcated successfully in a multicultural south Tel Aviv school to other educational institutions. With help from some leading business people and philanthropic bodies, she just might pull it off.

Dakia Karpel
Dalia Karpel
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Dakia Karpel
Dalia Karpel

At Tel Aviv's Bialik-Rogozin Educational Campus she is identifiable by the insistent click-clack of her high heels. On a Sunday morning last month the quiet at the south Tel Aviv school was broken by the familiar staccato rhythm. We zigzagged through the corridors; she pressed ahead with me hard on her trail. It was hard to make any headway without hearing the calls of "Karen! Karen!" en route.

Tal is no longer principal of Bialik-Rogozin and has taken her leave of each staff member personally. She has a worthy successor in Eli Nehama , former principal of Tel Aviv's A.D. Gordon School. Still, during this visit, it was "Karen, Karen" from all sides.

Karen Tal. 'Instead of people continuing to cluck their tongues and badmouth the education system, let them contribute and help.'Credit: Yanai Yehiel

Born in Fez, Morocco, Tal will soon turn 47. She immigrated to Israel with her family when she was three; they settled in Jerusalem. She served in the army as an education officer in the Israel Air Force technical school and was vice principal of Shevah Mofet high school in Tel Aviv before being appointed principal of Bialik-Rogozin in 2005. She is divorced and the mother of two daughters.

When told that she has become a megastar in the realm of education and is widely praised for her work as a principal who strives for excellence, Tal responds with an embarrassed laugh. She has no ego, she says ("What is that - is it good or bad?" ). She takes greater pride in the national education prize that was awarded to Bialik-Rogozin last June than in the success of "Strangers No More," the HBO film about the school that won the 2011 Academy Award for best documentary short subject.

Bialik-Rogozin is home to pupils from families with low socioeconomic status, among them the children of new immigrants, foreign workers and former Palestinian collaborators with Israel. Within six years Tal doubled the enrollment; last year there were 828 pupils, representing 48 nationalities. She took over an institution that was on the verge of being shut down, and as principal succeeded in merging two schools into one high-prestige institution, and in fomenting a revolution: Creating an institution which, she says, stands for "values of excellence, achievement, solidarity and respect for human beings."

Next Wednesday, Tal will be awarded the 2011 Charles Bronfman Prize - an annual Jewish humanitarian award - at a ceremony at Tel Aviv University, for creating "a unique and powerful educational model" at Bialik-Rogozin. In an interview, she said she will dedicate part of the $100,000 prize to an "important cause."

Actually, Tal says she and money do not really make a "good pair": She is still paying off a mortgage, she says. Furthermore, she does not buy flashy jewelry or brand-name clothes, although she is meticulously attired - just like her mother, she notes. When the social protest movement shifted away from the center of the country, she participated in a demonstration in Modi'in together with her partner, Dr. Avi Benvenisti (until last week the principal of Ironi Tet high school in Tel Aviv, and now director of the education and welfare department of the Herzliya Municipality ).

Why did you leave Bialik-Rogozin?

Tal: "It is the place I love best. I was here for six years, running a campus ranging from kindergarten through 12th grade, and I operated like the Sayeret Matkal [an elite commando unit], with 24-hour workdays. The school opened at 7 A.M. and closed at 7 P.M. When you work with an at-risk population, you are available on Shabbat, too. Like an emergency doctor who is at home but on call."

You received many awards along with much love and appreciation.

"I received a great deal of love, which is fine, but when you manage something there is also a great deal of unglamorous loneliness: You are always in the position of giving to others and of being strong. On the other hand, there are multiple sources of energy which give you strength, like the little children who can express emotions without filters, who hug you and say, 'Karen, you're beautiful today.' When I said good-bye to the staff, they told me they would miss my energetic steps when I enter the school with a big 'Good morning' greeting and a smile."

How do you enter with a smile when you have a tough morning ahead?

