Israeli university promotes inclusion, diversity with unusual approach

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Hebrew University’s Ambassadors for Diversity program helps out students from underrepresented groups and is part of the university’s vision for the school as an oasis of diversity, coexistence, and inclusion. (Courtesy of AFHU)

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Tal Levine is the first person in her family to go to college. Her mother, a child of illiterate Moroccan immigrants to Israel who spoke only Arabic, left school after eighth grade to help her parents on their Israeli farm. Her father dropped out of high school after his own father died, and he worked his entire career in the Israeli post office.

Levine herself did odd jobs from a young age, scraping together whatever money she could.

“I’ve been working since I was 13 years old, from dog walking to waitressing to whatever I could find,” said Levine, now 28. “My parents could not help me.”

Despite her hardships, Levine found her way into dentistry thanks to a special Hebrew University diversity program that seeks out students from challenging backgrounds. Not only was Levine accepted as a student into the Hebrew University-Hadassah Faculty of Dental Medicine, but she also received a life-changing scholarship that enabled her to pursue her dream.

“I wanted to do something to help people, and not just sit in front of a screen,” Levine said of her career ambitions.

Levine’s story is not unusual: Each year, students from diverse backgrounds are actively recruited to the university, where they are eligible for financial, cultural, academic and mental health support.

It’s part of Hebrew University’s vision for the school as an oasis of diversity, coexistence and inclusion at a time when Israel is facing headwinds of division, discrimination and discord.

The university is a unique and special place in Jerusalem — and in Israel generally — where students from a wide range of socioeconomic, ethnic and religious backgrounds come together. The student body includes Orthodox haredim, Palestinian Arabs, Mizrahim, Ethiopians, people with disabilities and members of the LGBTQ+ community.

“We are working hard to bring together people from different backgrounds, where they practice listening to each other and learning about cultural diversity,” said Professor Mona Khoury, vice president for strategy and diversity and former dean of Hebrew University’s School of Social Work. Khoury made history as the first Arab woman to be appointed as a dean at the university.

“Just as an example, I recently had lunch with Arab and Jewish students from East Jerusalem and Beersheva,” she said. “Right now, it’s hard because the situation in Israel isn’t good. But even though they were very different politically, they were able to talk and had a very real and genuine conversation. This may have been the first time they had this kind of exchange. And it’s because Hebrew University purposefully enables this to happen — encourages it.”

The university seeks to promote inclusion and diversity in a variety of ways. All the signage at the university is in Hebrew, Arabic and English to make it easier for students of all backgrounds to navigate the campus. The Rothberg International School has gender-neutral bathrooms to ensure students of all gender identifications feel comfortable. Extra help with Hebrew is available to new immigrants and Arab students. Students with disabilities receive special assistance. The School of Social Work offers counseling courses in Arabic, sends out emails in three languages, and celebrates Jewish, Muslim and Christian holidays.

Each minority group in Israel faces its own challenges: Economically disadvantaged students may not have enough money even to apply to the university; haredim and ex-haredi students lack basic educational foundations, and Arab students face linguistic, cultural and social challenges.

Tala Atieh, a 22-year-old student in education and anthropology from Kfar Aqab in Arab-populated eastern Jerusalem, has benefited directly from the university’s efforts. Although she graduated at the top of her class in high school, she did not know any Hebrew. So she enrolled in a yearlong academic preparation course that the university offers students in her situation. Within a year, Atieh’s Hebrew was fluent and she was able to get into a degree program.

Atieh and Levine are both members of Hebrew University’s Ambassadors for Diversity program: 24 students from varied communities who receive scholarships, engage in multicultural activities and commit to working 100 hours in return for their benefits. As part of the program, Atieh shares her experiences with Arab young people and talks to them about how Hebrew University can help them thrive.

“I have met people from all over the country with many different backgrounds and perspectives,” Atieh said. “For example, I learned a lot about the Jewish holidays that I did not know before. And I share my own holidays as well. These exchanges bring greater understanding between our different peoples.”

Promoting tolerance is among the university’s core values. The Center for the Study of Multiculturalism and Diversity (CSMD) promotes the development of multicultural sensitivity and tolerance, helping students develop critical perspectives on power relations within their society and offering courses, clinics and events that explore multiculturalism and enable students to interact with those from different backgrounds. The center is the first academic body in Israel to harness behavioral science to focus on multiculturalism, and researchers at the CSMD are developing innovative policies to foster more social integration and cohesion.

“In the Ambassadors program I encounter people I would have never met otherwise,” said Tova Abeve, 34, a master’s degree student in public policy of Ethiopian descent.

Also the first in her family to attend university, Abeve is a social influencer and content creator with podcasts and other media aimed at Jewish women of Ethiopian descent. She uses her influence to tell her followers about the opportunities that Hebrew University offers.

“Most people don’t know that these opportunities exist,” she said. “I’m sharing a vision for what the world could look like.”

Shiran Brosh, a 38-year-old Orthodox student in education, is also in the Ambassadors program. “I have never met such a special group of people with different languages and cultures,” Brosh said. “We all come together. It’s a wonderful experience.”

Abichai Tzur, 24, is a former Orthodox Jew who spent much of his teen years cut off from his family following his decision to leave Orthodoxy. In order to get into the university’s program in international relations and communication, Tzur not only needed help overcoming gaps in his education but also financial support, mental health support and mentorship. Today, in addition to studying, he works at the Ministry of Social Equality in the LGBTQ division as manager of international relations, leads the Model United Nations program at the university, and speaks to other ex-Orthodox Jews about diversity and inclusion.

“The reason I advocate for social equality and share my story is that I know what it feels like to have a disadvantage and to need some help to get on your feet,” Tzur said.

Levine also talks to prospective students about her experience.

“My message to students is simple: You can do it,” Levine said. “Even if you don’t have money, even if you don’t think you are a good student, even if you haven’t studied — you can overcome all those obstacles and succeed.”

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