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Up By Their Bootstraps

Up By Their Bootstraps

On a recent Sunday morning in New York, around a single conference table sat Miki Vaknin, who is working towards his Ph.D. in finance and economics at Columbia University; Yifat Bitton, a postdoctoral fellow at Harvard Law School; Adi Koll, a doctoral candidate at Columbia’s law school; and about two dozen other young Israelis with equally impressive academic pedigrees.What was left unsaid –– as the young adults went around the table updating peers on their progress –– was what made their achievements most remarkable: Vaknin was one of 13 children born to illiterate parents. Bitton grew up in an impoverished development town with underfunded schools. Koll, for about two years, was homeless.When the Israeli nationals, studying in the United States and Europe, gathered over bagels and lox in New York, they did not rehash their sob stories. Instead, members of this up-by-their-bootstraps fraternity of sorts gave impromptu updates on their coursework, research and theses. Their progress reports served as informal and, perhaps, unwitting testimonials to the International Sephardic Education Fund. The organization, known as ISEF, assists poor but gifted Israelis with their tuition, and provides them with a support network as they pursue their studies.

The ISEF scholars, many of whom are the first in their families to attend college, are keenly aware that their lives could have easily turned out differently, had they not been afforded the educational opportunities that the organization helped make possible.“I don’t like to think about that,” said Vaknin, 31, a native of Ramle, Israel. His wife, Fanny Sahar-Vaknin, 32, another ISEF scholar, studying architecture at New York’s Pratt Institute, was more candid. She surmised that if her high school teacher hadn’t pointed her to ISEF, she would be working at a local perfume factory near Yeruham, the poor development town where she and her seven siblings were raised by their widowed mother. For her part, Koll, 28, who was compelled to return to school after her close friend from the streets died of a drug overdose, said were it not for her studies, “I would have become a criminal, for sure.” Her scholarship is not the sole mark of how far she’s come. While at Hebrew University, Koll founded Briera, a non-profit organization that counsels abused women and children and provides them with free legal advice.

Briera now employs seven people and has a cadre of 300 volunteers, many of them law students. Koll went on to design a yearlong program to teach law and justice to juvenile delinquents.ISEF was founded in 1977 to promote higher education among Sephardic Israelis, who have long comprised the nation’s underclass. Since its inception, ISEF has awarded scholarships to more than 13,000 students, 90 percent of whom continue to live and work in Israel, ISEF president Nina Weiner said. This year, the organization gave out scholarships to about 700 Israelis studying in the Jewish state and about 25 others studying abroad.

Undergraduates receive $2,000 per year and graduate students are awarded $5,000 to $10,000 each year.“We provide a network and [ongoing enrichment] for them from the day they enter college, all the way through,” said Weiner, a former youth aliyah staffer, who founded ISEF with late financier Edmond Safra and his wife, Lily. About a decade ago, ISEF expanded its reach to serve needy Israelis from all backgrounds, including a growing number of Russian and Ethiopian émigrés. Still, the majority of ISEF scholars are the descendants of Sephardic Jews, who emigrated from North Africa and Asia during the mid-20th century, Weiner said. “Sephardic Jews are still very stigmatized in Israel,” Weiner said, noting that many bright but impoverished among them are directed to vocational institutions, instead of college preparatory high schools. “I can’t tell you how many Ph.D.s I know who started their careers as carpenters and electricians.”

ISEF, therefore, places an emphasis on changing the social structure that has allowed the achievement gap between Israel’s middle class and poor students to widen. Scholarship recipients must volunteer a minimum of six hours per week through ISEF-sponsored initiatives –– textbook procurement, after-school tutoring, pre-college mentoring among them –– geared toward underprivileged children and teens. ISEF scholars’ unspoken message is “If I can do it, so can you.”

“We’re definitely not giving charity,” said Weiner, who some scholarship recipients refer to as a mother figure. “You give as much as you get. Volunteering empowers our scholars. They know they are not just helpless people who need help, they are people who can give help.”

Without exception, the ISEF scholars who spoke with The Jewish Week said they feel an overwhelming responsibility to give back — to help their families, their communities, and other Israelis facing obstacles to advancement. For example, Bitton, 34, who is researching patterns of discrimination in the Israeli legal system, said she felt “a duty to change the conditions that result in inequality.” Bitton mentors a Sephardic Israeli university student, who hopes to pursue a doctorate at Harvard. “It’s not just because she’s Mizrachi or because she’s poor, but because she wants to study issues that are highly important to Mizrachi people,” said Bitton, noting the young woman plans to research public housing in Israel. Fellow ISEF scholar, Titina Assefa, a 37-year-old native of Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, echoed Bitton’s sentiments. Recently, Assefa, who is working toward her master’s degree in public health at Hebrew University, wrote and developed a series of short, instructive plays that deal with issues including AIDS education and family violence.

Assefa and other actors travel to Ethiopian neighborhoods throughout Israel. “I build scenarios that are relevant to the community to promote health, to change behaviors,” she said. When Assefa began her undergraduate linguistic studies at Jerusalem’s Hebrew University soon after she arrived in Israel 17 years ago, she cleaned houses, sold dress hangers, and waited tables to pay her tuition. She began receiving funding through the organization during her junior year at the university. “ISEF showed me what I’m capable of doing,” she said. “I wasn’t able to see these talents when I was just worrying about passing my exams and making enough money to eat. But it wasn’t just about finding funds to study. It’s more like finding a parent who believes in you.”

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