"It comes from the awareness and understanding that you need to be completely present in a place where you give yourself to others. All the rest is pushed aside. It would look strange if I came to school without my regular vitality. It is not an automatic act, though genes may play a small part. When I look at my father, there is something about the expressiveness of his face that broadcasts joie de vivre in every situation. From him I took that vitality and his openness to people. From my mother I inherited the ability to do and do and do - and everything gets done, quickly and optimally. Obviously, that requires inner discipline. That was the person I chose to be."

Tal made that choice at the age of nine, in 1976, when she was still a wisp of a girl with a long braid. The family lived in the "French block" in the slum neighborhood of Ir Ganim Gimel in Jerusalem, which was built in 1957 after the immigrant transit camps were evacuated. To get to her grandmother's home on the other side of the street, she had to traverse an intersection which "was ruled by bullies," she says.

"They were a large gang that decided who would cross where and when. I told myself, 'Hell, they aren't going to tell me what to do.' Inside I was deathly afraid, because they would beat up children until they bled. When I walked past them I would stand erect, look them in the eye, say hello and slowly cross the road. The first time I did it they were stunned, because people who were afraid of them took the long way around in order to avoid them. My parents called them 'the criminals' in French, but I decided not to be afraid. People tell me I am a kind of ninja. A road warrior. That inner image developed back then, when I faced down the bullies. There was some inner self-confidence that connected to a tendency I possessed even in primary school to pursue justice."

Vision from tragedy

The interview was held in the Bialik-Rogozin library, a large, splendid space which was designed and built (with funding from the Tel Aviv Development Foundation ) so pupils can glance out the windows while perusing books at wooden tables. Tal is proud of the library, as she is of the cafeteria and the gym, all of which were built while she was principal.

But the last thing one can say about Tal is that she is resting on her laurels. She learned about life the hard way, and sees life as akin to a battle. A typical remark: "It's important for me, like a commando, to be on the ground all the time and do in-depth work." Now she is taking on a new challenge: founding a center for managerial educational initiatives in schools.

"My vision is that within five years we will see a critical mass of schools in Israel which will become sought-after institutions of 'pilgrimage' because of their high level of educational and social achievements," she explains, adding that the idea underlying her new initiative, which she helped formulate in the schools she worked in, is to create participation between the public education system and teams of volunteers, donors and academic institutions: "Instead of people continuing to cluck their tongues and badmouth the education system, let them contribute and help. Working from within the system immediately shifts your perspective."

Is your idea to enter the office of a principal in Lod, say, and teach him how to do his job?

"The principal is the hub of activity. The problems he faces - a mediocre teaching staff, children from hardscrabble homes, poverty, hardship, crime and so forth - are a given. At the outset I will ask the principal: What is your dream for the next three years? It's essential that the description of that dream come from him. After that we have to conceptualize the dream and see how we can turn the school into an institution that respects those who enter its gates. When I came to Bialik-Rogozin I mapped the situation and afterward drew up a working plan and marketed it to the Tel Aviv Municipality, the Education Ministry and the school's directorate. I told them this was my vision and these were the aims in the clearest possible terms, to avoid misunderstandings."

The terrorist attack at the Dolphinarium discotheque in Tel Aviv, on June 1, 2001, occurred when Tal was director of the higher grades at Shevah Mofet school; with Benvenisti, she was fomenting an educational revolution there. Seven of the 21 young people who were killed in the attack were students at Shevah Mofet. A few days later, Dr. Yossi Vardi, the founding father of advanced technology enterprises in Israel, and businessman Avraham Bigger, at the time the deputy chairman of the Caesarea Foundation, showed up at the school.

"They asked what they could do to help," Tal recalls. "We told them that the school's biggest challenge was its population of amazing new immigrants who had no affinity for Israel and dreamed only of moving to Silicon Valley in California. We wanted to keep them here. We asked them to help us contact high-tech people, to launch a project with the [gifted] teens who were also studying at Tel Aviv University and representing Israel in the science olympics abroad, so they would see that employment mobility exists in this country. At the time I didn't know who Yossi Vardi was and didn't realize that he has ties with many of the country's leading economic and political figures. Avraham Bigger's name was also unfamiliar to me. Dr. Vardi said he had a group of friends who would be apprised of the school's needs. That was the start of the relationship.

