An ISEF-run math class for Israeli high school students. Galit Bareket Danielli grew up in a family of 11 children with parents who emigrated from Libya in the 1950s. Like many young Israelis from a disadvantaged background, Galit struggled against social stereotyping that encouraged her to seek vocational training instead of preparing for university on the assumption that she would be unable to afford it.
“I was an excellent student,” she remembers, “but the principal and counselor advised me to go to a vocational school. They meant well – they wanted to ensure I had a profession – yet I couldn’t understand why my friend got a recommendation to an academic high school, while I did not.”
Despite social barriers, Galit was determined to go to college and went on to study at Bar Ilan University, cleaning houses and waiting tables to pay for school. When she started studying for her master’s degree in sociology, she looked for financial help. She found ISEF.
ISEF – the International Sephardic Education Foundation – was founded in 1977 by the late Edmond Safra, his wife Lily, and Nina Wiener, who still serves as the organization’s president. The not-for-profit organization’s mission is to reduce Israel’s social and economic gaps by enabling talented young students from underprivileged backgrounds to obtain a higher education.
Those gaps are considerable. According to a report by the National Insurance Institute, more than 31 percent of Israeli children are growing up in poverty. Many of these children attend schools with larger classes and fewer facilities such as libraries and computer science labs. As a result, while the majority (66-75 percent) of high school seniors in middle-class and affluent areas of Israel receive a bagrut (the matriculation certificate that qualifies students for higher education), less than 30 percent of students in depressed communities graduate with this diploma. Unable to attend college, these young Israelis become trapped in a cycle of poverty that they cannot easily escape.
ISEF offers a ladder to help these students take a first step towards a better life. ISEF’s original mandate was to provide college and university scholarships, an objective still at the heart of the organization’s mission. Over the past 27 years, ISEF has invested more than $30 million in college and university scholarships.
For the 2004-2005 academic year, for example, 715 students pursuing undergraduate or graduate degrees received financial support from ISEF. Many of these students are the first in their families to go to college.
ISEF has also made it possible for a select group of graduate students to study abroad through its HSBC International Scholars program, which offers funding to 30 new students each year to pursue graduate study at leading institutions in the U.S. and Europe including Harvard, Yale, Columbia, and Oxford University.
Keren Azulay is one such student. Raised in the Negev development town of Dimona by parents who emigrated from Morocco, Keren earned her law degree at the highly competitive Hebrew University Law School prior to coming to the U.S. to pursue a master’s and doctorate in law at Columbia University Law School. (She is also one of the first ISEF-Fulbright Scholars thanks to a new partnership with the prestigious scholarship organization.) Although they study abroad, 90 percent of ISEF’s International Scholars return to Israel to apply as professionals what they have learned in school to benefit Israeli society.
ISEF believes in giving back. As part of its effort to imbue all of its scholarship recipients with leadership skills and a sense of social responsibility, scholars are required to contribute to the community by managing and teaching at one of ISEF’s many tutoring, mentoring and college prep programs for younger students. As Nina Weiner, ISEF’s president says, “ISEF doesn’t give charity: our students give as much as they get. Volunteering empowers our scholars. They know they are not just people who need help, they are people who can give help.”
Some 35,000 youngsters from poor neighborhoods have had the opportunity to participate in these programs over the years, thanks to the leadership of ISEF scholars. Although the programs vary, all share a single goal: to show younger students that the dream of going to college can be a reality.
There is Bridge to College, for example, which offers intensive guidance and follow-up to ensure that bright young Israelis pursue higher education after their army service.
And 23 Screens for Kids Learning Centers, an after-school program where more than 900 junior high and high school students from distressed towns and urban areas improve their computer skills, receive help with homework, participate in book clubs, and learn English each year. Many ISEF scholars mentor and tutor youngsters in the neighborhoods where they grew up, showing teens that the obstacles they face can be overcome and providing them with important role models for success.
In partnership with Intel, Motorola, and Applied Materials, three high-tech companies with a large presence in Israel, ISEF has also established community-based math and science projects to help prepare young people in low-income neighborhoods for careers in the high-tech industry. From an original pilot project in 1997, Intel and ISEF now run programs in Jerusalem, Haifa, Kiryat Gat and Petach Tikvah. (Reflecting the growing importance of high technology to Israel’s economy, 43 percent of ISEF scholarships in 2004 went to students pursuing degrees in science and engineering, up from 16 percent in 1998.)
ISEF’s impact in Israel has grown over time. In recent years, the organization’s mission has expanded to include students from a variety of cultural backgrounds, including immigrants from the former Soviet Union, Ethiopia and Argentina. New programs have also been initiated. The Student Emergency Fund, for example, gives added support to college students facing sudden financial crisis.
But these successes are only part of the story. Most important, ISEF is a family.
Galit Bareket Danielli is one ISEF scholar who has decided to stay within the family. She now works as a manager for ISEF, assisting students pursuing degrees at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, the Weizmann Institute of Science, and other universities.
“What makes ISEF unique is the support it offers – not just financial but at all levels, academic and personal,” she explains. “That’s why the dropout rate among students is near zero – ISEF functions as a network of support that makes students want to stay the course – and even climb up another level. People who had never dreamed of getting a B.A. are now pursuing MA.’s or Ph.D.’s.”