Bronfman Prize Recipient Karen Tal Pledges to Continue Her Work on Behalf of Underprivileged Youth

“We’re going to build more schools so that every student will have a chance to succeed,”

said Bronfman Award Recipient KarenTal, former principal of the Bialik-Rogozin School,
who is set to lead a new venture.

by Abigail Pickus

One of Israel’s most celebrated educators, who turned a forgotten school in one of Tel Aviv’s most disadvantaged neighborhoods into a beacon of academic success and co-existence, is the newest recipient of the prestigious Charles Bronfman Prize.

Karen Tal, who for six years served as principal of the Bialik-Rogozin Campus, received the 2011 Jewish Humanitarian Award for creating an educational community of inclusion, success and achievement for disadvantaged youth in Israel. The September 7, 2011, ceremony at Tel Aviv University was attended by dignitaries and some of world Jewry’s most recognized philanthropists and entrepreneurs.

Each year, the Bronfman prize, which carries with it a $100,000 award, is given to an individual or team – under the age of 50 – whose humanitarian work has contributed significantly to the betterment of the world. Its goal is to bring public recognition to dynamic young innovators whose Jewish values infuse their humanitarian accomplishments, providing inspiration for generations to come.

“Karen is an inspired light for an inspiring people,” said Bronfman. “My hope is that this accolade will propel her higher still and give pause to anyone who doubts what one individual can do to have a real impact in the world.”

Under Tal’s leadership, two schools on the verge of collapse were combined into one prestigious institution to create a safe refuge of learning. The majority of the k-12 student body are the “forgotten children” of new immigrants from places like the former Soviet Union and Ethiopia, foreign workers, refugees from Darfur, Sudan, Eritrea and more, who have fled unspeakable horrors, as well as poor Israelis and Arab Israelis. Over half of the students’ families are recipients of social services. Her over-arching goal has been to create an institution that stands for “values of excellence, achievement, solidarity and respect for human beings.” She has succeeded. In just five years, the percentage of students passing the matriculation exams rose dramatically from 27% to 72%.

Tal also bolstered her school by creating partnerships with public and private entities, such as leading companies like Cisco and Google. The school was the subjects of the 2011 Academy Award winning documentary, Strangers No More.

Tal and her staff are credited with battling the Israeli government to prevent many of her students from deportation.

“I am so happy and honored to receive this prize on behalf of so many children across the city,” said Tal, in a powerful speech in which she thanked Charles Bronfman, her parents, her dedicated staff, school board and members of the Government and community who have banded together to give the Bialik-Rogozin students the support they need to succeed.

“The man does so much for the world and the Jewish people,” said Tal of Bronfman, recalling that after visiting the Bialil-Rogozin campus he called and conveyed this message: “‘You are not alone.’”

What all of her life’s work centers around, she said, is the Talmudic principal of “All of Israel is responsible for one another.”

“Here are all of these children, with no one to help them,” she said. And yet, “with the right support, there is a future for these children. The way we can judge our society is by how we treat those on the margins.”

“The magic in this place,” she continued, “comes from love and from the injunction to ‘love the stranger among us.’”

“Karen taught us to believe in ourselves and in the power of community and in a just society,” said two students from Bialik-Rogozin who acted as Masters of Ceremony for the event. Speakers included Tel Aviv-Jaffa Mayor Ron Huldai, Minister of Education Gideon Sa’ar, Yedioth Ahronot columnist and Israel Prize recipient Nahum Barnea and Justice Rosalie Silberman Abella of the Supreme Court of Canada.

“I’ve met a lot of amazing educators, principals and teachers and people who touch and change the lives of children, but Karen Tal is really the top of the top,” said Sa’ar, the Minister of Education. “She wasn’t just the principal of a school. She is an educational leader and a source of hope and strength for students and for the community at large.”

Born in Morocco, Tal, 46, immigrated to Israel with her family when she was 3. She served in the army as an education officer in the Israel Air Force technical school and was principal of the Shevah Mofet High School in Tel Aviv before being tapped as the principal of Bialik-Rogozin in 2005.

Tal will use her knowledge to direct the new Education Initiatives Center (EIC), a nonprofit dedicated to empowering public, elementary and high school principals throughout Israel’s social and geographical periphery to transform their schools and improve students’ prospect for success. The organization will work in collaboration with the Israeli Ministry of Education and local municipalities and will be based on the Bialik-Rogozin model.

“We’re going to build more schools so that every student will have a chance to succeed,” she said.

Tal pledged to donate a percentage of her award to create a scholarship fund for students from Bialik-Rogozin to attend higher education.

“I, myself, was only able to attend university and higher education because of scholarships,” she said.

2011 marks the seventh year of the Charles Bronfman Prize. Past recipients include Jay Feinberg, Founder and Executive Director of the Gift of Life Bone Marrow Foundation, Dr. Alon Tal, Founder of Israel’s Arava Institute for Environmental Studies, and Rachel Andres, Founder and Director of Jewish World Watch’s Solar Cooker Project, among others.

As Justice Silberman Abella of the Supreme Court of Canada said, the Bronfman Prize is “not about promoting being Jewish, but about promoting what being Jewish means.”

images: top: The Bialik-Rogozin Campus Choir with Charles Bronfman
bottom: Charles Bronfman and Karen Tal