"Vardi brought a group of 18 businessmen and bankers," she continues, "among them Ilan Biran, Maccabi Carasso, Shlomo Nehama, Galia Maor and others, and Benvenisti appointed me as the [project directorate's] coordinator. We told them what we needed. Biran was the CEO of Bezeq Telecommunications, and it was important to upgrade the school's infrastructure; Carasso and the Caesarea Foundation established the laboratory, and so on. That was where the Bialik-Rogozin model developed: a forum of business people who meet four times a year [to discuss needs at the school], while we plan the working methods."

How much money was invested in Bialik-Rogozin?

"In the past six years, about NIS 9 million was allocated to the school. The sources of the funding were the Tel Aviv municipality and the Tel Aviv Development Foundation. The money was used for renovations - toilets, auditorium, teachers' room - and to build a library, cafeteria and science lab. Other funds that were raised with the aid of the directorate were earmarked for a music room, more science labs, the sports field, lunches for the junior-high and high-school classes, enrichment programs, an ulpan [Hebrew language program ] for parents and more.

"The money is one element. It is not the be-all and end-all. The directorate [the group Vardi brought in] brings the intellectual capital and experience, enables the injection of financial resources and makes human capital accessible. For example, there is no one to underwrite private lessons for math students at the five-unit level [referring to the highest level in the matriculation exams]. Around 60 soldiers from intelligence unit 8200 came twice a week to tutor. That is a tremendous resource which the directorate organized."

In other words, without the directorate it would have been difficult to create such a splendid institution?

"The directorate gave us a 'tailwind' and helped the teaching staff and me realize the educational vision. The directorate is another layer, but makes no pretense of replacing the Education Ministry or the local authority; its purpose is to reinforce the system and work in cooperation with it. Its contribution has been made behind the scenes all through the years, while understanding that those in the forefront of activity, authority and responsibility are the principal and pedagogical staff."

Tal's new project is based on the same method. Its charter members include Vardi, Nira and Shlomo Nehama, Dr. Shmuel Harlap, the Ormat company, Bank Hapoalim CEO Yair Seroussi, Yad Hanadiv Foundation, and the Gottesman and Glaser Foundations. Tal is focusing on five schools in the first year of the project: Shevah Mofet and Bialik-Rogozin, Branco Weiss in Beit Shemesh, the Arab high school in Lod, and the Ironi Het Resheet high school in Tel Aviv.

"We will continue to strengthen these five schools based on the original vision. Concurrently, I will choose three more schools from two districts. In the second year there will be six schools and afterward 10. The schools will be in the periphery. We will operate among all the population groups served by the state education system, including Arabs and Bedouin, and I want to be in both state-religious and state-secular schools. All-embracing, comprehensive and in-depth treatment is needed."

Unique at Pelech

Tal's parents, Max and Masoudi Abitboul, came from well-off religious families in Fez. They both attended schools of the international French-speaking Jewish Alliance network. Her father was a master goldsmith, her mother a seamstress. They had three children at the time: two boys and Karen. The family did not immigrate to Israel until 1967, because Max did not want to abandon his parents. The social uprising in Haifa's Wadi Salib neighborhood and the scurrilous epithets hurled at Moroccan immigrants did not upset him.

Tal: "Dad said that the principle of realizing the dream of making aliyah to the Land of Israel was most important of all, and he took a rational view of the move. He knew that every wave of immigration pays its price. Moreover, in the wake of the Six-Day War, Jews in Fez were subjected to harassment."

The family received a three-room apartment as part of the national immigrant housing project. At first they spoke French, but soon switched to Hebrew. Karen has two younger sisters who were born in Israel.

