Equal opportunity

Nina Weiner’s foundation has given thousands of underprivileged youth scholarships for higher education for nearly 40 years.

Nina Weiner 521 (photo credit: Noam Galai)
Nina Weiner 521
(photo credit: Noam Galai)
IT IS SAFE to say Nina Weiner’s life has always been defined by the idea of education as a basic need.
Growing up in Israel, it occupied a central place in her family’s life, and looking back at her childhood, there was really no way that she could have escaped it. Born in Egypt to a Russian father who studied in Kiev and a mother of Sephardi origin who had earned a degree from the prestigious Sorbonne in Paris, Wiener eventually chose to dedicate her professional life to ensuring that young Israelis from disadvantaged backgrounds have access to higher education.
After leaving Israel to pursue her academic studies in Geneva with developmental psychologist Jean Piaget and then at Columbia University in New York City where she received her master’s degree in vocational counseling, Weiner returned to Israel in the 1950s to work with the wave of immigrant youngsters from North Africa arriving under the auspices of the Youth Aliyah.
“There was quite a big gap between the children who came from North Africa and those who were from Israel,” she explains in an interview with The Jerusalem Post ahead of her 80th birthday. “So right away, I saw that those poor children would have a tremendous problem adjusting in Israel and that touched me.”
With the encouragement and support of New-York based Jewish banker and philanthropy giants Edmond Safra, and his wife Lily Safra, she established the International Sephardic Education Foundation (ISEF) in 1977, with the purpose of developing the intellectual potential of gifted Israelis from the periphery and give them a chance at college education.
As it celebrates its 36th year of activity, ISEF boasts some impressive statistics. It has provided over 20,000 university scholarships to Israeli students at 21 Israeli institutions of higher learning across the country as well as some abroad. An average of 500 students a year are supported though ISEF scholarships and the foundation invests some $5 million annually on tuition aid. In total, ISEF has invested some $75 million in scholarships.
Weiner recalls the day that Edmond Safra called in 12 of his colleagues at the Republic National Bank in New York to discuss funding for ISEF, which back then, was still only an idea.
“It was June 2, 1977,” she says fondly. “I call it ‘the blessed day.’” Weiner says she explained what she wanted her foundated to accomplish to the intimidating group “and as good religious Jews they said ‘thank you, now you can leave the room because we have to pray,’ and they started praying and talking.”
She didn’t have to wait long for a divine answer.
“Then they called me back in the room and they had raised a quarter of a million dollars.”
In July 1977, Weiner had found an executive director to help her run the foundation and even a small office in a law firm in the city. By October of that same year, she had already managed to place 200 young Sephardi students from the periphery to universities in Israel.
“If a student can do it, we help him all the way,” Weiner says. “We are with him all the way so that he can start with a BA and he can finish with a postdoc.”
Among the recipients of ISEF scholarships are the head of the surgery department in one of Israel’s most renowned hospitals, a scientist at Tel Aviv University, new MK Adi Koll (Yesh Atid) and Shimon Solomon, who has headed numerous organizations to assist Ethiopian Jews and refugees in Israel. Solomon fled Ethiopia on foot, arriving in Israel in 1980 with his parents and five siblings. An ISEF scholarship helped him to pursue a degree in social work at Ben-Gurion University. Until recently he was education director at the Agahozo- Shalom Youth Village for genocide orphans in Rwanda, and from 2005 to 2007 he worked at the Israeli Embassy in Addis Ababa. Today he is giving back to ISEF as he serves on its governing association in Israel.
“I could never have dreamt, when we started, that we would have such results,” Weiner says.
With MKs like Koll and others, she is encouraged by the state’s shifting priorities.
“I think people in Israel now understand much better what I am doing,” she says. “I’m happy to see that lately, and with the latest elections, Israelis understand that social issues are just as important for Israel’s security.”
Still, her work fund-raising is far from over. Each year Weiner organizes large fund-raising galas and collects donations from various philanthropists. The universities and colleges that ISEF students attend also usually cover half of the tuition cost.
Recently, the foundation has expanded to providing financial aid for PhD and postdoctoral studies outside of Israel at universities such as Harvard, Yale, Oxford and Cambridge. Between 30 and 40 students who have received scholarships from these institutions are currently studying abroad and receiving financial help from ISEF for living expenses.
The aid, however, comes with one condition: The fellows abroad must return to Israel after completing their degrees, which serves another important value on Weiner’s agenda: Zionism.
“Zionism is central to my activity,” she emphasizes. “It’s first of all a question of justice. We cannot have dreamt of a Jewish state for two or 3,000 years and then have a Jewish state where people don’t have equal opportunities.
“Secondly, the idea is to nourish, find and develop brilliant minds that could be lost without it [ISEF],” she continues.
“The most important thing in Israel is really the brain power of its youth. It would be tragic for the future of Israel to lose the brain power of the poor, or Israelis who just didn’t have an equal chance to be able to go to college.”
On a personal level, Weiner stresses that her work has made her “a happier person.”
“I think ISEF has stopped me from getting older,” she says, with a smile. “I still have so much energy and passion. It has been a story of fantastic empowerment from generation to generation.”
Weiner recalls her mother’s passion for learning as inspiration for ISEF.
“I think my mother... has empowered me to love education and I have empowered my students and my students are empowering their children, so I think we have a fantastic chain of empowerment, frankly.”
As she ages, Weiner is “cautiously optimistic” about the future of ISEF and hopes its alumni will take over the activity after her.
“I’m profoundly happy about what we have achieved and I hope the alumni will understand how important it is.”