The Man who went from being a Truck Driver with Nine Years of Schooling to a University Lecturer and High-School Principal
Michael Ben Shitrit, son of Moroccan immigrants and one of 11 children, grew up in a poor neighborhood • According to the path that was created for him, he was supposed to be working at a garage now, but he recalculated his life, and at 30 years old, he is the principal of the Branco Weiss High School for At-Risk Youth: There is no need to wait for the State and for social justice – education is the best tool for escaping poverty • “For 65 years, the majority of Mizrahi people have been economically weak, a large majority of those in prison are Mizrahi people who committed acts. On the other hand, people whom the State does not protect also have to take care of themselves”
Michael Ben Shitrit, I heard that you have an extraordinary personal story.
I was born to Moroccan immigrants, as the eighth son in a family of 11 brothers and sisters. We lived in Tiberius until I was 10 years old, and then my parents divorced and I moved to Beit Shemesh. My father didn’t work and lived off of his Social Security allowance, and my mom worked as a nurse and a factory worker. We were always below the poverty line. The apartments we lived in were typically 3-room Amidar public housing units. From time to time our electricity or water would be disconnected due to late payments. I was a youth from a poor neighborhood. A few years ago, when I celebrated my son’s birthday at a restaurant, I looked at him and thought how fun it is to celebrate in this way with my family.
This didn’t happen to you as a child?
No, I couldn’t even imagine it. It’s amazing that only at 40 years old I first thought of it.
Let’s move on.
At age 12, I was sent to ITRI – a Lithuanian Ultra-Orthodox Yeshiva in Jerusalem. I was there until the age of 15 and I decided that I no longer wanted to be religious. I returned to a religious high school in Beit Shemesh, where I suffered from a serious knowledge gap. Within the ultra-orthodox framework, I learned only religious studies. At school, I was told that I had low capabilities, and the truth is that it didn’t bother anyone.
What do you mean by that?
No one took an interest in me. They pushed me to study electrical work. I lasted 6 a half a year until the principal called my mother and told her: “The boy is cute, but a waste of time. He should go work”.
And did you go?
Yes, at 16 years of age I went to work at the Team Garage in Beit Shemesh.
Pretty quickly I decided it wasn’t it and I returned alone to Tiberius. I rented an apartment there and worked at a video rental store, a pool hall and restaurants. Later on, I took a course in hairdressing and until I enlisted I was a hairdresser. Once every couple of months, I would visit Beit Shemesh, but I was a trouble maker.
I got entangled with the law, brawls, investigations, wandering at night when the police take you to the station. Things that lost teenagers get involved in.
I had a criminal record. I prefer not to get into it, but I was appointed a probation officer and I went through the process and at the end they gave me an opportunity to enlist in the army in the Raful Youth Project.
So you got out of the crisis?
Not so quickly. I also had “acclimation difficulties” in the army, as they call it in the IDF. I already went to military Prison 6 for a month right at the beginning.
How did you get out of it?
I wanted to leave the army; I had given up. But I had a commander who didn’t give up on me, and said she would do anything in order for me to complete the course. She was the first person who gave me a chance in life. Her name is Hilat Oppenheimer. After many years, we met by chance here in Modiin. She is a principal of a high school in the city. We are in good contact today. She made me feel that I am worth something and that came exactly at the critical moment, because if I hadn’t stayed in the army, it was clear that I would return to delinquency and crime and to the feeling that I was worthless and that I didn’t make anything of myself.
That’s the feeling you received from the high school principal in Beit Shemesh?
Yeah, he probably didn’t understand much in education. In that same period, there was also less awareness. I was just a lost child who needed help.
What did you end up doing in the army?
I was a truck driver. My military service wasn’t easy, because one must go through a long process in order to disconnect from problematic habits and behaviors. But the fact that I completed my service as I was supposed to, with no shortcuts, gave me a push for the future, because I also left with a profession in the civilian world and I also understood that I could be within a structured framework and finish. I was released at 21 years old with 10 years of study and a truck driver’s license and I decided to work at Elite, in the chocolate and coffee sector. Four years later, I met my wife, from the Tal Shahar moshav.
She is of Ashkenazi background?
Yes, Hungarian. She grew up in an entirely different world. She was a fifteen minute drive from Beit Shemesh, but a tremendous distance with respect to life path and approaches. After three months, we moved in together in the Moshav, and suddenly, I saw something else in life. And then came the big change.
What was it?