"The economic situation was shaky," she says. "Dad worked as a postman in the morning, from 12 noon he was a waiter in the Knesset restaurant and from 4 P.M. until midnight he was a waiter in banquet halls. He was 34. We only saw him on weekends. Mom worked half-time as a kindergarten assistant. In the morning she cooked, and the house was wonderfully tidy and organized ... We children went to school and at 1 P.M. she came back from work and was waiting for us. She was the dominant figure in our lives. Each of us had a job in the house; I cleaned and tidied up and also went to help Grandma, but the main burden fell on Mom."

Tal attended a religious primary school in which a strict dress code was enforced and prayers were recited.

"I was never a religious person," she observes. "My brothers and sisters were also not religious, and my parents knew it. My father is a tolerant person." Her parents worked hard and never complained. She herself worked from the age of nine, giving private lessons, among other jobs.

"I was a girl with a lot of ambition, the best student in the class, and it was also important for me to finish at the top in all kinds of quizes. I saw back then what we now term 'social differentiation.' There were a lot of kids who grew up as bullies, but I knew I would be different. That was also the message we were taught at home."

The five children shared one room, the TV was black-and-white and Karen was drawn to the neighborhood library. When her parents bought a new encyclopedia, it was "the realization of a dream" for her. But the true cultural upheaval in her life occurred when she decided to attend Pelech high school for religious girls in Jerusalem, where the principal was Prof. Alice Shalvi, who instituted and cultivated the institution's humanistic-democratic character.

"I knew that my parents would be hurt if I went to a secular school, so I did half a rebellion. Pelech was an open, pluralistic place, and it was possible on the one hand to stay within boundaries, while on the other nothing was forced on you; you could wear pants and date boys. We had classes in world and Israeli literature, Bible, philosophy, art and music. I felt that a wide world was opening up for me.

"I emerged from the boundaries of a closed and protected neighborhood. The whole 'who's who' of Jerusalem girls went to Pelech - the daughters of this judge and that professor, residents of [upscale neighborhoods such as] Rehavia, Beit Hakerem and Bayit Vegan. I was the only girl who came from another planet."

What kind of reception did you have?

"I chose to work hard and to study. I knew that my situation and the place I came from did not allow me to compete with the other students in terms of dress and certainly not when it came to ski trips to Switzerland. I think it was then that I began to be conscious that there was a broader diversity in the society. I was not the only one of Mizrahi descent" - referring to Jews of Middle Eastern and North African origin - "and that never bothered me, but I felt the socioeconomic gap. At the age of 17 I couldn't get to school with a car."

Tal graduated Pelech with honors. In the army she was a soldier-teacher in Givat Olga, near Hadera. Participating in the "Raful kids" project (an army rehabilitation program for young people who were considered unfit for military service ) fascinated her and led her to adopt unusual habits, like ending her workday at 2 A.M.

"As a soldier and commander I felt very angry at the education system," she says. "I found it inconceivable that the system had given up on kids with whom I grew up, whereas in the army within three months they learned how to read and write, do arithmetic, became conversant in some current events and were taught life skills. It infuriated me to see groups of children from our neighborhood in Jerusalem not going to school. After doing an officers' course I did a course for education officers and was stationed at the air force school. I created a program there and was a second lieutenant who performed like a major. I had a can-do attitude and creative ideas. I suggested that we open a community center there. I set up a film club and also organized evening programs on 'battlefield heritage.'"

No to politics

Tal completed her service in 1986. Afterward, she fell in love with Ami Ben-Ayun, a paratrooper she met at a military resort village in Acre. She returned to Jerusalem to study education and Hebrew at the Hebrew University; he studied accountancy at Tel Aviv University. They were married in 1988 and moved to Ramat Gan. Tal commuted by bus three days a week between Ramat Gan and Jerusalem. She also got a teaching job at Shevah Mofet: "I remember having a big belly, leaving in the morning and coming back at 9 in the evening. I also gave dozens of private lessons. We lived in a good section of Ramat Gan and the landlady said that every 50 minutes there was a knock at my door and the neighbors might become suspicious. We laughed, but that's how it was."

