It is so easy nowadays to become paralyzed in the face of disturbing news reports out of Israel. Paying attention and caring can be exhausting and depressing—all the more so if you are an American Jew committed to Israel.

Israel is supposed to be “a light among the nations” and a beacon of democracy in a region surrounded by autocratic regimes. But lately we have cause for alarm and despite best efforts, it’s hard to know what to do to assist our Jewish state which is in crisis.

One thing we can do, however, is to keep our perspective and pay attention to Israel behind the headlines. There are countless points of light that are so easy to overlook, especially now. I had the privilege of learning about one such hopeful endeavor at my synagogue, Congregation Kehillath Israel of Brookline (KI) on a recent Shabbat.

Every year a cohort of mid-career professionals come to study public policy at the Harvard Kennedy School as Wexner Foundation fellows. The purpose of the program is to bolster their leadership skills in order to strengthen Israeli society. They are actually proven leaders to begin with, but as we know, leadership training never stops and the exposure to first-rate professors and fellow graduate students from around the world combine to enhance their leadership capabilities.

I have had the privilege of getting to know each year’s cohort of Wexner fellows through a program I founded together with two other community members called Benenu, which builds bridges between Boston-area Jews and visiting Israeli graduate students. Creating speaking opportunities and interactive dialogue in our community is one aspect of our initiative, which is now in its 10th year. Hosting Shalom Weil at KI was one such opportunity.

Starting in 2012, Shalom served as head of school at the ORT Spanien Technological High School, an Orthodox institution for religious boys from disadvantaged backgrounds. His presentation focused on some of the challenges of leading that school, as well as the successes.

Despite his own academic accomplishments of holding degrees from Herzog College and Hebrew University, and now as a candidate for a Harvard degree, Shalom, who is an observant Jew, told us that he himself had been an underperforming student academically as he was primarily focused on scouting at the time. This aspect of his own background in part influenced him to become such a passionate proponent of the moral imperative to provide engaging educational opportunities for the underserved in Israel.

After completing a training at the Mandel Institute for Educational Leadership in 2011, Shalom applied for the leadership role at the high school. He claimed, jokingly, that he may have been the only applicant, but figured that the school was in such rough shape, what did he have to lose? Indeed, he encountered very difficult conditions at the school with students who were doomed to fail, having received this message of their inadequacies throughout their young lives. The idea of aspiring for academic success was beyond their imaginations. In order to succeed in Israel and escape poverty, it’s imperative to matriculate from high school by passing a national exam known as bagrut. Scores on this exam also determine one’s opportunities in the Israel Defense Forces, all of which are essential to achieve social mobility in Israel. Shalom was determined to turn around the defeatist mentality of his students.

So, what were his strategies? Among other things, he invested emotionally in the teachers by spending time with each of them personally to hear their “stories” and in the process make them feel valued and motivated. He succeeded as well in bringing the students’ families into the school. Anyone who knows anything about underserved students in any country knows that engaging their parents is an enormous challenge. These parents often feel intimidated by schools and lack the background and experience to guide their children’s education. Shalom’s plan to involve parents was simple and effective—he lured them in with coffee and cakes and created an atmosphere whereby parents and children could simply communicate with one another comfortably in a school setting. They literally sat at tables and just talked to each other at school. Absolutely brilliant! As Shalom correctly noted, all parents of every socioeconomic status need to practice better communication skills with their teenagers.

Shalom made sure to highlight the talents of students who otherwise were lacking in confidence. He cited the case of a young man whose singing on stage infused him with the confidence he needed to succeed academically as well. Another thing Shalom did was improve the physical plant of the school, starting with the bathrooms. I myself have been in bad bathrooms even in some fine public high schools, but the conditions at Shalom’s school were deplorable, and correcting this situation did wonders for the morale of the students.

During his term as head of school at ORT Spanien, the matriculation rate increased from 32% to 89% and the school was named one of the 10 outstanding educational institutions in Israel. This is a remarkable accomplishment that I still find hard to even fathom. Shalom claimed that the key to their success was laser-like focus. I think the secret sauce was Shalom’s style of engaged leadership. He even continued to teach in the classrooms so as not to lose touch with the essential activity of any school.

Shalom’s next step was to rebrand the school as ORT Pelech Boys School, change the curriculum and staff, recruit many strong students and public funds and renovate the campus. The result was a massive growth of 40% students each year up to 600 students and being rewarded the national education prize for outstanding educational work. At ORT Pelech, they became early adapters of electronic learning a few years prior to the pandemic, so that the school was well positioned in the face of COVID’s demand for remote learning. Due to the adaptive educational culture of the school, when students began to gather in person again, they were able to race through the academic demands and found themselves far ahead. This enabled the young people to spend months going on field trips and cultivating their social and emotional sides in light of the terrible impact of the pandemic on teen mental health.

Shalom describes himself as an optimist. He’s using his time wisely in Greater Boston to observe other models of education and to gain exposure to best educational practices by observing at both Jewish and secular high schools in the area. This past week, I was able to accompany him and some other visiting Israeli educational leaders to my own alma mater, Brookline High School, for meetings with its top administrators and a tour of the facility. As a student at the Harvard Kennedy School, Shalom is able to take advantage of classes at our Harvard faculties, such as the  Business School, Law School, the Graduate School of Education and even at MIT in order to deepen his learning.

Everyone knows that the key to any country’s future lies in education. Israel is a country with almost no private schools, so public education is key, and remains an essential component of democracy. There are tremendous challenges to social mobility, not to mention tribalism and intolerance in Israeli society. But there is hope, and when we learn about the educational leadership of people like Shalom Weil, we can also feel optimism and confidence that there are points of light in a society troubled with internal and external threats. To Israel’s credit, as Shalom said, the country is always in “survival mode,” which allows for greater flexibility and creativity, both of which are essential in the field of education. Shalom may be looking for best practices here, but I think our educational system has a lot to learn from him as well. So, despite the bleak news, points of light and inspiration are alive and well in Israel.

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