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Cab Driver or Medical Researcher? Group Gives Poor Israeli Kids Options

March 24, 2006
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As a child in the underserved Israeli towns of Yaffo Dalet and Bat Yam, Itsik Francis assumed he’d end up driving a taxi — like most of the other young men he knew — or eking out a living as a metal worker, like his father. It never occurred to him, he said on a recent visit to New York, that he’d end up in the United Kingdom working to cure Alzheimer’s disease. After all, his parents never finished high school, and good schooling costs money — and his family certainly didn’t have much of that.

Yet Francis today is on the dean’s list at University College of London, where he’s pursuing a doctorate in molecular biology, spending his days, and some nights, doing research on gene therapy that experts hope one day could lead to a cure for the devastating brain disorder.

His studies are thanks to the Israel Sephardic Education Foundation, a group dedicated to promoting higher education for gifted Israeli youth from disadvantaged backgrounds, allowing them to break the bonds of poverty that keep many from transcending their socioeconomic backgrounds.

“I would not have survived my first semester if it wasn’t for ISEF, I swear to God,” said Francis, an affable 27-year-old with short brown hair and glasses. “You come from the mentality of Yaffo and Bat Yam and it’s different. You need someone to kick you in the ass.”

In addition to the kick, ISEF — founded in 1977 by philanthropists Edmond and Lily Safra and Nina Weiner, the group’s president — provided Francis with funding both for his undergraduate work and, now, for his post-graduate research.

The organization’s original mandate was for the betterment of Sephardic students, but its mission has expanded to include underprivileged youth more generally, including recent Russian and Ethiopian immigrants.

“Excellence in academia does not limit itself to rich neighborhoods,” said David Menashri, an Iran expert at Tel Aviv University and chairman of ISEF’s executive committee in Israel. “We have students with potential for excellence in small towns, in the periphery. We must reach out to such people and bring them to the universities.”

“In a country like Israel,” he added, “with no natural resources, a small country in size, what we need is to make sure that we make good use of the minds and hands of our young people. If we do not maximize that potential, we are losing energy that we cannot afford to lose.”

Since its inception, ISEF — whose annual budget is now about $3 million — has awarded over 12,000 scholarships totaling some $30 million to students from underserved urban neighborhoods and development towns.

In addition to funding for B.A.’s, grants have enabled more than 1,000 Israelis to pursue M.A.’s and PhD’s at all of Israel’s major universities and colleges and at elite academies abroad, including Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Oxford and the London School of Economics. Many of these students receive additional funding, including Fulbright scholarships and grants from the institutions where they’re studying.

Keren Azulay, 29, grew up in a large family in Dimona, an Israeli city better known for housing the country’s presumed nuclear arsenal than for what Azulay called its “backward” schools and high unemployment rate.

“Unfortunately, in Israel sometimes there are people who are born to a certain destiny in life because they are born in a certain place which is more peripheral, they are born to families with less means than other families,” said Azulay, a former clerk for an Israeli supreme court justice who is getting a doctorate from Columbia University’s law school.

“All these aspects affect how far you can reach in life,” she said. “If you want to break these circles, you have to work hard — that’s the basic thing — but also you have to have someone from the outside that will help you dream, and believing that you can achieve it.”

That someone, she said, was ISEF, which “goes to all these places and looks for these kids that need this extra support and faith.”

According to ISEF, one out of three Israeli children lives beneath the poverty line, and just 40 percent of Israeli 17-year-olds graduate from high school. Coming from the poorest segments of Israeli society, the financial and emotional stress that ISEF students feel is intense, the group says.

Karin Yefet, 26, is getting a PhD at Yale Law School. It’s a long way, she says, from Beit She’an and Afula, towns where she grew up with three brothers and sisters and parents who had immigrated from Yemen and Morocco.

“In order to succeed in such a competitive place” as Yale, “you must be free from economic anxieties because there are extremely rich people and they can spend all of their time focusing on studies,” she said.

“My family, even though money was not something we had a lot of, my parents always taught us to aspire to achieving the best,” she said. “I’m in the legal field and for us, what it means to be the best means doing a PhD in the United States.

“My parents feel so frustrated, because they tried to give us everything we wanted our entire lives and now they cannot help me achieve my greatest dream,” she said.

Students funded by ISEF are required to volunteer six hours a week in educational outreach programs for underprivileged youth in Israel. Many of those who study abroad plan to pitch in once they return to Israel.

“What ISEF really wants is that during my stay here, I take a little piece of the U.S. with me to Israel,” Yefet said. “The American model of legal education is a wonderful one, is superb, and there are many, many things — like the method of teaching — that I’m eager to implement in Israel. I think I can really make a change in our legal field, in our methods of teaching.”

Shiri Katz-Gershon is hoping to bring her expertise back as well. Katz-Gershon, 39, and a mother of three, is doing a PhD at Wayne State University in Detroit on how babies acquire language facility, using a methodology that, she said, exists only in North America and Europe. When she returns, she hopes to open a similar laboratory in Israel.

All of the students interviewed for this article say that, while the money they have received from ISEF has been indispensable, the social safety net the group has provided has been equally essential. Coming from poor backgrounds where academics were not always stressed often leaves students unprepared for life at top schools.

“I did the normal track people do in Bat Yam — I went to high school and almost didn’t finish. That’s the normal thing,” Francis said.

“ISEF paid for my tuition and also got me the emotional net I was lacking. In exchange, I was teaching in one of the underprivileged neighborhoods in Haifa. You need a bulletproof vest to go to one of those neighborhoods.”

Said Weiner, ISEF’s president: “The students bring 90 percent of the strength, the ambition, 90 percent of the determination to overcome. Our 10 percent seems to be something that helps them pass all the hurdles — something psychological, not just financial.”

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