Nina Avidar Weiner takes a personal interest in the lives of many of the 600 students that the ISEF Foundation (International Sephardic Education Foundation) provides university scholarships for each year.
She goes out of her way to meet these promising, young scholars and remains in close contact with many who become like adopted children. One she mentioned fondly, a young Ethiopian ballet dancer, who recently returned to live permanently in Israel after performing in dance companies around the world, including a performance in New York City. After the ballet performance, the two met for lunch.
As we sat together in her Upper East Side apartment, Mrs. Weiner, known as a sort of god-mother to thousands of Israeli students, made the case for the importance of higher education as a means to eliminate poverty, a goal she has been working tirelessly towards for 35 years.
ISEF Foundation, the organization Mrs. Weiner presides over, provides academic and need-based scholarships each year to Israelis pursuing bachelors, masters, and doctorate degrees in medicine, law, the humanities and other fields.
The Foundation has been in operation for 35 years and assisted 600 students annually. Scholarship recipients now attend 21 university campuses in Israel, and 52% of its students are women.
Some Israeli students are also able to attend universities in the Diaspora, at top-tier schools such as Harvard and Oxford, but all scholarship recipients are required to return to Israel to perform community service, which is why the program also focuses on leadership skills and ability with the aim of encouraging students to give back to the community.
Mrs. Weiner attributes her desire to help Israel’s underprivileged to her own Middle-Eastern upbringing. She can relate to the particular plight of Israelis whose families emigrated from Arab lands – leaving countries whose populations and leadership largely harbor grudges against the Jewish state, and facing an uncertain future, even in Israel.
“I was born to very Zionistic parents in Egypt,” she explained. “My father was Ashkenazi and my mother was Sephardi, and both imbued us with very strong Zionistic values.” So much so, Weiner claims, that her parents taught her Hebrew there, despite the potential danger of being found out.
“Each country was very different in accepting Zionism – some were more accepting than others, some were watching others,” she said of Egypt’s suspicious attitude towards Zionism. “The Zionist Youth Group in Egypt kept track carefully of what we were doing since they (Egyptian officials) put Zionists in concentration camps in 1948.”
One of the deported included her father, who was held in a concentration camp in Cairo. “My father was put in camp Abu Kir, which was more lenient (than other camps) because we could visit him and give him food,” she said. “Generally the conditions were more lenient for the old than young and the women,” she added.
To escape the political unrest, her family moved to Israel, where Mrs. Weiner came of age and worked with immigrant children for Youth Aliyah during the 1950s. She assisted orphaned Sephardic children from Northern African countries such as Morocco, Tunisia and Egypt as well as Middle Eastern and Asian countries, including Iraq, Iran, and even as far east as India.
“We saw there were such a gap,” in the education levels, she said. “I knew Israeli children. I went to high school with them, I knew their level of education and sophistication of many different things about Israeli society and a society that grew up without equal opportunity for all Jews… and I thought, my G-d these children are going to grow up with a terrible problem!” Mrs. Weiner said. “Yes, thank G-d we finally have a Jewish country, but there was still vast inequality between two kinds of Jews here.”
In 1977, famed banker Edmond J. Safra and his wife Lily, friends of the Weiners who were also of Sephardic origin, joined her initiative to create the foundation to assist Middle Eastern immigrant Jews in Israel to give them “an equal opportunity for higher education, to go to college in order to close the socio-economic gap” between Ashkenazim and Sephardim that was prevalent during the early days of the State. What they identified, was that the key to success in Jewish renewal, lay in developing Israel’s human capital, for everyone.
ISEF focused initially on Middle Eastern immigrants, but the organization later expanded its reach to accommodate other minority groups. The expansion was initiated during the 1980s when Operation Solomon brought immigrants from Ethiopia, and hundreds of thousands of Russians made Aliyah with the fall of the Soviet Union. ISEF also assists Druze Israeli students and other recently arrived minorities, among the 600 students it helps each year.
“Until Israeli society changed with new olim (immigrants) from Russia and Ethiopia, we started realizing that, yes, we helped the Sephardim to go up the ladder to become doctors and lawyers and we have great success in 35 years, but we realized that more and more in the last two decades that the landscape of Israel is changing as are all those in the periphery…so we diversified,” she said.
“We included Russians and Ethiopians with all the things we did for Sephardim – personal health, personal tutoring, emotional health, sports, nurturing them, empowering them, same things… Ethiopians especially need because they are from a very different society.”
Mrs. Weiner has a MA degree in counseling from Columbia University and studied under the influential Stage Theory developmental psychologist Jean Piaget. She has her own views about education and the correct way to bring out the potential in every child.
“My education has helped me in many ways… the man who influenced me – Dr. Reuven Feuerstein – helped me to be able to discern how a child can be bright and not express himself well. We gave a non-verbal test where we tap into the intelligence of the child – a variation of Piaget. I learned a lot on the job in the youth Aliyah in the 50s… a lot about how to help each individual child.”
As the ISEF organization approaches its 35th year, the number of success stories it can claim continues to grow, striving to bring out the scholar and leader inside all of their students. Notable ISEF alumni include medical directors in hospitals and health officials such as Professor Solly Mizrahi – Director of Surgery at Soroka University Medical Center and Professor of Medicine at Ben-Gurion University, and Dr. Ronni Gamzu, General Manager of the Ministry of Health in Israel. There was even an ISEF alum who made it to the Knesset: former Labor Party MK and journalist Daniel Ben-Simon.
And what was it like to study with Piaget himself? “He was actually very impersonal!” she said, with a laugh.