Breaking New Ground by Stepping Into Israel’s Ivory Towers

With disparate backgrounds but the same drive and determination, four young Israelis reflect on the experience of being the first in their families to go to college.

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Avi Yosef, a student from Kiryat Yam, at Netanya Academic College, November 2016.
Avi Yosef, a student from Kiryat Yam, at Netanya Academic College, November 2016.Credit: Moti Milrod

Avi Yosef, 26

Just a few days ago, Avi Yosef of Kiryat Yam, in northern Israel, learned that he finished his first year of college last year with a grade point average of 95. He hasn’t yet told his parents; he wants to surprise them. But the staff at the Netanya Academic College, where he’s studying business administration, had applauded him.

“Ever since the beginning of the [first] year, I’d been thinking of the moment, when I’d stand on the dais and receive a certificate of excellence,” the 26-year-old Yosef said. “Even before I knew what I’d be dealing with, I knew I could do it, and I did it.”

Yosef called his first year of college the most difficult and challenging of his life. “It was the first time I was really away from home, and I’m very close to my family,” he explained. “I have a little brother, in sixth grade, and a brother who was just drafted, and it’s important to me to be a good influence on them.

“For the first few months, I’d finish the school week and then go straight home,” he continued, adding that he called his little brother every night to give him “motivational talks.”

Yosef's parents were born in Ethiopia and received little education there; after coming to Israel, they learned little except Hebrew. But even though his decision to pursue a higher education means he can’t help out much with the family finances, “They’re very happy that I’m studying,” he said. “It also sets an example for my other brothers, because I’m the first to do it.”

Last year, Yosef worked as a pizza delivery boy while he was studying, but quit during exam period. “Because there’s sometimes discrimination against Ethiopian-Israelis, it was really important to me to get that ‘excellent,’” he explained. “So I had some difficult months, without a penny to my name. There were days when I couldn’t buy food. But my roommate helped me and we managed.”

Having to work at times didn’t really bother him, added Yosef, “because I always worked, both in high school and in the army.”

Despite receiving neither financial nor scholastic help from his parents, Yosef feels they’re behind him. “My mother always says you have to study. She didn’t herself, but she knows that the key to narrowing [social] gaps is education.”

Mais Masrawa, 22

Mais Masrawa, a student from Kafr Kara at Haifa's Technion, Israel Institute of Technology, November 2016.
Mais Masrawa, a student from Kafr Kara at Haifa's Technion, Israel Institute of Technology, November 2016.Credit: Rami Chelouche

When she began studying at the Technion – Israel Institute of Technology in Haifa, “It was very hard for me to talk in class in Hebrew, to ask questions,” recalled Mais Masrawa of the northern Arab village of Kafr Kara. “It was hard for me to integrate. Not to mention, until I started college, I’d never been away from home for a long period of time.”

The 22-year-old lives in the dorms and is now in her fourth year of studies in the fields of biotechnology and food engineering. As for her parents, she said, they both left school after 10th grade, as was permissible under the Compulsory Education Law at the time.

“Part of my motive for learning is so my parents will be happy,” said Masrawa. “Ever since I was little, my mother has told me that she wanted to learn, but because she came from a large family, they couldn’t afford it for all the children, so she had to leave school. She said, ‘At least my daughters will realize my dream.’ Because of that, ever since I started school, my mother has very much supported and encouraged me.

“Before the Technion, I was used to being at the top of my class,” she continued. “Then suddenly I came here and I was getting grades in the 70s instead of over 90, like I was before. I think part of my success stems from her support, and also that of my siblings and my father.”

Masrawa, who works in a lab and also participates in the Technion’s project to assist Israeli Arab students, is an exception among the girls she grew up with.

“Many got married and already have children,” she said. “Some went to college, but after they got married, they simply stayed home, and that’s disappointing, in my view. To my family, the most important thing is studying – not marriage and children. They tell me, ‘First do what you want in life – study, travel abroad – and then think about getting married.’”

Chaya, 43

Chaya, an ultra-Orthodox PhD student at Tel Aviv University, November 2016.
Chaya, an ultra-Orthodox PhD student at Tel Aviv University, November 2016.Credit: Michal Fattal

Very few ultra-Orthodox women pursue higher education at (nonreligious) Israeli colleges and universities, and only a handful go on for a doctorate – in her case, in law. Indeed, it's only in recent years such studies have begun to be an option for the ultra-Orthodox community in general, and Chaya (who preferred not to reveal her surname) is a groundbreaker. After she earned her bachelor’s and master’s degrees at the ultra-Orthodox campus of Ono Academic College, in the central part of the country, last year she entered a bastion of secularism: Tel Aviv University.