In 1991, when her first child, Danielle, was born, Tal was close to completing her master's degree in public and institutional management and already had a teacher's certificate. Three years later, when Adi was born, she was teaching full time at Shevah Mofet. "It was hard," she recalls. "We didn't have a cleaning person, but I did what had to be done. A work overload never deterred me. Tell me now to do 10 hours of cleaning and I will go and do it. I have a capacity for work."

Her marriage floundered, she says. Her husband was a wonderful father but couldn't cope with her ambition. He found it hard to understand why she invested so much energy for such a low salary: "It was important for me to succeed and have the students do well. There were 35 students in each class and I had to mark exams and be creative. I didn't care how many hours I worked. I loved working and at 29, I was running a junior-high of 600 students."

The divorce took place while she was studying at the Mandel Leadership Institute in Jerusalem on a scholarship. "Those were two happy years and a tremendous gift of learning. I received a fellowship of NIS 8,000 a month and at the same time I continued to strengthen the forum of the directorate at Shevah Mofet. I wanted to take the next step in my life, and at Mandel they focused both my identity and my social outlook."

What drives you?

"I love to be creative. It's a challenge that consumes me. That is what I know how to do: create a circle of influence from a place that is not just abstract talk but generates visible results. I want what I do to succeed, because that motivates you for the next project. It's self-nourishing, as it were."

When will you enter politics?

"Never. Not even a position in the Education Ministry. I have a high regard for Education Minister Gideon Sa'ar's struggle on behalf of the children of the migrant workers. He was a great help and showed a leadership stance. Politically, I am very far from him, but that makes no difference. At the Mandel Institute we had to do observation projects; I chose to work in the office of Ronit Tirosh, who was then the director general of the Education Ministry. I thought that was a position likely to interest me. Tirosh opened the door wide for me and I quickly grasped the huge size of the bureaucratic apparatus. "In the project I am now establishing, I will implement the idea of influencing people quietly and gradually, from within the system, as at Bialik-Rogozin. We worked quietly there, without thought of reward, and after six years it became a place that people can learn from and creates a discourse about the essence of Israeliness. In the new project, too, we will do the work starting from below."

So politics is not for you?

"I wonder what stopped 120 MKs and the broadest possible government from taking the sphere known as Israeli society, and deciding what the order of priorities would be and what could be done for one sector or another. Maybe I'm dreaming, but when you see the protest process springing from below these days, I think that maybe it will motivate them to forge a different policy. I want to hope so. If I entered politics I would make peace very fast. If a group of women positioned themselves opposite this macho bunch, everything would look different. What is preventing peace is a conceptual fixation and the fact that there is no one who truly wants to advance peace. To make peace means recognizing the rights of the other nation and dividing the country; the break-up will be a mutual one, as in a divorce agreement."

Cooking at dawn

At the time of her fellowship at the Mandel Institute, her working relations with Avi Benvenisti, the principal of Shevah Mofet, shifted gears: He had been divorced for a few years and had two children; she was separated. They have been living together for five years in Kfar Oranim. "He is an amazing human being and sometimes I don't know how he copes with me. After all, I am busy all the time and very intensive, and I can make people tired," Tal admits.

Don't you ever sit still?

"We just came back from a holiday in Crete, and I didn't leave the hotel. I read four books, swam, chilled out. Without the laptop or the PC. I know how to bring myself to those places, too. I also do yoga. You have to preserve a modicum of sanity. I love theater and need friends and I am amazed how they stay my friends, because I never have time. Yossi Vardi calls me 'the ticking woman' ... If you have to do a few things at once you develop strategies."

During the interview, her daughter, Danielle, who is doing her military service in the air force, calls. Her mother's face shines. "She is constantly initiating projects," Tal says. "She called because she and her friends have a day off and she wants to do volunteer work. I will arrange for them to meet with high-school seniors so they can see that it's possible to do worthwhile things in your army service."

