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Lunch at The Four Seasons with: Nina Weiner

Published by The New York Sun on 2006-07-25

Nina Avidar Weiner is not an equal opportunity educator.

She believes, in fact, that youths from underprivileged circumstances ought to be afforded enhanced opportunities to become equal with other young people. She believes, moreover, that by empowering boys and girls in this manner, a new cadre of intellectual leadership will be created -- one that, in turn, ensures the well-being of a succeeding generation of disadvantaged youths.

And Ms. Weiner believes that her record as an educator over the last three decades points to the importance of affirmative action in schools and colleges.

"My thing is developing the young Sephardim of today from disadvantaged backgrounds," the president and co-founder of the International Sephardic Education Foundation said. "I am not focused on politics. I have an enormous pride in being Jewish, and I hold a feeling that the world is unfair. To redress the unfairness is important to me. That is why I am more interested in lifting the education and economic level of poor Sephardic Jews from Ethiopia and the former Soviet republics living in Israel today."

To pursue that interest, Ms. Weiner has run the oldest and largest organization dedicated to promoting higher education for gifted Israeli youth from disadvantaged backgrounds. She founded it with Edmond -- a Sephardic Jew like her - and his wife Lily in 1977, and since then ISEF has awarded more than 15,000 scholarships to students from underprivileged families. Students are subsidized for up to a dozen years.

As a result, many of them have received not only bachelor's degrees but also master's degrees and doctorates from all of Israel's major universities and colleges. They also have received such degrees at prestigious institutions abroad, including Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Oxford, and the London School of Economics.

"My mother, Yona Avidar, would always say, 'Nina, you must be a giver -- give, and you will receive back from your giving. Don't be afraid to throw the bread into the water. It will come back to you.' I have always tried to live by what she taught," Ms. Weiner said.

As much as from her mother, Ms. Weiner takes her cue from Moses Maimonides.

How so?

It isn't only that the 12th century philosopher's work constitutes the cornerstone of Orthodox Jewish thought. It is not even that her life arc traces Maimonides' journey through Israel and Egypt; Ms. Weiner was born in the Egyptian port of Alexandria on the Mediterranean, and then moved to Israel when she was in her teens.

And although she pays homage to his times, it is not that the Spanish-born Maimonides lived during the Golden Age of Jewry in Europe.

Ms. Weiner points to the relevance of Maimonides in her life's work because he was a Sephardic Jew.

"Sephardic Jews lived in Arab countries, where there was a built-in bias against them. Little wonder that they were also given fewer opportunities for educational advancement," she said.

Ms. Weiner said that in the vernacular of modern-day Israel, "Sephardim" has come to be used as an umbrella term for any Jewish person who is not Ashkenazi, or descendants of Jews from Germany, Poland, Austria, and Eastern Europe. Ashkenazim constitute the bulk of the world's 13 million Jews, while Sephardim account for about 10%.

Ms. Weiner's mother, who died recently at 101, was a Sephardi, born in Israel, while her father, Reuven Avidar, was born in Russia.

"They were profound Zionists," Ms. Weiner said of her parents, who met and married in Israel and then moved to Egypt.

They moved back to Israel after the War of Independence; their second daughter, Nina, was born. Besides learning to be fluent in Hebrew, English, French, Arabic, Portuguese, and Spanish, Ms. Weiner trained to be a violinist. But she suffered from shyness, which wasn't conducive to performing in public. So Ms. Weiner traveled to Switzerland and trained to be a child psychologist under the renowned Jean Piaget at the University of Geneva. She found herself back in Israel, this time on an assignment to study how the children of immigrant Sephardic Jews fared at school.

"There was definitely a big gap between Sephardic kids -- who came to Israel from various Arab countries, and from Asia -- and the children of Ashkenazi Jews, the ones hailing from European countries," Ms. Weiner said. "I asked myself, 'Why should it be this way? What can be done to empower these students? How can we develop intellectual leadership among young Sephardic Jews?'"

It would be some years before she was able to find answers.

She moved to New York to obtain a master's degree at Columbia University, and then worked as a child psychologist for eight years. She married Walter Weiner, a lawyer who went on to serve as chief executive of Edmond Safra's Republic National Bank for 25 years.

Ms. Weiner also represented a not-for-profit group, the Women's International Zionist Organization, at the United Nations in the mid 1970s, where she learned disturbing lessons about how shabbily Israel was treated in the corridors of diplomacy.

Her re-connection with the issue of education of Sephardic youths came when she met Safra. He quickly warmed up to the idea of creating a foundation to assist needy students. Ms. Weiner's budget in the first year of operation, 1977, was $250,000, almost all of it from Safra and his friends.

"I still remember the day when Edmond convened a meeting -- June 2, 1977 -- to discuss the formation of the foundation. He invited 12 friends, all men. After the money was pledged, he said to me, 'Now leave the room. We have to pray,'" Ms. Weiner said, smiling about the fact that, as Orthodox Jews, Safra and his friends would not pray in the presence of a woman.

"But I was terribly lucky. I would never have succeeded without Edmond Safra. He gave me a lot of legitimacy. He was chairman and founder, both here and in Israel. His name definitely helped open doors, and his wife Lily continues his generous legacy," Ms. Weiner said.

Since then, her annual budget has risen past $4 million, and ISEF has an endowment of $6 million. Multinational corporations such as Intel and Motorola work with her in developing academic and job programs.

"What makes me profoundly happy is how our students gain in their self-confidence and self-esteem. My own empowerment and self assurance grew with my students," Ms. Weiner said. "What has kept me going, above all, is to see the results. I am in total awe of the intellectual caliber of our students. And while I have always been a driven person, my drive is nothing compared to them."

Pranay Gupte,
Senior Writer and Global-Affairs Columnist

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