Narrowing social gaps at the Israel Scholarship Education Foundation

ISEF’s mission is to promote opportunities for bright young Israelis who live in the periphery by expanding access to higher education in order to narrow the gaps in society.

ISEF’s president Carlos Benaim, a top international perfumer (photo credit: Courtesy)
ISEF’s president Carlos Benaim, a top international perfumer
(photo credit: Courtesy)

The Israel Scholarship Education Foundation (ISEF) was established in 1977 and is the oldest private scholarship fund in Israel. ISEF’s mission is to promote opportunities for bright young Israelis who live in the so-called periphery by expanding access to higher education in order to narrow the gaps in Israeli society. In an exclusive interview with The Jerusalem Report, ISEF’s president Carlos Benaim, a top international perfume executive based in New York, notes that its thousands of alumni occupy influential positions in medicine, the law, the media, government, finance, education, the arts and hi-tech startups. “They are gradually diversifying every sector of Israel’s economy and society, bringing their fresh perspectives to bear, which benefits everyone, and acting as pioneering role models for the next generation of youth in the periphery,” Benaim says.
How was the idea of ISEF born?
ISEF was founded in 1977 by Edmond Safra, his wife Lily, and Nina Weiner, driven by their shared concern for ensuring Israel’s immigrant communities had an equal chance to get an education and succeed in integrating into Israel’s mainstream. ISEF’s roots go back to Israel’s first decade, when hundreds of thousands of new immigrants flooded into in Israel from North Africa and Asia. By the 1970s, many of these immigrants and their children had formed an entrenched underclass. Mass protests led Israel’s government and the Jewish Agency to create Project Renewal, to address living conditions; but ISEF’s founders had the vision that expanding access to higher education held the real key to closing Israel’s socio-economic gaps. ISEF was the very first organization to focus on enabling gifted young Israelis from underprivileged immigrant backgrounds to obtain a higher education and serve as role models to their families and communities.
Tell us about ISEF activities in Israel and its main goals
ISEF’s main goal is to level the playing field in Israel, so that every capable young Israeli, regardless of income or social or ethnic background, has the chance to maximize their potential through higher education. Israel’s single greatest natural resource is the minds of its young people; yet far too many youngsters in the periphery don’t get a fair opportunity to qualify for university admission. ISEF has devoted itself since 1977 to creating a pioneering group of successful graduates who’ve beaten the odds, so they can serve as inspiring leaders and role models for Israel’s marginalized communities. Each year, ISEF provides generous financial aid and wraparound support to over 400 Israeli students from underserved communities, pursuing degrees from BA to PhD at 19 institutions of higher learning in Israel. All ISEF beneficiaries are veterans of IDF or alternate National Service. All meet the required socioeconomic criteria, and fully 80% are the very first in their families to go beyond high school.
ISEF addresses the challenges first-generation students face, from academic struggles to a pervasive sense of “not fitting in” on campus – even experiencing shame about their immigrant parents or their Hebrew accent. ISEF tackles these impediments to success through its leadership training programs. Every other Friday, ISEF’s students gather to think critically about societal issues and share their own experiences. Over time, ISEF becomes the student’s second family, and shy first-year students blossom into confident group leaders. ISEF’s students further develop their self-confidence through weekly community service as tutors, mentors, and role models to over 3,000 at-risk youth in after-school programs all over the country. ISEF’s astonishing success rate with these first-generation students – each year we retain over 98% – means that we’re not just handing out scholarship checks; we’re building successful graduates and shepherding them to positive outcomes.
How does your activity at ISEF help reduce social gaps in Israel?
ISEF helps to reduce social gaps in Israel by shattering stereotypes of what a youngster from a marginalized community can achieve and building social capital for the next generation to tap into. ISEF’s thousands of alumni occupy influential positions in medicine, the law, the media, government, finance, education, the arts and hi-tech startups. They are gradually diversifying every sector of Israel’s economy and society, bringing their fresh perspectives to bear, which benefits everyone, and acting as pioneering role models for the next generation of youth in the periphery.
Can you mention some names of ISEF alumni who have reached senior positions?
Here is just a sampling of ISEF’s alumni.
Two college presidents and an ambassador:
• Prof. Jehuda Haddad, president, Sami Shamoon College of Engineering;
• Prof. Ami Moyal, president, Afeka College of Engineering;
• Amb. Belaynesh Zevadia, current ambassador to Rwanda and former ambassador to Ethiopia; the first Ethiopian Israeli in the foreign service
Four former members of Knesset:
• University of the People founder Dr. Adi Kol (now Dean of Students at IDC);
• Journalist and author Daniel Ben-Simon;
• Prof. Yossi Yonah of Ben-Gurion University; and
• Meirav Ben-Ari, an attorney who got her prize-winning idea for creating the “Through Challenge” Centers from volunteering in ISEF’s community service projects while a student at IDC.
Leaders in the medical and medical research fields include:
• Prof. Roni Gamzu, CEO Sourasky Medical Center and former director-general of the Health Ministry