At evening get togethers at the moshav, I met her good friend, Esty, who is married to Sammy, who was the manager of Bank Tfahot in Beit Shemesh. In these conversations, I discovered that Sammy, who was only older than me by a few years, grew up in the impoverished neighborhood Dora in Netanya to downtrodden parents. The difference was that his parents placed an emphasis on learning and made sure that he would get his high school diploma and that he would go to college. I looked at him and understood that I could be like him as well if I would have learned. One day, at 25 years old, when I returned from work, I saw a sign for Ahva College. I drove there with my truck and asked if they have matriculation studies. They told me that all that was needed was a check book and ID certificate. It took me a year and a half – and I left with a full diploma with honors. I overcame tremendous knowledge gaps.
What did you think about yourself then?
All I wanted was to be different, better, more talented. Because I excelled, I received a scholarship from the Minister of Education, Zvulun Hammer, and I was accepted for a Bachelor’s degree in History. I also completed my Bachelor’s degree with honors and I decided to teach at Ben Gurion University and Ahva College, where I received my high school diploma. My life changed. From a truck driver with nine years of schooling – to a university lecturer at age 30.
That’s really a strong story.
And then I decided to work with at-risk children. I arrived at a high school in Modiin and I began working as a teacher and educator. I gathered children who were not functioning and ten years ago we opened our first class. I had a principal who recognized that I connected with them. This was a huge success that after her, I managed classes like these in all of the schools in Modiin. The city had just begun to deal with lost youth. Six years ago, I opened the Branco Weiss School for at-risk Children, for students who had dropped out of the regular normative framework at other schools in the city.
Why did they drop out?
It is always connected to the parents. I was an at-risk child with a socio-economic background and here there are at-risk children from broken homes, mental and physical abuse, and a great experience of failure, after which a new self-image must be built. Here they go through an empowering experience.
Tell me a little about your school.
We are an excelling school on a national level, with 80% eligibility for full matriculation. The average for a school like ours is 30%. We have 100% enlistment to the army in significant roles. One of our graduates just finished an officer’s course. We have achieved a great deal in the area of moral and social education; the students volunteer within the municipal framework, they tutor children, volunteer with children with cerebral palsy in Modiin. We have a music and theater group at a high level.
Perhaps the general system rejects too many students?
Look, it is difficult for schools with thousands of students to accommodate the personal needs and of their complexities. Although also in a regular school, a teacher who has an educational soul sees these students and gives them more. I don’t transfer all the responsibility on to the schools, but I also don’t take away from them their responsibility to educate. In the educational system and Israeli society, people are quick to blame the youth, the generation, society, others – and don’t take responsibility. This permeates with the children, when everyone blames the other an excuses themselves.
Tell me about the children that you educate.
These are not difficult children, but rather children with difficulties. Their behavior is difficult, but inside, they have a damaged and soft soul that needs to be strengthened and given hope. It is rather clear that a child who looks ahead and does not see hope will make trouble out of hopelessness. The vast majority of children here are children with great learning difficulties. They are heroes who cope in order to succeed.
Everyone needs to take responsibility. This includes the police officer who is responsible for public order and arrives at the park to deal with them. There needs to be a sense of responsibility that will let him understand that his job is not to cause the children to think that the police are hostile toward them. He needs to be part of the system that will get them out of the situation.
And this isn’t happening?
It isn’t happening because everyone is blaming everyone else.
Do you tell your story to the children at the school? Is this a topic that is spoken about?
Up until two years ago, my story wasn’t told here at the school, but today I lecture the 12th graders on my story and provide insight.
Do you feel like this helps them?
Yes, I see that they know that you can reach other places even if you are at the bottom. The opportunity to complete the army service, meeting my wife, the exposure to other people and the support I received to go and study, along with my fight for the future – has brought results.
What do you primarily tell them?
To make sure to fight for your future, for your place, to seek the people who will give you an opportunity.
As children who are studying at a school for those with difficulties, are they not being labeled a little?
This is a popular school in the city. There is high demand, because students arrive with failing grades and leave the school with a diploma. The parents also push. We have a lot of warmth and love, like a family, unlike a regular high school. The receive many tools for life. The students love the school; they are getting an experience unlike one they once knew, because in other places they felt they were on the edges, hated, rejected, and unwanted. Here they receive a complimenting and warm experience, they learn to bring out the best in themselves.
What about discipline? Punishment?
