The ISEF ripple effect
The Israel Scholarship Education Foundation’s International Fellowships Program demonstrates that lending a helping hand can have far-reaching repercussions
Like anything in life, accepting a scholarship from the Israel Scholarship Education Foundation (ISEF) has some strings attached. But unlike some preconditions, which can oftentimes feel like a burden, the prerequisite to enter the ISEF family presents a win-win not only for the scholarship recipient, but for Israel in general.
“I’ve been with ISEF since pursuing my bachelor’s degree and I never left,” said Dr. Vered Padler-Karavani, an ISEF alumna who now chairs the organization’s executive committee in Israel. “I was active through my bachelor’s, master’s, PhD and post-doc, and remain dedicated to the foundation today as a volunteer.”
Today, at Tel Aviv University, she leads her own lab, doing cutting-edge research into mechanisms of cancer and heart disease.
Padler-Karavani, who grew up in Rosh Ha’ayin and is the daughter of Yemenite parents, is a shining example of ISEF at its best: a student whose hard work and dedication empowered her to rise to the top of her field and who is dedicated to showing the next generation of children on the margins of society that her success can be replicated.
Before Gal Gadot became Rosh Ha’ayin’s claim to fame, Padler-Karavani cemented herself as a Wonder Woman in her own right. Because the city was more of a sleepy town where opportunities for advancement were scarce, Padler-Karavani enrolled in classes in nearby Petah Tikva, which required taking two buses and a half-hour walk so the young scientist could maximize her potential.
As the recipient of ISEF’s largesse many times over, including its International Fellowships in the Sciences, she is grateful for the familial network of support the organization provided for her and others.
“There’s a sense of family. If you need help for whatever reason, they’re there for you. You know they have your back. This is important especially for those who came from less affluent backgrounds. It is empowering and I’m not sure any other organization does this,” she said.
“ISEF’S INTERNATIONAL Fellowships Program represents the capstone of ISEF’s work to develop Israel’s human capital to the maximum possible extent. This program was created specifically to address the persistent achievement gaps in the top ranks of Israeli society and to diversify Israel’s leadership in all sectors, by empowering Israel’s most talented students from immigrant and marginalized groups to take their rightful place in Israel’s upper echelons,” the organization explained in a statement.
As a result, one of ISEF’s requirements for scholarship students is that they must give back to their community. It is a stipulation that helped cultivate
such a supportive atmosphere.
“With ISEF, you have to be deeply involved in the community. Their worldview really connected with me. It’s an organization that says, ‘You’re part of society and it’s your obligation to pay forward what you receive from us to your community,” Osnat Akirav, the head of the Political Science Department at Western Galilee College and a former ISEF International Fellow, explained.
In Padler-Karavani’s case, for example, during her postdoctoral training at the University of California San Diego, she mentored ISEF student Nathaniel Koby, who became a familiar fixture in her family as a frequent dinner guest and babysitter for her children.
“At ISEF we select students who have an inner passion to succeed. Of course, through our training we also try to show them the possibility of academia because sometimes they don’t even hear about it or they think they are not worthy of it,” she said. “It’s not only about getting good grades, but mentoring them and showing them the possibilities out there.”
Those possibilities are often found beyond Israel’s borders in educational institutions across the United States and Europe. ISEF encourages its students to broaden their horizons, on the condition they return to Israel after their studies are complete.
“To achieve greater equality in Israeli society, I believe it is essential to offer Israel’s best and brightest minds who happen to come from immigrant homes the broadened international experience, contacts and outlook they can only acquire through advanced study in the US or Europe,” ISEF president Carlos Benaim explained.
This is because, as veteran ISEF board member and treasurer emeritus Joseph M. Rose explains, obtaining a degree from a prestigious foreign institution can give a student a competitive advantage once they return to Israel.
“We have always observed that scholars who have had an opportunity to study abroad – however briefly – have an edge in obtaining faculty positions in Israel’s universities,” he said, referring to his involvement, along with his wife, Dr. Paulette Rose, in founding the ISEF Shoshanim International Fellows Fund.
ISEF INTERNATIONAL Fellow alumnus Tomer Levi spent time abroad in 2006 while he was a PhD student at Brandeis University. Levi, who grew up in a small town outside of Haifa, yearned to study in the United States.
“It seemed like a big dream to me,” Levi, who currently serves as a program specialist at the US Embassy, said. “I was fortunate to find an organization that recognized me, valued my work and believed in me.”
In an unexpected twist of fate, Levi also felt a deep emotional connection to the organization, thanks to the generosity of a man he had never even met, but only read about: Edmond J. Safra, who founded ISEF together with his wife Lily Safra and Nina Weiner over 40 years ago.
“My background in university was the study of the Jewish community in Beirut, and I felt a deep connection to ISEF because Edmond J. Safra’s family came from there. All of a sudden, the philanthropic activity that I wrote about during my research on the Jews of Beirut touched my own life. In a way, ISEF was the most concrete link that connected me to that community that I spent so much time learning about,” he said.
“For me, ‘Safra’ was not just a name that appeared in research documents; it represented a family that gave so much to their local community. And then for me to be an ISEF Fellow was very emotional because it felt as if everything came full circle,” he added.
Despite his success in Boston, however, Levi’s home has remained in Israel.
“The International Fellowship Program is just one portion of ISEF,” Levi explained. “When we received a grant, they told us it’s a loan unless we return to Israel. This is a very nice policy to discourage students from staying abroad. It was always clear to me that I’d go back.”
So, too, for ISEF International Fellow Dr. Michael Goldenshluger, a general surgery resident at Montefiore Medical Center in New York. For him, there is no question that, at the end of his residency next year, he will return to Israel.
“I have two kids that I want to raise in Israel. That is my home,” he said. “I’m grateful to ISEF for helping me during my time in New York, because living here with two children is not easy.”
Therefore, while giving back to the community is paramount, the economic value of ISEF’s assistance is significant.
“[ISEF’s] belief in me and academic life in general was extremely valuable to me as an Israeli PhD student in a foreign country,” Levi added.
Of course, a foundation that is celebrating its 42nd year places great emphasis on the next generation and how to encourage the leaders of tomorrow.
For those children who think achieving their dreams is impossible, Levi has the following advice: “Don’t fear anything that you’re not familiar with. Don’t be afraid to leave your comfort zone, explore the unknown and trust yourself. If you believe something is worth your time – go for it.”
ISEF Alumni and Current International Fellows: Dr. Avishai Benish, author and former MK Daniel Ben Simon, Prof. Yifat Bitton; current fellows Adam Yoseph, Dr. Michael Goldenshluger; ISEF VP Avi Abergel.
Dr. Vered Padler-Karavani (left) and Osnat Akirav (right) speaking at an ISEF event.