Edith Everett is widely considered one of the most independent, thoughtful and respected personalities in Jewish philanthropy. A seasoned educator who taught elementary school and later served on the City University Board of Trustees for many years, she enjoyed a successful career in the investment business alongside her late husband and fellow philanthropic maverick, Henry Everett.
A reluctant honoree, she has agreed to be honored by the Friends of Israel Sci-Tech Schools (formerly ORT Israel) because she is a strong believer in the group’s work as the largest educational network of schools and colleges in Israel — 100,000 students at 186 institutions in 53 municipalities. The tribute dinner, featuring an address by Gideon Sa’ar, Israel’s education minister, will be held Jan. 18 at the Museum of Jewish Heritage-A Living Memorial to the Holocaust.
Q: How did you get involved in supporting educational efforts in Israel?
A: We [she and her late husband] opened a school in the town of Hatzor in 1974. It’s from first through 12th grade and is known as the Everett Comprehensive School. We picked Hatzor because it was ranked as the poorest town on the list. A few years later we came to what is now known as the Israel Sci-Tech Schools for help in making the program more efficient.
Why the emphasis on science and technology?
More than half of Israeli high school students don’t go on to university. With a background in science and technology, the Sci-Tech graduates can find good jobs as engineers, electricians, technicians, auto mechanics, etc. And at any given time, about 10,000 of the graduates are in the army, performing in science-related work.
About 60 percent of our high school students study science and technology, about twice the percentage found in other schools.
What other areas do the Israel Sci-Tech Schools focus on?
There has been a major decline among Israeli students in their knowledge of Jewish history and culture. With most of the Sci-Tech students coming from secular homes, there is a need to connect them to Jewish values and to the land of Israel.
The Roots of Israel program offers a pluralistic approach and includes teachers, students and parents studying together on topics of their choice in these areas.
Another program brings CEOs of major companies to the schools to talk to the students as a kind of role model, and there is an incentive program that offers a one-month bonus to quality teachers who are chosen by school administrators and fellow teachers.
In Hatzor, where the number of young people is declining, we helped start a cadet program in the high school, in cooperation with the Air Force, that draws students from nearby communities as well.
Beyond Hatzor, how are student from poor communities being helped?
In general, Israeli schools are too big and overcrowded, and many teachers are unprepared, plus students have to pay for their textbooks. It’s a shondeh [disgrace]. Up to 20 percent of students in the country come from poor families. The Sci-Tech mandate is to go to the hard places and to decrease the gap between the wealthy and the poor.
So the Sci-Tech officials are going to the government and offering to take over schools in the socioeconomic periphery. The plan is to absorb 50 schools from these areas over the next decade and provide training programs for the principals and teachers. And we hope the improvement will spur similar efforts throughout the country.
The key is to offer a systemic solution, not just a series of one-time projects.
I’ve been in education my entire adult life, and I can see when it’s working.