Striving to make things better for Jerusalem

Municipal Chief of Staff Michal Shalem is conduit through which Barkat channels his vision for the city.

michal shalem 248.88 (photo credit: Sarah Levin)
michal shalem 248.88
(photo credit: Sarah Levin)
Michal Shalem may not be the director-general of the municipality, but for many of the high-ranking officials, she is even more than that: After all, no one is as close to the new mayor as she is, and within less than two months it has become clear that nothing and no one can bypass her at Kikar Safra. Shalem doesn't have to be the director-general, since in her position as chief of staff (a job created especially for her and adapted to her skills) she is in fact the conduit through which Mayor Nir Barkat puts forth his dreams and plans for the city. Shalem is widely respected on a professional level, but she raises some concern among municipal employees, who don't quite understand what her position and the nature of her job are. Another cause for concern, they feel, is Shalem's distant demeanor. "What can I do?" she says. "Yes, it's true, I am not what we call a 'sahbak.' I don't tell jokes when I head a working meeting, I am rather reserved, and all those more personal forms of expression I prefer to save for my private space and not at work," she admits. But she is quick to add, "However, I know I am fair. People who work with me hear compliments as well as criticism in a very direct manner." Shalem, 45, mother of a teenage boy and two little girls, could have been somewhere else. "Even before she graduated from the Hebrew University with an MA, she was offered to continue on a direct track to a PhD," recalls fellow student Batya Kna'ani-Brem, a businesswoman and No. 20 on Barkat's list. "We met in the Political Science Department in the 1980s. She majored in education, and that has been her main field of interest ever since. She was always very methodical and practical; she was very ambitious and would always take upon herself the biggest projects. She was one of those pupils who would never miss a class. But above all, she was an outstanding student. We already knew in our undergraduate years that she would go far." Rather than go into the PhD program offered to her by the university, Shalem got married, started to raise a family and began a career in business development. "As a mother, she was the same Michal I had met on campus - totally dedicated, striving for the best," says Kna'ani-Brem. Shalem began to work first as a teaching assistant at the Hebrew University and then as a youth coordinator at the Jewish Agency. Originally from a very rooted Zionist family, she is still very connected to the land and to nature. For her, the best kind of entertainment would be a nature hike or camping trip with her family. She decided to remain in Jerusalem after completing her studies and marrying her husband, whom she refers to as "the perfect partner." HER FIRST encounter with Barkat took place more than 10 years ago through their joint efforts to change some of the Jerusalem Education Administration's rules. "Our kids [Shalem's elder son and Barkat's middle daughter] were studying together in early elementary school at the David Yellin School," says Shalem. "It was a great framework, from kindergarten to second grade. We thought then, a group of parents, that it was a shame that this warm, welcoming framework couldn't go on for the entire elementary program. It was a large group of parents, but for me there was no way I would just sit there and feel sorry that things were not going the way I wanted. Working hard to make things better - that's me," she says. Shalem went to see her neighbor Barkat and presented her case. "His answer was very simple and positive: 'Let's see if it's feasible,'" she recalls. "I did my homework, went back to him, we started to work on it together, and other parents joined us. And the rest is history." The next struggle was the well-publicized change in the registration areas for junior high, a struggle for which Barkat, backed by the logistical support and the professionalism Shalem provided, went to the High Court of Justice. "Right from the start, whereas Barkat became the main 'political' power in the group, which numbered about 25 parents, Shalem quickly took upon herself the reins of the entire organization and demonstrated a remarkable capacity for managing and coordinating the struggle," says Kna'ani-Brem. Today, Shalem's working hours are intense. By 7:30 a.m. she is already well into her daily schedule. "Sometimes I feel it's too much," admits Shalem, "but I believe that if you want to see things done properly and efficiently, you have to be prepared to take on a heavy load." SHALEM WAS born in the Jezreel Valley. Her father, a Holocaust survivor, arrived in Israel as a lonely orphan from the camps. Her mother, from Moshav Beit She'arim, was a head nurse at Ha'emek Hospital in Afula, so the family lived on the grounds of the medical complex. Later on, the family moved to Ramat Hasharon, where in her youth Shalem spent much more time at the Scouts club and doing scouting activities than at home. "Life repeats itself," she muses. "My 16-year-old son is doing the same here in Jerusalem." In 2003 she decided to join Barkat for his first campaign. From the moment she signed on, less than two months after her daughter's birth, she has been by his side, the person without whom Barkat will not make any important decision in his public life. "You won't see her at premieres or cocktail parties or what we call mundane gatherings," comments Kna'ani-Brem. "She doesn't like to waste her time on small talk; she'd rather spend her time on being well prepared for the next meeting. In general, she prefers to be in the background. She hates being in the spotlight, and she is very protective of her privacy." "The first impression you get when you sit at a meeting with her is that she is not even trying to impress you," says a high-ranking official at the municipality. "But then we start to work, and you find out that she comes ready, she's on top of things to decide, she's efficient and polite. And when the meeting is over, you realize that it was held in a pleasant atmosphere." On her first appearance, after the previous elections, things were less smooth. For some of the lower-level staff, it was not easy to work with someone who wouldn't spend time on polite banter, who would request immediate responses and work done. "She was not really