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Head of the Class

Born to a single teenage mother, Hagai Ben-Avraham was a troubled teenager who bounced from one institution to another until he finally turned his life around. Now, as principal at WIZO Nachlat Yehuda, he and his staff are inspiring students to unprecedented academic success

August 05, 2019
Head of the Class

The serene campus of the WIZO Nachlat Yehuda Youth Village in Rishon Lezion may be just 13 kilometers from south Tel Aviv’s poor Shapira neighborhood, but for the school's principal Hagai Ben-Avraham, it feels like a lifetime away.

Over the past two years, Ben-Avraham and his staff have propelled the student matriculation rate from a dismal 29% to a remarkable 77%, the highest jump of any high school in Israel. Ben-Avraham's gripping personal story, however, begins in that poor not-so distant Tel Aviv neighborhood.

I grew up in an area of drug addicts and prostitutes,” Ben-Avraham said as he sat in his modest office at Nachlat Yehuda. ”My mother was only 17 when she had me. My father abandoned  her when she was pregnant. In my early years I was raised by my grandmother.”

After first grade, he was held back a year because he did not learn. Ben-Avraham spent many schooldays outside the classroom, wandering the streets. His teachers neither noticed nor cared.

Two years later he was referred by social services to a “mishpachton” (foster family) at a children’s village in Karmiel in northern Israel, where he remained until the 9th grade. He continued to skip school, often getting into altercations with local youth.

He spent the remainder of his high school years at Kibbutz Ein Ha’mifratz near Acco. He was disruptive. After each incident, the kibbutz to try to expel him, but his adoptive kibbutz family always came to his defense.

The Pink Floyd Epiphany

The turning point in Ben-Avraham’s story occurred at the start of 11th grade when he was involved in an incident in which one of his peers was injured.

I was warned that after the next incident they would not be able to protect me anymore and I would be kicked out for good. I ran to my room, locked the door and listened to Pink Floyd's “Final Cut” album. Music was always something that offered me release and that I could escape to.

As I listened to the music I said to myself, 'Aren’t you tired of being intolerable wherever you go?' From that day on, I changed my behavior. I started playing sports, writing about music in the kibbutz newspaper and participating in community theater. Suddenly I felt that I had found my place, that I was loved.”

In the twelfth grade, a youth group came to the kibbutz and Ben-Avraham was appointed to help them settle in. He felt tremendous pride, but then, at the end of the year, he was called in for a talk and told that he would not be allowed to stay at the kibbutz after graduation. When he asked why, he was told that the kibbutz did not buy the change in his behavior.

"It was one of the hardest hits I ever took in my life,” Ben-Avraham said. “I thought to myself that it was one thing when I was disruptive, but even after I changed my behavior completely they were still throwing me out?

Rising Up in the IDF

Ben-Avraham finished high school without a matriculation certificate. With his induction into the IDF, he struggled to find his place, at least at the outset. He would sit alone. His fellow soldiers assumed he was being arrogant. Only when he began the officers' training course did the other soldiers really get to know him. He became a commander for new recruits and felt significant again. Signing on for an additional year of service, he was able to save money. After completing his army service, he studied for two more years and received his high school matriculation certificate at the age of 26, an accomplishment most students achieve at 18.

After completing the matriculation exams, it dawned on Ben-Avraham that this was something he could do. He began to study psychology at the Open University. In four years, he completed a BA in psychology, sociology and management.

 Finding His Calling in Education

Over the years, Ben-Avraham worked in many fields, but didn’t find his true calling. Finally, through a friend at the Rashi Foundation, he was referred to “Tafnit B’chinuch” (Turnabout in Education) which works with children with learning gaps. His educational career began at the Ramot School in Bat Yam where he worked for 12 years, five as the vice-principal. It was Ramot’s principal Dvora Kehat who encouraged Ben-Avraham to obtain a master's degree and take the school principals’ course, which he passed.

Unprecedented Academic Success at WIZO Nachlat Yehuda

The WIZO Nachlat Yehuda Youth Village, sponsored by WIZO Switzerland and WIZO USA, has 400 students in grades 7 through 12, half of whom live in the boarding school. Galia Meron is the youth village's director.

Ben-Avraham is now in his fourth year as Nachlat Yehuda's school principal and since his arrival the students academic achievements have soared. Three years ago, only 29% of the school’s students were eligible for matriculation, but in his first year as principal, the rate jumped to 60%, and in this past year it rocketed to 77%, an unprecedented increase in Israel.

There is no secret or magic formula for our success,” Ben-Avraham says. “It’s all about hard work from our teachers and our students.

Ben-Avraham believes that educational success begins with the staff. “In the end everything rises and falls on people, not on organizations. There are a lot of teachers and principals who wake up in the morning with a sense of mission. I can attest that we fight for every student, ensuring they get the help and support they need to succeed.

If a teacher comes into a class truly believing that all the students in that class will succeed, they will do everything to make that happen, extra tutoring, staying late, offering support, and more. When the students see that the teachers believe in them, they put in the extra effort. The results speak for themselves.”

Closing Educational Gaps

While extremely proud of his students' matriculation results, Ben-Avraham warns against focusing solely on those numbers.

"Matriculation eligibility is not everything, the key is reducing educational gaps. That is our mission. This is an educational youth village and many students come here with very significant educational gaps. We must know how to address this to ensure that they graduate with a full matriculation certificate and the highest level of education possible. I am proud to report that we have achieved 100 percent enlistment into the IDF for the second straight year and many of our students also do a year of national service or preparatory army programs. Our goal is that students leave here as good citizens and are able to contribute to the state and sustain themselves independently with honor and a strong work ethic.

Ben-Avraham stresses that schools must prepare students not just to be able to graduate, but for what comes afterwards.

"We explain to our students that the educational framework is a kind of bubble. In the world outside there are gaps and inequalities. It is important for us that the students graduate from here with a sense of equality and tolerance. In the youth village, with children from so many sectors and communities, the students learn acceprance of the other.”

Significant Adults

 Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach said, “All a child needs is one adult to believe in them.” Ben-Avraham agrees. 

In the end, a child needs one adult to see him - but really see him. We try to see all the students all the time. If there is at least one significant educator, a counselor, a teacher, someone who sees the student and cares for them, that means the word to the student and to the parents.

At Nachlat Yehuda we ensure that our staff and counselors are dependable figures in the lives of the students. As the child learns to accept responsibility and work hard, their sense of self-worth grows, and we set boundaries of order and discipline, which explains why we have almost no cases of violence here.

By the way, this is also true in my case. After all, who saw me? All my life I was alone. I survived thanks to those who believed in me. Some of the students here come from very complicated family circumstances which don't reflect their true potential or abilities.  I know what they are going through. I share my personal story with them and speak to them about life.”

Not the Wind, but the Sails

When it's time to take a group photo, Ben-Avraham calls over a few students who happily oblige to pose with him.

Behind the group is a painting of a sailboat on the ocean with a quote by the late American actor and singer Jimmy Dean, “I can’t change the direction of the wind, but I can adjust my sails to always reach my destination.” 

When asked what he would say if he could go back in time and speak to his younger self, Ben-Avraham replies very directly.

I would tell him that I know his life is going to be very difficult. There will be many obstacles, but he will overcome them. All your challenges in life only make you stronger.”

Hagai Ben-Avraham may not be able to change the direction of the wind, but he and his staff are adjusting the sails of the youth at WIZO Nachlat Yehuda so they can navigate and safely reach their life destinations.

 Photo Credit: Yonatan Sredni