Shmuel (Samuel) Benalal, the Israeli who was killed last week in an attack at a Mali hotel by Islamic extremists, was a roving educator who hopped from continent to continent, helping developing countries to build their educational systems, training teachers, and spreading Jewish and Israeli values in Latin America.
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Friends and colleagues remembered Benalal this week as a man with an exceptional ability to connect with others through dialogue. "He knew how to make people think by asking them questions," one colleague told Haaretz.
Born in Morocco in 1954, Benalal, whose father died when he was a child, moved with his mother and brother to Venezuela when he was 14. While he was not religious, Jewish thought and Zionism were important to him, and so he immigrated to Israel in 1975, where he studied at university and began working in education. From 1991 to 1994, he served as the principal of a private Jewish day school in Mexico City, and the following year he was back in Israel to join the Mandel Foundation, a Jerusalem institution that trains high-level educators. There, he worked until his death, alongside his job as CEO of Telos Group, a consulting company that specializes in educational advancement, particularly in developing countries.
It was as an educational advisor with Telos that the tall and soft-spoken educator arrived in Mali. The government, facing a problem of unemployed academics, had invited Benalal to consult with. Only two days after his arrival, Benalal was among 20 people be shot dead Friday in the attack by Al-Qaida-linked jihadists on the Radisson Blu hotel in the Malian capital, Bamako.
"Shmuel was good at working with difficult bureaucrats and getting them to take risks," said Yoav Peck, who worked with Benalal's Telos Group on educational projects in Serbia.
"He was personable, elegant, soft spoken, sweet, and humorous. And at the same time he was a man of big systems, a businessman, an entrepreneur," added Daniel Marom, the director of pedagogical and tutorial development at the Mandel School for Educational Leadership. "He was a devoted educator, engrossed in the lives and development of anyone he taught or trained."
One such student was Tomer Bouhadana. After being wounded in the Second Lebanon War, Bouhadana was caught on camera lifting up his fingers in a "V" for victory on his way to the operating room. "He was hailed by Israeli media as a hero for this," said Marom, "but he was a real hero for what he did later, with Shmuel's help."
Bouhadana studied at the Mandel School and, under Benalal's mentorship, went on to open a boarding school for at-risk youth.
"I used to talk very decisively about how education should be," Bouhadana told Haaretz. "Then Shmuel asked me a question that gave me pause: 'Does anger guide you in your worldview of education?' In that moment I stopped and thought, and realized that the answer was 'yes.'"
"People who come to do the kind of educational work that I do, do not come to fix the world; they come to fix themselves – via the youths. To revisit the pain they experienced in their youth and to gain control over that. That meeting with Shmuel caused me to let go of myself. It enabled me to see the other; to become available for real dialogue with others, without being immersed in my own issues."
Benalal's unique ability to communicate also came through in his work at the Tarbut day school in Mexico. "He dramatically boosted the school's educational vision," said Rivka Menndel, who, together with her husband Hanan, worked with Benalal at the school. It was a very Zionist school, but while they knew how to dance the hora and practice Israeli customs, their actions seemed to lack depth, she said. He, having grown up in South America and lived his adult life in Israel, was a bridge between the two cultures. He spoke their language and understood their mentality. With this, he was able to inject meaning into their actions.
"When the Oslo Accords were signed, he gathered the entire school community – including all 1,500 students from kindergarten to year 12, their parents, and the staff – in front of televisions to watch the ceremony," Menndel recalled. "He spoke to them all, impressing upon them that this was an historic event, and said, my and Hanan's children may not need to fight wars anymore."
While he held strong views, Benalal did not impose them on others, recalled childhood friend Leo Corry, who made aliya from Venezuela shorty after Benalal and today serves as the dean of the Faculty of Humanities at Tel Aviv University. "This enabled him to create good relationships, through deep dialogue."
Corry and Benalal had been best friends since high school, where they played basketball together and sat on the student council. "We were feminists and we didn't know it," said Corry, explaining that the two were the first to convince the school to include girls in sports teams.
Benalal was musical and had a soft, sweet tenor voice. "He sang Sephardi hymns beautifully," recalled Marom. "I would always ask him to begin our meetings with a song."
Family played a central role in Benalal's life. Friends and colleagues described him as a loving husband to his wife, Flori, a devoted father to his three sons, Asher, Avi and Netanel, and a dedicated son. "He would cancel meetings to take his mother to the doctor," said Marom. "The first thing I thought when I heard the news was who's going to take care of his mother?"
Benalal's body has not yet been repatriated to Israel, and funeral arrangements have not yet been confirmed.