Partnership of pride for more than 36 years: ISEF and the Hebrew University

Dr. Meir Buzaglo lights torch at Independence Day opening ceremony, May 2013 (photo: GPO)July 31, 2013: When Dr. Meir Buzaglo lit one of the torches at the opening ceremony of this year’s 65th Independence Day on Mount Herzl, he was one of just 12 Israelis chosen for their outstanding contributions to Israel. Indeed, the honor bestowed on Dr. Buzaglo could have provided no better endorsement for the founders of the International Sephardic Education Foundation (ISEF) and their 36 years of efforts to help gifted Israeli students from disadvantaged background.

Dr. Buzaglo, today a lecturer in the Hebrew University’s Department of Philosophy, was born in Morocco and immigrated to Israel at age six. He completed all three of his degrees — including graduating summa cum laude for his master’s in mathematics — at the Hebrew University and went on to do postdoctoral research at Harvard University; throughout his studies, he was supported by ISEF. Dr. Buzaglo’s academic interests cover a diverse range of subjects in the fields of philosophy and logic, and Jewish identity. To date, he has published three books; his latest work, on Maimonides, is now in press.

A social activist and leader of ISEF for almost 20 years, Buzaglo has been at the forefront of the efforts to improve math education for disadvantaged youngsters in Israeli schools through his creation of a system called ‘The Source’ which has been adopted by many schools and ISEF outreach programs throughout Israel. “ISEF is one of the most influential organizations I have encountered,” he says. “It provides a place not only for discussing Israel’s social problems but also for projects that encourage action. It has given many students the opportunity to channel their bitterness into productive goals.”

Established in 1977 by Hebrew University supporters Edmond J. Safra z”l and Lily Safra, together with Nina Weiner, ISEF’s founding vision was to narrow Israel’s socio-economic gap by supporting higher education for gifted students from disadvantaged backgrounds. Initially, ISEF focused on students from Sephardi backgrounds but, in the past 15 years, it has increased its outreach to others, such as Russian and Ethiopian immigrants and their children.

“It is exciting to see the progress ISEF has made,” said Nina Weiner during a recent visit to Israel where she was guest of honor at a June 30 gala performance of the Israeli classic musical Kazablan that marked ISEF’s 36th anniversary — and her 80th birthday — and was held at Tel Aviv’s Cameri Theater.

During her visit, said Weiner, she had met numerous ISEF alumni who have attained key positions in government, business and academia. “The fact that our alumni were able to facilitate meetings for us with Minister of Education Shai Piron and Minister of Health Yael German testifies to our success.”

Each year, ISEF provides scholarships for some 500 Israeli students, 60 of them at the Hebrew University. ISEF support is unique in that it is the only non-profit to award scholarships throughout a student’s studies, from undergraduate through master’s, doctoral and postdoctoral studies — sometimes for as long as 10 years. A select group of ISEF scholars also receive scholarships to pursue graduate and postgraduate research at top overseas institutions such as Oxford, Yale, Harvard and Stanford. “And since most of our ISEF postdoctoral students return to Israel and take up positions at its leading institutions, we feel that we are also making an active  contribution to stemming the ‘Israeli brain drain’,” said Weiner.

Dr. Yifat Bitton, who did her undergraduate and doctoral degrees in law at the Hebrew University, is an ISEF alumna who went on to do postdoctoral research at Harvard and an LL.M. at Yale. Today an associate professor at the School of Management Law School, she is a leading civil society activist who co-founded — and today chairs — Tmura - The Antidiscrimination Legal Center. Dr. Bitton has been at the forefront of the efforts to ensure equality for girls of Sephardic descent in the Orthodox education system and many other high-profile legal battles; in 2013, she was awarded the Dafna Fund Award for Feminist Legal Leadership.

Thanks to ISEF, Hebrew University Faculty of Medicine alumnus Prof. Solly Mizrahi was able to spend two years overseas “learning state-of-the-art organ transplant techniques which were then unknown in Israel.” Today the chairman of Soroka Medical Center’s Department of Surgery A and a former president of the Israeli Society for Organ Transplantation (2003-2006), Prof. Mizrahi says that he has since “performed hundreds of transplants... ISEF saves lives in so many ways.”

MK Dr. Adi Koll, who won a seat with the Yesh Atid party in Israel’s Knesset in the recent elections, has been a social activist since her days as a student in the Hebrew University’s Faculty of Law. In 1998, she and two other students created Breira (‘Choice’), a voluntary outreach program seeking to help underprivileged residents of Jerusalem with legal issues.

Koll is particularly proud of the Faculty of Law’s pioneering street law program which she established in 1999 — and which had a significant impact on the activities of what would eventually become the Faculty of Law’s Clinical Legal Education Center (CLEC). “By teaching at-risk young people about their rights and the Israeli legal system at weekly workshops, the street law program seeks to empower these youngsters, improve their self-esteem, provide them with positive role models through their interaction with University students and help them realize that society isn’t so threatening or alien — that they are part of it and that they too have rights.”

Koll went on to do her master’s and doctoral degrees at Columbia Law School as an ISEF International Fellow. She is the founder of the University of the People (Access for All) which seeks to help underprivileged Israelis gain access to degree programs, was awarded the Knesset Speaker’s Quality of Life Prize in 2011 and was made a member of the ISEF Edmond J. Safra Society of Alumni in 2012. In her election campaign video, she summed up her core conviction: “I believe that the education system holds the key to closing Israel’s societal gaps.”