New Immigrants Left Hanging After Israel Student Authority Fails to Pay Tuition

Dozens of new immigrant students, many of whom have already graduated from their international programs, have yet to receive the second half of the tuition assistance. For most, the shortfall amounts to over NIS 13,000.

Like many young immigrants, Jenny Strauss moved to Israel in 2009 because she felt a "deep connection" to the country, but also because she knew she would receive government aid to go back to school. "It was a really good financial decision at the time," said the 26-year-old from Chicago.

Now Strauss, who is scheduled to graduate from Tel Aviv University on Sunday with a master's degree in public health, finds herself in financial straits because she did not receive the tuition assistance she had been promised.

"It's a very bad surprise," said Strauss, who has relied on the generosity of her parents and income from a part-time job to cover her tuition and living expenses.

Strauss is one of dozens of new immigrant students - many of whom have already graduated from their international programs - who have yet to receive the second half of the tuition assistance they expected from the Israel Student Authority. For most, the shortfall amounts to over NIS 13,000 - "a significant amount for a young, unemployed person," Strauss said.

Maureen Adiri, director of Tel Aviv University's international school, said she was aware of at least 28 students across the 11 master's degree programs who were waiting for funds. "It's clearly a problem, specifically for the degree students who studied in the summer" when the government's budget negotiations reached an impasse, she said. Adiri noted that her office has been in contact with the Student Authority every week for the past month and a half and that she was assured at the beginning of this week that a decision was imminent. "All we can do is to communicate to the students what we hear from the Student Authority," she said.

There are approximately 30 new immigrant students at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem who are in a similar position, according to Luba Gilkin, administrative director of the preparatory program at the Rothberg International School.

The Immigrant Absorption Ministry, which funds the Student Authority in partnership with the Jewish Agency, said in a statement that 6,500 students received tuition assistance this year and that the ministry was not aware of any complaints by new immigrant students who did not receive all of the promised aid.

But in a subsequent statement to Haaretz, the ministry appeared to acknowledge the problem: "As is known, the operations of the Student Authority suffered this year due to a severe budget crisis. The Ministry of Immigrant Absorption is doing everything it can to accommodate immigrant students in the most satisfactory way."

According to the contracts that the new immigrant students signed with the Student Authority last fall, they were to receive the first half of their tuition aid in installments and the second half in one lump sum after presenting certain documents, including the grades from their first two semesters. The deadline to file these documents was August 15, but the Student Authority notified some students by e-mail on July 22 that funding would not be provided for the summer semester because of "budget changes."

In a few cases, students were able to receive all of their tuition aid simply because they requested the money well before the August 15 deadline, even before some of their grades had been submitted.

Daniel Rotman, a new immigrant from Toronto who participated in Tel Aviv University's conflict resolution master's program, said he received the full NIS 26,000 in aid because he went to the Student Authority in June after reading about the budget crisis. "I think I got lucky because I didn't fall through the cracks," he said. "It's a matter of following up and being a nudnik in order to get the help that people told you you were promised."

Students told Haaretz that their program heads were mostly sympathetic and that some even encouraged them to sue the Student Authority. Adiri of Tel Aviv University said students are now being referred to the student union's legal representative in order to learn their rights.

"I guess if we were to sue jointly, I would be more than willing to participate," said another recent graduate of Tel Aviv University's conflict resolution program who has emailed the Student Authority numerous times about his case. "But it would be a long battle that would probably not be won." Originally from Los Angeles, California, he is currently looking for work in Israel but has contemplated returning to the United States.

For Tess Lehrich, 29, who immigrated to Israel from New Jersey in 2008, the experience has been especially bitter because she is applying what she learned in the environmental studies program at Tel Aviv University to improve Israeli society. "I know there are some people who come, take the money and go home. But I'm really investing in the country," said Lehrich, who is working with an ecological farm on a waste-separation project in the city of Modi'in.

Lehrich described a bizarre experience at the Student Authority office in Tel Aviv in July that epitomizes the Kafkaesque nature of the situation. She said she was so fed up that she told her caseworker she would not leave the building until they paid her. "I've been in a lot of bureaucratic situations in Israel where I'm crying because I feel so helpless, but in this case the woman suddenly started crying too," Lehrich recalled. "She said, 'All these students are coming and I don't know what to do.' I thought, aren't you supposed to be the one yelling at me to get out?"

Strauss, the soon-to-be graduate, said she is planning to stay in Israel and hoping to find work at an NGO in the field of migration or women's health. Still, she said, this experience has left her a bit cynical about Israeli society. "I came here to start my career and be a part of a younger, better Israel - all the things they talk about on the aliyah advertisement. Now I see it's all about settlements and prisons and fear about Iran instead of education and improvement and infrastructure." She added: "This has been one big step in my disillusionment with this country."