AT 85, Egyptian-born Nina Weiner has collected memorable life experiences from every corner of the globe, from Geneva, to Morocco to New York City, so much so that the people she's met and the sights she's seen can fill a book.
Which it has: Weiner's memoir, Circle of Empowerment, discusses the many life-changing encounters that impacted her family, but the heart of the book is dedicated to her work as the president of the Israel Scholarship Education Foundation (ISEF).
Founded in 1977, ISEF was the brainchild of Weiner and her close friends Edmond J.Safra and his wife Lily Safra, who provided much of the financial backing for the organization, and whose support has continued in perpetuity.
"There's a big job to be done in Israel, support me, help me raise money," she recalled telling the late renowned banker and philanthropist, Safra, at the time. "We have a lot of work to do. He was a genius and trusted me." ISEF's mission was to give a leg up to promising Israelis from disadvantaged backgrounds and support them in their quest to seek higher education. The organization be- gan with helping Jews of Sephardic origins but has since expanded to include Russian immigrants, Druze and Ethiopians.
Distinguished figures such as MK Yossi Yonah, Roni Gamzu and MK Meirav Ben Ari are among the many impressive ISEF alumni, who "had fulfilled one of ISEF's most important goals – to become role models for the next generation of disadvan- taged youth in desperate need of guidance and inspiration, helping young people break out of the cycle of poverty that still traps many young Israelis today, even in the third generation," Weiner writes in her book.
As a woman of Sephardic origin herself, Weiner acknowledges that a stroke of good luck has helped steer her to a more fortunate path early on in life. Weiner, who studied ed- ucational psychology at the Institute of Jean- Jacques Rousseau in Geneva and Columbia University, and had the advantage of being born to parents who valued education and taught her the importance of kindness, gen- erosity and improving oneself.
It was her time observing young children at an aliyah camp in France for an undergrad research project in the 1950s that served as an epiphany of sorts for Weiner. The children were 10-to-14-years-old , which a critical stage in the educational development of a child – at this transit camp, and most hailed from North Africa. "Some were from the Atlas Mountains and some couldn’t read and write. They were so uprooted," she tells The Jerusalem Report.
"I realized they would need a lot of help to adjust to Israeli society." "I knew I wanted to get young people who were enrolled from the periphery who bare- ly made it into college to help them stay and excel in school," she says. "The results have been phenomenal." As such, ISEF is unique as it is the only philanthropic organization that helps students from every stage of higher education. From obtaining a bachelor to a PhD degree, ISEF is a partner in that student's life and ensures that if they have what it takes to succeed, the orga- nization will help them realize their dreams.
Weiner believes the formula for success is the deep personal connection the organization fosters with its participants and its ability to have ISEF alumni pay it forward to the next generation.
As such, ISEF offers tutoring programs so beneficiaries can continue the cycle of giving.
One example is ISEF's Bridge to College pro- gram, which helps youth from disadvantaged families. Some 145 ISEF university students who hail from peripheral Israeli towns tutor and mentor 275 teenagers in Haifa, Nesher (outside of Haifa), Beer Sheva, Jerusalem, Ashkelon or Holon (outside of Tel Aviv) who are on the brink of dropping out of school.
These tutoring programs are a win-win scenario for university students, who tutor a younger version of themselves, and high school students who see firsthand how far a good work ethic can take them.
"We believe in a person, in their potential and empower them. We give them a sense of strength and tell them they can do it," Weiner says.
Although ISEF provides scholarship fund- ing to over 400 students a year, there are many ways the organization helps that go beyond money. Thanks to its unique method, which combines financial assistance, accompani- ment shell program and leadership develop- ment program, the fund reaches a high return on investment due to the low academic drop- out rate, the extent of the students' involve- ment and the degree of influence of the ISEF graduates in the various fields of activity they work upon completing their studies.
"There are so many different kinds of help.
If there's a young girl from Dimona, let's say, who received a partial scholarship from the Technion and she's a feisty, aggressive, young woman who got divorced and her hus- band threw her out of the house and she was homeless for a while and had to commute from Dimona to the Technion – that's a terrible situation," Weiner explains, referring to one student whose life was transformed due to the organization's intervention in her dire personal scenario.
After missing an exam, the school expelled her during her fifth year in medical school.
Weiner subsequently sent a letter to the university's president, imploring he give the young woman a second chance.
Weiner was notified that the young woman was welcomed back into the school to pursue her dream.
"Very often they have tremendous family burdens – sick parents, dysfunctional family.
Dysfunctional families are a big problem for a child. Poor families also have big problems.
Some students said they don't have money to go on bus trips with their class. Poverty is more common than people realize," she laments.
Weiner believes ISEF is doing a small but significant part in combatting the ever-grow- ing economic and educational gaps in Israel.
"What upsets me very much is that the number of poor children in Israel is growing.
The gaps in Israel, like other western wealthy countries – the gap between rich and poor – is growing. This is very distressing to me," she says.
So how does a woman with no formal fund- raising experience raise such a substantive amount of money – $210 million – over four decades? "Think bigger than yourself. It was very much ingrained in me. I was lucky that I could do it and met Edmond Safra. I was very determined and very focused," she says of her formula for success. "I don’t look left and don’t look right. You have to be focused on your goal."