ISEF celebrates 45 years: ‘We helped create the social education revolution’

ISEF is among the only foundations that award scholarships to promising young people from the periphery, starting with a bachelor’s degree and through a master’s and doctorate.

 ISEF co-founder Nina Avidar Weiner receives a special appreciation award at the annual 'Jerusalem Post' business conference (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
ISEF co-founder Nina Avidar Weiner receives a special appreciation award at the annual 'Jerusalem Post' business conference
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)

To this day, I believe that the solution to a lot of Israel’s problems can be solved by developing Israel’s periphery,” said Nina Avidar Weiner, co-founder and honorary chairwoman of the Israel Scholarship Education Foundation (ISEF).

The foundation, which was founded in 1977 by philanthropist Edmond J. Safra, his wife, Lily, and Nina Weiner, works to promote excellence, equal opportunities in education and reducing the social gaps in Israel by making higher education accessible and developing social and academic leadership in the socio-geographic periphery.

The foundation awards a significant scholarship alongside a variety of social programs and personal support to its members and is among the only foundations that award scholarships to promising young people from the periphery, starting with a bachelor’s degree and through a master’s and doctorate, ending with a fellowship for a post-doctorate abroad.

“I believe that we managed to prove to everyone that our efforts in Israel were a huge success,” said 88-year-old Weiner. “We took young people who were the first in their families to attend university, and we found such talented people, diamonds in the rough that just needed to be polished. This program has produced scientists, professors, engineers, all very talented people that are already working in Israel, and we are a country that needs people like that.”

Weiner’s affinity to Zionism, Israel and the strengthening of the standing of Mizrahi Jews in the country was ingrained into her from birth. Her parents met and were married in Tel Aviv, but she was born in Alexandria, Egypt, where they were living at the time. Daughter to Reuven Avidar and Yonah Papo Avidar, her father was Ukrainian and her mother Sephardi. The family had a special connection to emissaries and activities from the Zionist movement up to just before independence in 1948. 

 Weiner with president Yitzhak Navon and philanthropist Edmond Safra (credit: ISEF) Weiner with president Yitzhak Navon and philanthropist Edmond Safra (credit: ISEF)

After the Egyptian rule targeted the Jewish community and her father was sent to a prison camp, the family returned to Israel, and her father became an emissary for Israel Bonds. The family then travelled to Brazil, Argentina, Uruguay, and France.

“I felt very connected to both Ashkenazi and Sephardi people since my childhood in Egypt,” recalled Weiner. “We were always busy there with things related to Israel. I was in Hashomer Hatza’ir and they prepared us to go to the kibbutz. We always knew we would get to Israel. We left Egypt with three suitcases. My mother was lucky that she had family in Israel, and they helped us. I was able to learn in Gymnasia Herzliya, a prestigious high school in Tel Aviv, and I could see that there was not another single kid from Egypt or any other Arab countries studying there.”

Weiner, who has an MA in career counseling from Columbia University, began her academic and social journey in the 1950s. She traveled to Switzerland to study psychology in Geneva with Jean Piaget, and during her studies, she volunteered as psychologist with Prof. Reuven Feuerstein testing children in the transition camps of Aliyat Han’oar in the south of France near Marseilles.

“He [Feuerstein] became a known personality who did a lot of studies on children who came from the north of Africa and Asia,” said Weiner. “For years, he observed their adaptation process in Israel. I joined a small group of students that he took. We would travel to the south of France and do tests on the children in youth aliyah camps, most of whom were from Morocco.

“They were in a state of neglect. Many of them didn’t know how to read or write. They were sad and without family, all alone. They would attach three beds to each other to sleep together because it reminded them of home. I was 22 at the time, and I remember wondering how the children would get on in Israel, how they would get along with the kids from the Gymnasia. They came from such different worlds.” 

My heart went out to them.

‘We built a family for students’

After Weiner’s father began to work in raising funds for Israel around the world, she returned to the country alone and worked with the youth who had made aliyah. After that, she went to the US to finish her studies and met and married Walter Weiner. 

She continued her work for Israel in the halls of the UN as a member of the WIZO delegation.

“During my time in the US, I met all sorts of people through the family, like [Jerusalem mayor] Teddy Kollek, they wanted me to go work with them, but I wanted to work for the periphery and for the aliyah of Sephardi, Mizrahi Jews,” said Weiner. But I wanted to find the right opportunity to work for the poorly settled in the ma’abarot (transit camps). “When I got an offer to work in the UN for WIZO, I thought it would be an interesting niche, and I did it on a voluntary basis for a couple of years. 