one of us - not that she was rude or anything, but once she stepped in, all interpersonal conversation stopped. It was clear that when Michal was there, none of us could phone home and talk for a while about personal matters. Even though she wouldn't utter a word, you'd feel embarrassed," says another municipal employee. "I know that we are scrutinized, tested, evaluated, all the time, every day, every moment," responds Shalem. "People try to find out how serious we are, how far we're ready to go. But at the same time, I have seen some changes in attitude: I see heads of departments who arrive at their appointment with the mayor and discuss their working plans with him. During the budget discussions, once they were told that the old way - adapting the figures to the actual rates was all they were expected to do - was over and that they should present budget proposals based on their plans for their departments, it took a short time, but we see that some of them are already working differently. I believe that even after years of sticking people into a state of uninspiring, boring routine, it's not easy to encourage them to step out and suggest ideas and initiatives, but we're reaching that point. It turns out that there are a lot of good people in the municipal administration, and they are waking up." SO WHAT does Shalem do exactly? "I take care of developing the strategic plan for the city," she says. "I have surrounded myself with people who are dedicated, extremely capable, and together we are building a new horizon for this city, which is not only the capital of the State of Israel but also the capital of the Jewish people. We are looking farther into the future. There are the daily tasks, but there is also Nir's vision. My staff and I are here to promote something far larger than the daily running of a city. I am completely dedicated to Nir's vision, which I share. I see myself as the person whose job it is to translate that vision into reality. But before that, I want to emphasize that I am here because I believe we need to have a vision." Was she hurt to see that Barkat and his plans were met with disdain during his term in the opposition? "You bet I was hurt," she says. "However, I have left all of that behind me. I do not bear a grudge, but I was very disappointed. Vision, dreams, great plans for the future - that is exactly what we need; there's no place for disdain. We bring with us new policies based on a vision and a mission; and I see that many people around us, including within the municipality's administration, are responding to our challenge. That is the best we could have hoped for." Asked how these first changes look in practice, Shalem says, "When we were in the opposition, for five years we tried to obtain a list of addresses of all the local corporations, but it was impossible. When I came here, it was one of my first requests as chief of staff. And lo and behold - a miracle: We received the list within a day! Now we're going to check every corporation, every [municipal] auxiliary and improve their status, for the benefit of all the residents," she asserts. Regarding the priorities on the new administration's agenda, Shalem sounds realistic: "Nir and I share not only a common vision but also a tremendous amount of time working together and the ability to identify the perfect balance of priorities. After all, nobody expects us to do in one year what has been neglected here for decades," she says. As an example, Shalem cites the light rail project. "What we are trying to do now is to move that project from a personal-political caprice of mayor [Ehud] Olmert into a viable public transportation project for the city. A project that will serve the residents and bring in 10 million tourists as potential users," she says. In Shalem's view, how does her being a woman factor into the position she holds? "It's not that I am a feminist or not a feminist; I am a working person who strives to do things the best way I believe they should be done," she explains. Adds Shalem's friend Kna'ani-Brem, "Her position is connected to the total trust she enjoys from Barkat. There is nothing she has obtained because she is a woman; everything she has achieved has been due to her skills." When he assumed his new position, Barkat asked the high-ranking officials to stay for the first three months, allowing him to assess the situation and decide who would remain and who would be let go and thanked for their services. According to Shalem, who was undoubtedly behind the decision, this procedure has proven efficient. "We are still learning the details, regarding the spokesman's office, as well as other departments. As soon as we reach a decision, it will be implemented, but we prevented any misunderstanding." Like Barkat, Shalem works in a team. "I said from the outset to all my staff and anyone who comes to work here: 'Please leave your ego at the door; there's no room for it here. We are a team, we have a city to run and serve. Both Nir and I think in terms of 'civil servant,' and that's what I expect from people who want to work with me," she says. Shalem is flanked by mostly young, highly educated people, some of whom are disabled. "She is not a person who'd go and deliver speeches about the need to employ handicapped people," explains Kna'ani-Brem. "But it is evident that she would lead by example." For Mayor Barkat, things are clear: "Michal Shalem, with her outstanding skill and abilities, is here to be an extension of me. She has a great capacity to translate my vision, my dreams and my thoughts into practical and feasible terms and actions. She is not an additional general manager, she deals with the things that are extraterritorial to the municipality, from the relationships with the Jewish world to the ancillary companies, the local corporations, the numerous bodies and organizations that are connected or will be connected to the welfare and development of the city. I cannot be in all places; Michal is me where I can't be. People who meet her and work with her understand that they meet me through her. It's a totally new discipline that Michal and I, after long years of fruitful collaboration, want to develop and instill here." Where will all this lead? Shalem, in a rare moment of reduced self-restraint, admits that for her, it is already clear that "Not only is Barkat planning at least two terms here" - meaning 10 years of service as mayor - "but," she hints, "I know that for him, the sky is the limit."