“I arrived at the university and felt social alienation,” she said. “I remember arriving on the first day and there was an event to kick off the year; I was in shock: all kinds of booths with food, dancing, beer, loud music. There was even a homosexual booth – not that I know anything about that – but it was strange to see it like that, in a public area.”

Even getting an all-purpose public transport pass required a smartphone app, “and my telephone has no apps,” Chaya explained. “Everything was not just foreign, but to some degree didn’t fit my values. It was very difficult for me.”

Another hardship was her inability to share her experiences with her own community. “It’s not just that I’m the first generation to go to college,” she said. “Imagine a situation in which nobody in your environment even knows what higher education is – in which it’s simply not acceptable, not to your extended family and not to your neighborhood. Even though I personally received permission from the rabbi, I couldn’t tell anyone what I was doing, and it’s something you do want to brag about. My children are embarrassed and afraid. I have a daughter who hears a lot against academia at her school, and it’s a school I sent her to, because it educates according to my values.”

The other students accepted her warmly, Chaya said, but it was still hard for her “knowing I was doing something not accepted in my community.” Moreover, she made mistakes because of what she calls cultural misunderstandings, and had trouble “understanding what was going on, how the lectures are conducted,” and so on.

“For instance, I wrote a position paper about extending maternity leave for mothers, and I said that if it were to last an whole year, it would create a situation where the woman could be out of the labor market for 20 years,” she recalled, referring to the fact that many ultra-Orthodox women have a child every year or two. “But my lecturer couldn’t understand my calculation.”

Similarly, when Chaya met with the professor she wanted as her thesis advisor, “I brought a checkbook, because I didn’t know how much you paid for this. Even the method of speaking, like the fact that you call the professor by his first name – I couldn’t get used to it. I came from a place with clearer hierarchies.”

Last year, Chaya attended a special course aimed at helping students who were the first in their families to attend college. It provided both a necessary support system and a better understanding of the cultural and social differences she was feeling.

For instance, she recalled, one lecturer talked during that course about how students get tired of being asked to do so much writing. “We were in shock, because we, in general, come with an insane desire to write. I thought no one hated writing. We wondered why people came if not to write. We didn’t come because our fathers and mothers did and we’re continuing the family tradition: We came because it was ‘burning in our bones.’”

Shir Revivo, 24

Shir Ravivo, a student at Sapir College, November 2016.
Shir Ravivo, a student at Sapir College, November 2016.Credit: Eliyahu Hershkovitz

Though Shir Revivo is the first person in her family to attend college – her father is a truck driver and her mother works in a day-care center – she doesn’t feel this makes her any different from the other second-year students enrolled in the multidisciplinary culture, creation and production program at Sapir College in Ashkelon, in the south. What does make her different, she explained, is that she attended a religious high school.

“That’s something that I felt may have held me back,” the 24-year-old said. “There are concepts I’m not familiar with, that I’ve encountered for the first time in college.

“Religious education closes you off,” she added. “In college, I’ve encountered all kinds of theories that I didn’t know existed – philosophical and feminist theories, things that could raise doubts. Perhaps if my parents had attended college, it would have given me a better point of departure, but I don’t feel that friends whose parents did go to college know more than I do.”

She came to Sapir after a year at Tel-Hai College, in northern Israel. The program there didn’t suit her as well, and the atmosphere was also different.

“I was in my first year, and in an advanced English course, and someone from a kibbutz in the north asked me, ‘How is it that your name is Revivo and you’re in the advanced course?’” she recalled. (Revivo is a fairly common name among Mizrahim, or Jews of Middle Eastern and North African origin.)

“I didn’t dwell on it too much, because I don’t believe in such nonsense,” she continued. Nevertheless, at Tel-Hai, “I sometimes had a feeling that Mizrahim were a bit less 'cool.' I met several students who were bothered that I had dark brown hair and dark skin, and by my name. At Sapir, I haven’t run into this.”

Revivo said her parents were always clear that their children should attend college: “They told us they didn’t attend college, and they wanted a better future for us, so ‘don’t make the mistake we made.’”

They weren’t completely successful, Revivo admitted; one of her brothers is a policeman who “thinks that college is a waste of time” and that earning a living is more important. Her parents aren’t trying to persuade him otherwise, she added, because “they know they can’t decide for him.”

But she isn’t the only one who took her parents’ arguments to heart. Another brother, also a policeman, is now studying criminology.

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