Winding her way through the rustic streets of Rome, a young Israeli student enters the pillared halls of La Sapienza University, where she will learn about viruses, participate in gross anatomy and study clinical procedure — all in a foreign language.
Hilla Werner-Zafrani, 29, is a third-year medical school student at La Sapienza, where she is training to become an oncologist. Originally from a poor Moroccan family of 10 children, she grew up enduring constant ethnic discrimination and financial burdens in Israel.
“I used to go to a school where 90 percent of the students were Ashkenazi,” Werner-Zafrani said. “I felt the discrimination really hard.” She was one of only three Sephardic students in her high school, where she felt socially excluded and ostracized because of her background.
Despite all the obstacles in her life, Werner-Zafrani managed to graduate among the top students in her high school and was admitted to medical school. But she struggled to finance her education by giving Hebrew lessons and babysitting until last year, when she discovered the International Sephardic Education Foundation.
Werner-Zafrani is one of over 800 Israeli students reaping the benefits of a unique scholarship opportunity. Since 1977, the International Sephardic Education Foundation has aimed to breach Israel’s socioeconomic gap and enable underprivileged, young Israelis to attend universities.
The organization now funds students’ educations from their bachelors’ degrees in Israel through their graduate degrees abroad. In turn, students tutor underprivileged Israeli high school students and agree to return to Israel after their studies, which could help stem the brain drain of Israeli professionals and academics. Should they choose not to return, their scholarship grants simply become repayable loans.
“You’re not just getting the check,” said Avishai Benish, 34, a master’s candidate at Columbia Law School and funding recipient. “There is an expectation to give back to the community.”
Fewer than half of young Israelis have access to a college education, according to the Israel Central Bureau of Statistics. Only through the assistance of such organizations have advanced educations become viable options for disadvantaged Israeli youth. More than 25 of the ISEF scholars from universities across the world assembled recently in Manhattan to meet with the philanthropy’s leadership.
“The fact that this organization takes us and puts us in the spotlight and lets us shine gives me all the motivation and power in the world,” Werner-Zafrani said.
Despite its name, the International Sephardic Education Foundation grants scholarships without regard to ethnicity, on the basis of financial need and academic excellence. It funds a wide array of students, including immigrants from the Soviet Union and Ethiopia, as well as native Israeli Druze Arabs.
“The major goal was to create leaders and educate people to help Israel in the crucial work of closing the social gap,” said Nina Weiner, a co-founder and current president of the organization. “The problems in Israel are growing. There are still over a million and-a-half underprivileged children.”
Due to limited funding, Weiner’s foundation can only help one out of every four qualified applicants. The more students who learn about the organization, the more she has to reject.
Arranged much like a family, the students recently sat together in a comfortable circle of chairs, exchanging stories. Participants flew in from as far as Germany, California and even Israel to attend the annual lectures and banquets prepared for them.
“I think I am the only one in my [high school] class that went to university,” said Haim Machluf, 34, from the small village of Kefar-Yona and currently a student at Harvard Law School with the foundation’s assistance. His parents immigrated to Israel from Libya in 1949.
“When I decided to study abroad I contacted ISEF,” he said. “I’m not sure I could’ve done this without the help of ISEF.”
Across the country in California, his peer Vered Padler-Karavani is likewise reaping the benefits of a foundation scholarship.
“I’m one of the dinosaurs here,” said Padler-Karavani, 37, of Rosh-Ha’ayin. “I basically grew up through ISEF.”
Padler-Karavani has been benefiting from Weiner’s organization since she began her bachelor’s degree in 1993. After her undergraduate studies, she completed a doctorate in biochemistry at Tel Aviv University and is currently a postdoctoral fellow in glycobiology at the University of California – San Diego. From a struggling Yemenite family, starting in third grade Padler-Karavani began taking long bus trips alone, to take supplementary science courses at Bar Ilan University and Tel Aviv University.
“One of the traits that a scientist needs is to be able to cope with negative results,” Padler-Karavani said.
Padler-Karavani is excited to bring a glycobiology program to Israel and return home with her husband and two children.
Formerly unseen and discouraged students are now weaving their way to the forefront of Israeli progress and leadership.
“My goal is to be a Supreme Court justice in Israel,” said Karin Yefet, 28, a fourth-year doctoral candidate at Yale Law School and scholarship recipient. Yefet is from a poor neighborhood in Afula, one of the southernmost Galilee cities to be bombed by Hezbollah during the Lebanon war in 2006. Thus far, no Sephardic women have served as Supreme Court justices and Yefet strives to break this barrier.
“ISEF is a story of empowerment,” Weiner said. “We empower our students, and they in turn empower our children.”