There is strict discipline on functioning and attendance and we set limits. We are now in winter exams, everyone is in a frenzy. Look outside and see a teacher who took tables and chairs into the sun for studying. The students study at their teachers’ houses. We have a dedicated team with a soul. These are the people who make the educational system different. In order for the child to pass his exams, they sit with him in the afternoon and in the evening. Yesterday I spoke on the phone with a teacher who told me that just then she was buying ingredients for a quiche that she is going to prepare for the children who are coming to her house to study. We have a complete commitment here to succeed because the teachers understand that this brings tools for life. If you show a child just how much investing and sacrifice pays off – you are changing his life. Yesterday a mother of one of my students from my first class came to me in order to tell me that her daughter is already in her third year of medical school.
You aren’t angry at the State? At the system?
I am frustrated with people because if the principal of the school in which I studied would have seen a challenge in me, he would have achieved a big success. At my core, I was always a good person. It isn’t too much of a request to accompany a child who was in the ultra-orthodox framework a bit more, or to create a special program for him. I didn’t even get a conversation, and after a half a year they told me that I was wasting my time. But I am not angry with the place in which I was born and this also progress anything. How will it help me to blame the State for discrimination? I need to focus on advancing Mizrahi people and this is what I am doing. In the school hereto, a majority are Mizrahi.
Where are your ten siblings?
I am the only one who completed 12 years of education. When you get on track, you bring children into the world, and you commit to a mortgage, it is a bit difficult to get out of this circle. Not everyone has the financial security but everyone works, everyone is diligent, no one got rich. Their children make the jump slowly, but some of my siblings have kids who did not finish their 12 years of education and their future will be similar to their parents’ pasts. The State is paying for it greatly. It is saving in the short-term and paying greatly in law enforcement and in the social welfare of the impoverished neighborhoods and in unemployment.
What about your childhood friends?
I have one childhood friend remaining, my soul mate since we were 10 years old. He also got his life together. Shimon. A special man who of everyone got to Intel. He grew up in a house with illiterate parents. One friend died of a drug overdose and there are also things that I am not going to say. I was exposed to delinquency, drugs and crime; I was investigated a few times. The decision to disconnect from my friends from the past is also a type of choice.
How do you explain the fact that after so many years we are still talking about such great hardship for the Mizrahi people?
I think that both sides need to do more – the depriver and the deprived. Israel needs to invest more in the periphery because it can’t be that the investment will be equal everywhere. A child born to educated parents with a greater financial abilities receives better opportunities and better education. The State cannot allow itself to remain this way. It needs to be responsible so that the children who were born to the weaker parents will receive more. For 65 years, the majority of Mizrahi people have been economically weal, a large majority of those in prison are Mizrahi people, Arabs or Ethiopians who committed the acts. On the other hand, people whom the State does not protect also have to take care of themselves. Their priorities need to change.
What should they do?
Above all else, the way to break free of the low socio-economic status is the provide education for children. Above all else. Education is the best tool to break free from poverty. Emigrants from Russia will also live two families to one home and will work jobs with a low wage, and still education and the classes and the enrichment will be a sacred value. We cannot remove the personal responsibility from the child and the family. We cannot wait for social justice. I won’t allow my son to pay the price until the State will be fair. In order to finance my Bachelor’s degree, I had to wake up at 2:00 AM, take the neighbor’s truck, fill it with cilantro, spearmint and parsley, and drive to sell it at Machneyuda Market. At 7:00 in the morning I would return to the moshav, shower and drive to class at the University. Twice a week I worked cleaning apartments. I would also wash the sports arena at the elementary school on the moshav. On weekends, I worked security all night. Until the State will be more just and equal, people need to take responsibility for themselves.
I lecture throughout Israel. It gives me confidence. The success I experience allows me to not be ashamed of the fact that I grew up as a poor child and one can come out of it.
What do you want to do when you grow up?
My dream is to turn what I have done in my life into a method that will lead many people on the same track. A program for life skills to a weakened population – that is what I want to lead. To cause them to succeed with and without, and despite the support that is missing from the State. The path I chose in life, to do everything in order to succeed, drove me in recent years to start running, and this connected to my life. Our brain is the most significant factor. We have endless abilities; the question is if you receive support, if you belong to a group that pushes that way. It begins in our brain. At 25 years old, I reformatted and redefined myself. The hardware is the same hardware, only the software changed. I made a “restart” when I said “If Sammy can – I can too”, and I created an opportunity for myself. Endlessly.