When she took over at Bialik-Rogozin, Danielle was 14 and Adi was 11, and the divorce was still fresh. "The girls got along," Tal says. "They came home and were alone and then they had extra-curricular activities - and thank God for youth movements. Twice a week their father picked them up from school. There is a price you pay and, obviously, that the children also pay. You know that you are doing a great deal for other children and you stop for a moment and ask: But what I am I doing for my children?

"I often brought home stories from school," she continues, "and that created empathy and changed the girls' thinking about others. Something from my work trickled into their consciousness. My girls are wonderful and say they hope that as a grandmother I will not be so busy. On the other hand, when I look at them, I see that they are high-quality kids. Danielle served for three years and did a year of national service; Adi is a counselor in a youth movement and also plans to do a year of service before being drafted. They know I am always available, even late at night."

Is it possible to please everyone?

"I liberated myself from a commitment to please everyone. Maybe the girls were forgiving because my work environment was with children and involved social goals. If I had been immersed in a job to make money, it wouldn't have worked. My partner accepts my way of life, because he is a school principal."

Yet you're still in charge of the household chores.

"When the girls were little I tore myself apart. I used to do the cooking at 5:30 A.M. I have a high output capacity and I make do with only a few hours of sleep. It's genetic, I guess. If you say that is ambition, I accept that. I have a high level of commitment and energy that drives me. You come to school after three hours of sleep and the danger of the children being deported can blow up in your face, and the little ones run to you for a hug, and you immediately wake up." W

Behind the scenes on 'Strangers No More'

The idea behind making "Strangers No More," Karen Tal says, was to improve Israel's damaged international image after Operation Cast Lead.

What did you think of the documentary?

Celebrating the Academy Award won in 2010 by 'Strangers No More', which focused on foreign workers' children at Bialik-Rogazin.Credit: David Bachar

"It tells an emotionally powerful story because it zooms in on a place that is human and touching. The film was one of the factors that stopped the deportation of the children. According to the producers, it has been screened at about 100 film festivals."

So it achieved its purpose of improving Israel's image?

"I have no problem with it, even though it conflicts with my political worldview. I want to see Israel undergo a transformation. The film was good for the children, who live with a feeling of social ostracism. We are a society that is surrounded by too many levels of racism, and the children suffer from it on the street. When I see the faces of the children and the members of the teaching staff in the film - I am proud.

"People dealt with the Oscar award, while I went back to dealing with the muck of everyday life, on top of which Interior Minister [Eli] Yishai came out with a deportation announcement just then. The film did not 'make' me; my activity made me. Everyday life creates encounters with so many acts of injustice and so many hardships; ratings and publicity do not interest me. I am not an actress."

According to Dr. Maggie Navon, vice president for North America at the Tel Aviv Foundation, about three years ago her organization decided to launch a fund-raising campaign in the United States to mark the centenary of Tel Aviv. One of the people they approached was Lin Arison, widow of shipping magnate Ted Arison (who in 1997 bought Bank Hapoalim for $1 billion ) and cofounder with him of the National Foundation for the Advancement of the Arts.

When Arison visited Israel, she visited cultural sites in Tel Aviv including the Suzanne Dellal Center for Dance and Theater. Tel Aviv Mayor Ron Huldai and officials of the Tel Aviv Foundation suggested that she also visit Bialik-Rogozin. What was scheduled as a 15-minute visit lasted an hour: Arison was captivated by Tal and the children.

"Two months later," Navon recalls, "the directors of the film called Tal. Arison financed the production herself, and it was only in the final stage that HBO bought the film. It was ready for screening just as the United States declared anti-apartheid week. During that week Israel was accused of being an apartheid state and the movie saved its honor. If we could only clone Karen Tal, who is a model of ultimate leadership, the country's situation would be immeasurably better."



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