“I met some very interesting and important people like [president] Chaim Herzog and other senior people, but after a while, I realized that this wasn’t what I was supposed to do.

“The most serious and important time in my life was when I met Edmond Safra. I realized clearly what had to be done. I knew he was a great philanthropist, very rich, a kind man and he was Sephardi. I had to talk to him about educating the children at the ma’abarot.

“I just went up to him,” she recalled. “It was 1976. I said to him ‘Edmond, the Mizrahi community in Israel has a big problem, and you can help them.’ I explained that I can start up a foundation and that I would give my whole self to it, and all he needed to do was to give it a push and invest the money. He was very interested. He then brought 12 Syrian Jews to the next meeting and that same day raised a million dollars. He was a good man who loved the Mizrahi community, but he didn’t like to do things publicly.”

The gaps still exist to this day. Weiner presented statistics collected by ISEF, which are backed up by a study conducted by the Knesset that shows that children from more economically comfortable homes are seven times more likely to attend university than struggling families.

“The reason is that in homes that are better off, the families can help and explain the importance of higher education to the children, and this is what we are trying to do for our students,” explained Weiner.

“We help them throughout all their years of studying, explain to them that it will help them and give them the right push. We have built a family for the students and shown them and everyone who sees them that it’s possible. We’ve been doing it for 45 years already, and the results are incredible. We have professors and faculty members in all Israel’s universities.”

The program’s alumni include some well-known names in Israel including Prof. Nissim Mizrachi, MK Merav Ben-Ari, Prof. Eitan Yaakobi, former MK Daniel Ben-Simon, Prof. Yifat Bitton, Prof. Ronni Gamzu, Prof. Yossi Yona and businessman Eli Elezra.

“They were all fellows in the program,” said Weiner. “They were the first in their families to receive an academic degree, and today, many of them act as our emissaries around the world. We are among the only organizations that gives a full grant, and we give out dozens of grants every year including post-doctorate degrees abroad, mostly for prestigious universities like Harvard, UC Berkley and Oxford.

“I think ISEF has made a social revolution,” she added. “We infiltrated the top echelon of society, we managed to make it more diverse, and it makes me very happy that we succeeded, but it still hurts that it isn’t enough. Our team has built a support system and an academic family for the students. We don’t just say that we’re like a family. We have arranged for an entire support system for them like family members who have been in academic institutions and know how to teach the younger generation about the cultural part of studying, and I’m very proud of that.”

‘Israel is one big miracle’

In the annual business conference recently hosted by The Jerusalem Post, Maariv and Walla, Weiner was awarded with a special appreciation award for her work over the years with ISEF for the promotion of education and society in Israel. The foundation, which is marking 45 years to its founding, is proud of its network of quality alumni and its variety of projects for Israeli society. 

Among the initiatives is the project for social leadership, which follows the foundation’s members with the purpose of developing critical thinking and social action. It is a special project where students tutor children in the periphery in an attempt to reduce the gaps, projects of empowerment, and making education accessible to youth and more.

Weiner, who has already won many prizes and respectable titles over the years, prefers to focus the media’s attention on the foundation’s work.

“It’s always nice to receive recognition, but it’s more important to me that the objective is promoted because it’s so just and important,” she said. “It’s heartbreaking to think that talented people from the periphery and their intellectual potential will be lost to us.

“There have been good changes in the last few years, no doubt,” she added. “But unfortunately, COVID-19 hasn’t helped. The rich people were fine, and the poor people were left behind. There is a reduction of the gaps, but it’s far from being perfect. For that we have many important projects that are working on the matter. One of them is a bridge to academia where we work with high school students to help them finish their bagrut [matriculation certificates] and help some of them transition to university at the end of their army service. We are involved in increasing the numbers of engineers and scientists. We’re very proud that the prime minister’s office has chosen to award scholarships through us to promote excellence in engineering and exact sciences in the periphery.”

Looking ahead, Weiner said she would like to put an emphasis on the network of alumni and to create an ISEF alumni association. 

“We’re talking about a group of more than 7,500 brilliant alumni,” she said. “We don’t know each other well enough, and I would like there to be a wider networking almost like people who have left military units who all feel like they are one unit. There is so much that we could do together helping each other networking, having fun together and above all to be a light on to others.

“Israel has changed so much for the better since 1948, big changes for the better. The periphery should be a part of the future of the Start-Up Nation.”

This article was written in cooperation with ISEF.