Against the odds, Reut Efroni, Golan Nagani and Arthur Ness are pursuing their educational dreams. The three highly decorated soldiers in the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) are now high achieving college students advancing towards professional careers, as beneficiaries of a unique initiative of the Friends of the IDF (FIDF) that offers four-year scholarships to former IDF combat soldiers from disadvantaged, low-income families.
The program, they say, is giving them and others the chance to transform their lives, their communities and the well-being of Israel.
In a whirlwind week crisscrossing Massachusetts, the trio, all fluent in English, shared their compelling life stories at community events and meetings, raising awareness about the program, called IMPACT!
American parents brace yourselves: donors to the FIDF pledge $16,000 to cover four years of tuition and books, the cost for a college education in Israel. These scholarships complement higher education subsidies provided by the Israeli government.
During their last weekend here, at a reception at the Martha’s Vineyard home of IMPACT! donors Barry and Susan Tatelman, they were joined by Maj. Gen. (Res.) Meir Klifi-Amir, national director and CEO of FIDF, based in New York City.
Over the course of the week, a total of more than $1 million was raised, according to Bruce Mendelsohn, newly appointed executive director of the FIDF’s New England office. As a result, some fifty new eligible soldiers will join the thousands of others who have benefited from the 13-year-old program, he said.
The Tatelmans, who sponsor two students, including Efroni, donate to many causes, but this program stands out, Barry Tatelman said in a phone conversation.
“This is one where you can see the results and you get to know them (the soldier/students). It’s very rewarding,” he said.
IDF soldiers “are in harm’s way. This is a way to give back to the soldiers, at a very reasonable cost,” reflected the successful businessman (of Jordan’s Furniture fame), now turned theatrical producer.
As of last year, over 8,000 IDF combat veterans have received four-year scholarships, with about 1,000 new students every year. Gen. Klifi-Amir hopes to increase the number of new students each year to 1,500 over the next two to three years, he told the Journal in a phone conversation.
“The influence of the program is about the future of Israel,” Gen. Klifi-Amir asserted, noting its achievement of a 97 percent graduation rate, compared to an 85 percent rate among all undergraduate students in Israel.
He is equally proud of the program’s community service component, which requires every student to volunteer 130 hours each year to community organizations. Since 2002, students have contributed some 3.5 million volunteer hours.
Efroni, Nagani and Ness, accompanied by local FIDF board member and donor Mike Field, sat down with the Journal one morning before heading off to a day of talks in Providence and Worcester.
Four years ago, when Efroni’s family faced a significant loss of income, she put aside her dream of attending college, working instead to help support her family. Today, as an IMPACT! scholarship recipient, the 25-year-old will begin her second year as a business student at the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliyah, eager to pursue a career in the field of training and motivational leadership.
It’s a career inspired by her work in the IDF, where Efroni served with distinction as an educator, stationed near Jordan with two battalions of combat trainees. She relished her role teaching the IDF’s values to its diverse array of new soldiers.
Golan Nagani, who completed the IDF’s commander course with honors, grew up in a poor, tough neighborhood in Haifa, one of four children born to immigrant parents. Until he learned about the IMPACT! scholarship, he had no clear path to pursue his goal of becoming an architect. This fall, he begins his fourth and final year as an architecture student at the prestigious Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design in Jerusalem. He was matched with a pair of Israeli donors, two architect friends who were in the first cohort of IMPACT! graduates and who also attended Bezalel.
“Everyone gets something from their donors, not just financial backing,” he said. “The connection is love,” he said.
Ten years ago, Arthur Ness made aliyah, arriving in Israel from the Ukraine. He completed high school in Haifa and entered the IDF without any specific goals for life after his service. In his final year with the IDF, where he served as a highly specialized unmanned aerial vehicle operator, Ness was determined to continue working on behalf of Israel’s security. This fall, he’ll be entering his third and final year of studies in government and international relations at the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliyah.
“From the beginning, knowing that we have someone at our back, to support us, makes it easier to concentrate on our studies. It helps a lot,” Ness said.
Reflecting on the visit, Efroni said she was overwhelmed by the outpouring of love for Israel and the generous spirit among people they met. She sees the Tatelmans, Field and others as role models for a circle of giving inspired by IMPACT! and its emphasis on community service.
“These three days changed my life,” she revealed. “I was exposed to the reality that this community, it feels like a family. I feel so proud to be here. It’s awesome.”