• Prof. Solly Mizrachi, former chair, Department of Surgery, Soroka Medical Center; pioneering expert in multi-organ transplantation
• Prof. Asher Bashiri, chair, Obstetrics and expert on repeat miscarriage, Soroka Medical Center
• Prof. Vered Padler-Karavani, head of the Padler-Karavani Lab of Glycoimmunology, Tel Aviv University
• Dr. Yaakov Amsalem, Spiro Chair in Interventional Neuro-Radiology and Director, Samson Interventional Neuro-Radiology Unit, Helmsley Neurological Institute at Sha’arei Zedek
• Prof. Moshe Elkabets, Head, Elkabets Lab for Cancer Research, Ben-Gurion University; winner, 2017 Teva Founders’ Prize for Excellence in Research
• Prof. Shenhav Cohen, Head, Shenhav Cohen Lab for Muscle Atrophy, The Technion. There are dozens more I could name.
You have been involved in ISEF for many years. What attracted you to ISEF?
As a Moroccan Jew who achieved success in my profession and who takes great pride in my deeply-rooted Sephardic heritage, I felt driven to do my utmost to promote the well-being of Jews in Israel, whose families arrived from countries like Morocco, but who did not share my good fortune in life. As someone whose education was paid for by the government of France, I felt great concern about the injustice in Israel – the lack of educational opportunity afforded to the waves of immigrants from North Africa and Asia – and passionate about the importance to Israel’s future of ensuring that every gifted young Israeli, regardless of where they came from, could get a top-quality education and fulfill their inborn potential. When I found ISEF, I knew I was home! When you meet our students and hear their life stories – some from families of ten children with parents who never got any education, and yet here they are, studying for a degree at The Hebrew University of Jerusalem or the Technion or a similar school, with a bright shining future before them, inspiring younger siblings to follow in their footsteps – then you know you are doing essential work, transforming young lives that might have gone to waste but for ISEF’s steady support.
Did your roots in Morocco, where you were born, have an impact on your social and professional activities?
Yes, definitely. The odors and tastes of the Morocco of my youth have infused how I do my creative work in perfumery. Morocco is a very vibrant, vivid country, full of scents and aromas that are unique to its climate and culture. All the olfactory scents found in nature, all its abundant fruits, flowers, grasses, and herbs, have influenced the perfumes I create, alongside the aromas from Moroccan culture – say, from the hand of a Berber peasant woman offering figs in the open-air market. Furthermore, the special spices and tastes that characterize Moroccan cooking – paprika, cumin, pepper, turmeric – had a definite impact on my sense memory and my palate. And even the earthier childhood sense memories – smoked meat, tobacco, the tang of blood, even horse dung, influence and infuse my work as a perfumer.
You are considered one of the most influential people in the international perfume industry. How do you link your business and philanthropic involvement?
For the most part, my business and my philanthropy exist on separate planes. But on several occasions in recent years, I have volunteered my skills as a perfumer to benefit ISEF’s students and programs. I have auctioned off spots in my master class on “The Art of Perfume”—an unusual experience in which participants have the opportunity to create their own signature scent. To honor ISEF’s 40th anniversary in 2017, I created a special perfume incorporating the ancient ingredients of the Holy Land that are mentioned in the Bible. Many of our generous supporters bid for a bottle of this unique scent, which hasn’t been duplicated anywhere else!
Do you also support Jewish students living in the US or elsewhere?
Through our International Fellows Program, ISEF supports a few Israeli students doing PhD and postdoctoral research at world-renowned institutions in the USA and Europe. These scholars fit ISEF’s profile – having grew up in underserved communities in Israel’s periphery – and many earned their undergraduate degrees as ISEF scholars in Israel prior to gaining admission to places like Harvard and Stanford. ISEF is proud to support the training of top leaders in biomedical and other scientific research.
Over the decades, ISEF’s steady support for its students, taking each one as high as they can reach – from BA to PhD and even postdoc – has yielded a rich return on investment: every Israeli university today has ISEF graduates on their faculty as professors, heads of labs, and senior lecturers. Diversifying Israel’s academic faculties so they represent all strata in society is a critical step in transforming the landscape of higher education in Israel: for students from the periphery to reach their fullest potential and truly join the mainstream, it is essential that they see in their professors a mirror of themselves.
How did the COVID-19 crisis impact you?
The coronavirus pandemic has had an especially severe impact on low-income communities in Israel’s periphery. For ISEF’s 413 students pursuing degrees from BA to PhD in Israel, we’ve seen immediate negative consequences: 78% report having lost jobs, 53% report that one or both parents have also been laid off, and about 25% (over 100 students) report being in truly serious financial straits.
We have been able to provide some modest emergency financial aid to those worst off, but our ability to assist them is hampered by the disastrous economic situation, which affects our fundraising, even though many of our supporters have made extraordinary contributions. We continue to work diligently to raise additional funds to enable our students to stay the course and complete their degrees. ■