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Special Interview Sephardic Students in Israel

The difficult economic situation in Israel and its harmful effect on Sephardic students seeking higher education has prompted the International Sephardic Education Foundation (ISEF) to intensify its efforts on behalf of Sephardic students in Israel’s universities.

“The statistics and information that we have been receiving from Israel in the last year have indicated that the hardest-hit by the economic hardship are members of the Sephardic community, who comprise the major part of Israel’s disadvantaged population,” Nina Weiner, president of the ISEF, said in an interview with the Jewish Telegraphic Agency.

“In view of this, we decided to undertake a new program to increase the number of scholarships given each year by the ISEF from 500 to 1,000,” Weiner said, adding: “This effort, I believe, will give new hope to so many young lives in Israel.”

According to Weiner, herself a “half” Sephardic who was born in Egypt to a sabra mother and a Russian father, the ISEF had pledged to Israel’s six universities to raise $1 million in 1986 for scholarships for 1,000 students. She said each scholarship is for $500 and that amount is matched by the universities for each recipient.

Weiner noted that while the Sephardim constitute 65 percent of the Israeli population, in institutions of higher learning they comprise only 20 percent of the undergraduates, nine percent of those studying for a masters degree and only five percent of doctoral candidates.

A TRAGIC MISTAKE FOR ISRAEL’S FUTURE

“We believe in giving a fair chance to all capable young men and women in Israel. Otherwise it is simply a waste of Jewish brainpower,” Weiner said. “I feel very strongly that it will be a tragic mistake for the future of Israel and the Jewish people not to give a fair chance at education to the majority of Israel’s youth, who are Sephardic.” She added: “Education was always a cherished Jewish value which contributed a great deal to the survival of the Jewish people.”

The ISEF was established in 1977 by Weiner and a group of American Jews, many of them of Middle Eastern background who were concerned, according to Weiner, “about the social, economic and cultural gap between Ashkenazim and Sephardim in today’s Israel.”

Since its establishment, about 1,600 ISEF students graduated from Israel’s universities. “Many ISEF alumni already occupy positions of responsibility and influence in law, medicine, science, business, media and politics,” Weiner said, with more than a little pride in her voice. The ISEF does not compete with any fund-raising organization in the United States.

A ‘UNIQUE PROJECT’

In many ways, Weiner explained, the ISEF is “a unique” project. “The students of ISEF, in effect ‘repay’ their scholarships — while still in the university — by working in more than a dozen human outreach programs conducted in conjunction with their universities in Israel.”

An important aspect of the ISEF students’ work in distressed neighborhoods is the fact that they serve as “role models” to young students in general and troubled teenagers in particular, Weiner said. “They help bring stability and healthy growth to school children in poor neighborhoods,” she said. “In addition, our students provide young prison inmates with hope and skills to return successfully to life in Israeli society. Our students are also ‘Big Brothers and Sisters,’ friends and a substitute family to immigrant students encountering the obstacles faced by all newcomers to Israel.”

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