The principals of pluralism

The TALI Educational Leadership Program brings Jewish heritage to secular schools.

In what could definitely be described as better late than never, more than 100 school principals and teachers, who completed the two-year TALI Educational Leadership Program between 2003 and 2008, were finally honored in a formal graduation ceremony at the Kibbutz Ramat Rahel Congress Hall on June 3. The TALI Educational Leadership Program is a course of study for principals and teaching staff from TALI schools all over the country. Now in its ninth year, its aim is to create leaders who can bring Jewish studies, in the TALI spirit of pluralism and non-coercion, into their schools. TALI, the Hebrew acronym for "enriched Jewish studies," is a nationwide network of more than 120 schools and preschools, with some 32,000 students, committed to providing Jewish education to the non-observant in the secular state school system. Established in 1976, TALI is sponsored by the TALI Education Fund (TEF), a part of the Masorti Movement's Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem, and is fully recognized and supported by the Ministry of Education. Over the years, the TALI leadership discovered that despite the desire of many TALI schools to provide Jewish studies to their children and to expose them to Jewish tradition and heritage, the staff could not do so on its own. This was because most "secular" teachers have little or no Jewish background, while those who do come from traditional homes often have an approach that does not reflect educational messages appropriate for non-religious pupils. What was needed were remedial Jewish studies stressing values and experiences that nurture and strengthen Jewish identity. Out of this need was born the Educational Leadership Program. "In 1997, we were still grappling with what to do to advance TALI," explains Dr. Eitan Chikli, TALI director general. "We had tried all kinds of approaches and were not getting very far. Then, the late Walter Ackerman, who was director general at that time, suggested that I go to Harvard's School of Education to have a look at their Principal Center," he says. "So I went to the Principal Center and I learned that if something doesn't start with the principal, it is not important. Everything rises or falls because of the principal. You can invest a lot of money but if the principal is not the right person, it will be to no avail. And the opposite - a good principal can achieve wonders with a small investment," says Chikli. Chikli also learned from Harvard that principals need non-threatening, supportive forums where they can talk about their frustrations and failures, and they need continuing education. Upon his return to Israel, he told Ackerman that TALI needed something like the Harvard Principal Center. This was made a first priority of TEF, and the program started in 2000 under the auspices of the Schechter Institute. "We wanted to develop our staff professionally," Chikli relates. "Many of our principals had master's degrees in education or educational administration but knew nothing about Judaism. So that was one aim. Next, we wanted a supportive framework in which they could tell the truth to one another about their difficulties. And finally, we wanted workshops with actual case studies where they could learn practical skills to cope with difficult situations and how to apply their new knowledge in their schools." The program got off the ground in 2000 with 12 principals studying one day a week for one year at Schechter. Although very successful, the principals found themselves a lone voice returning to their schools. So it was decided to expand the program in two ways. One was to reach out to key teachers who, together with the principals, would form a cadre to lead Jewish education in the TALI spirit. The second was to move into a more academic framework of two years of study, constituting 70 percent of a master's degree at Schechter, with the option to receive a scholarship to go on and complete the degree. "It is amazing to see how four or five staff members can really change an entire school," Chikli notes. "The aim is to create an internal leadership and build a human infrastructure that really understands the TALI spirit, has the educational knowledge and can be TALI's leadership of tomorrow." "What is unique about this program is that it builds on the pedagogic knowledge of our principals in giving them Jewish knowledge," states Eva Halachmi, director of the Educational Leadership Program. "Our teachers come to us like a tabula rasa with respect to Judaism, and they discover a whole new world. They experience intensive encounters with Jewish creativity and the Jewish bookshelf in a non-threatening atmosphere. They develop their own Jewish identity. And they get not only the theoretical but also the practical by learning how to translate the TALI vision into actual implementation in the schools." Orit Bourla, principal of TALI Hadror, an elementary school in Mevaseret Zion, finished the program in 2008 together with six of her teachers. "My joining the program was born out of a desire for more knowledge and power to effect change, to bring my school to a new level. I grew up in a traditional family, but in the program I became acquainted with Judaism in a very different way. I came to understand that being a Jew is not just wearing a kippa. You can be a Jew in many other ways. Together with my teachers who took the program, we became a force for leading change. When you know things, you can lead a whole school and a community." Levona Milon and Or Zohar are both teachers from TALI Mathemati, an elementary school in Pisgat Ze'ev with a strong emphasis on mathematics. "This program answers a real existential need," Milon says. "The fact that we have a state is not obviously understood. We have to present our Jewish heritage to our children, who basically do not know anything about Judaism. They don't feel connected to the Jewish people nor to their Jewish roots. We give our kids values grounded in both Jewish and universal sources. This program provides us with the tools to bring forth a new generation of Israeli children who are proud of the Jewish religion, Jewish tradition and Jewish identity." Her colleague Zohar says that "This program developed and strengthened my connection to Jewish history and Judaism in a pluralistic way. It broadened my Jewish horizons and enriched my repertoire. It gave me a means to transmit the values and richness of Judaism in our school." Tsipi Shabi of Yozma TALI Modi'in, a new elementary school, feels that the program was "a springboard for me both professionally and personally. It helped me in developing a new school with a pluralistic Jewish orientation and in developing myself to direct such a school. It expanded the Jewish world for me and gave me powerful emotional and spiritual experience. After I completed the program, I went on to complete a master's at Schechter in Jewish education and women's studies." Halachmi sums it up, saying: "The Jewish vision must not remain a dream. It must be turned into daily work and reality. I believe that is how we engender a revolution that will influence Judaism in Israel for years to come."