February 1, 2018

Today’s message is a second reflection from my recent mission to Israel.  The context of my trip was a UJA sponsored Heads of School Mission with a focus on Israel Engagement Education.  The focus of the mission was seeing Israel as a diverse and multicultural nation. As part of the mission we visited 8 different educational institutions.  It was a fascinating lense with which to examine the culture and current state of Israel.  Below please find my reflection on our visit to a Bedouin Youth Leadership Program.

My first trip to Israel, in 1994, was a top to bottom tour of the country in just under a week.  As we drove south from Jerusalem towards Eilat, the bus made a stop to show us life in the desert.  As a group of 16- year-old Canadians, we experienced the most stereotypical desert activity we could: camel riding.  When the camel ride was over, we were invited into a Bedouin tent to learn about the Bedouin culture in Israel.  We learned 3 things:

  1. Bedouins are a nomadic people who live in big tents with extended families
  2. Bedouins welcome their guests with tea
  3. Bedouins are citizens of Israel

We did not learn the realities of Bedouin life or culture.  We did not learn about the tensions between Israeli Jews and Israeli Bedouins, and we did not learn about the extreme poverty and inadequate education Bedouins receive and we did not learn about the intense tribal battles between families.  

Last week, a windy road in the Negev took me to explore Bedouin culture.  However, I did not ride a camel or drink tea in a tent. Rather, I met an extraordinary young Israeli named Matan who is transforming Bedouin education, and in turn culture, one teenager at a time.  Five years ago, inspired by a deep understanding that the future of the Negev region was a joint destiny of Israeli Jews and Israeli Bedouins and aware of the demographic reality that by 2040 the Bedouin people will make up 50% of the population in the Negev, Matan began an NGO called Desert Stars. What started as a year-long leadership course for post high school youth has become a high school, an informal education program and a leadership incubator for 18 year olds.  

The programs themselves are outstanding.  They are examples of a disruptive model of education and prototypes for the possibilities when traditional systems of education are turned on their heads.  I am confident that the youth in these programs will be equipped with skills and knowledge to bridge tribal rifts within the Israeli Bedouin society and, alongside Israeli Jews, lead the Negev into a brighter future.  However, what struck me most was the living example of grit and growth mindset I witnessed while learning from Matan.

Grit, a term coined by Angela Duckworth (see TED talk here), is an individual’s passion for a long term goals coupled with unrelenting motivation to achieve an end state.  According to Duckworth, it is “living life like a marathon and not like a sprint”. Matan surely has passion, perseverance and unrelenting determination.  With each part of his story he described obstacles that he and his students have overcome, doors that he refused to let shut and a sheer drive to create something better for the people of his region.  As well, he demonstrated a growth mindset.  Constantly using the word yet – we don’t do that yet – always suggesting an opportunity for more and for growth.

As I spend much of my time contemplating school growth and I work towards creating a faculty and student culture rich in grit and growth mindset, I am inspired by what I witnessed.  Matan exemplified vision and a steadfast determination to achieve his goals of bettering his community.  In addition, he has inspired his faculty with his vision so they too see themselves as change makers critical to redefining the realities of the future for the region.  It is vision, and the clear communication of vision, that is the cornerstone for this, and any, transformation.  With grit, growth mindset, clarity of purpose and charisma to bring others along, anything is possible.  Matan’s journey of school and system disruption is a model to emulate: not the program, but the key components of vision and distributive leadership he has cultivated along the way.