Philly Support Addresses Education Inequality in Israel

Haim Dahan (second from top left) and Paul Silberberg (third from top left) with other board members and Ofanim participants. | Photo provided

About 15 years ago on a chairlift in Vail, Colo., Haim Dahan asked his longtime friend Paul Silberberg to be the chairman of his nonprofit, Friends of Ofanim.

“We were getting toward the top, and he wasn’t going to let me off until I agreed to be the chairperson. … I just wanted to survive,” Silberberg said with a laugh. “I love him, and I loved the idea, and I love Israel … so I said yes.”

Friends of Ofanim is the philanthropy that supports Ofanim, which Dahan started to provide education to students, third through sixth grade, who live on the periphery of Israel. Mentors, who are Israeli undergraduate and graduate students, teach classes such as robotics, animation and health. STEAM skills are particularly important for children to be successful in a country like Israel that lacks natural resources, Dahan said.

At the beginning of Israel as a state, the new country created communities of immigrants around the periphery to establish a border. Over the decades, those communities became increasingly disadvantaged as Israel prioritized developing the center.

Dahan grew up in such a communy outside Beersheva. At the age of 14, his life was changed when Sam Bergman, the founder of the computer science program at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, paid his family a visit. Bergman’s wife was friends with Dahan’s mother, and soon, Bergman started taking Dahan to the university to learn about computers. Those visits changed Dahan’s life.

After completing his military service, he went on and got a degree in computer science at Ben-Gurion. He then moved to Atlanta for his Ph.D. and also started a software company. Considering his background, he said, he felt fortunate to even have the chance to go to college.

In 1999, Dahan sold the company and returned to Israel. He wanted to start a program to give students from communities like his the opportunity he had.

“We are making a difference, and more important, we are making a statement that we are not indifferent to social injustice and inequality, especially in education,” Dahan said.

The data speaks to Ofanim’s success. Compared to Ofanim’s 23.5 percent, only 8.2 percent of students in the Northern District and 6.9 percent of students in the Southern District of Israel are preparing to the high level matriculation exam in math and science.

“It’s that combination of the substance and the human mentoring that’s had such a tremendous impact,” Silberberg said.

According to Dahan and Silberberg, Friends of Ofanim is the only charity they know where Israeli donors match every dollar raised by American donors.

Because of Dahan’s friendship with Silberberg, president of CMS Companies in Philadelphia, Friends of Ofanim has a strong presence in the city. Many other Philadelphians serve on the board, such as Ed Baumstein, president and CEO at SolomonEdwards; Yoav Shiffman, president of Shifco Real Estate Services and founder and broker at Sixpoint Realty; Mark Fishman, president and owner of Fishman and Tobin, Inc., Ben Kirshner, CEO at Elite SEM, Inc.; and Arie Cohen, managing partner at AC3 BioVentures.

Baumstein, treasurer at Friends of Ofanim, said that, up until now, Friends of Ofanim has primarily been supported by a few big donors, but with new programs starting like Sponsor-a-Child — which has expanded their donor base — and a next generation auxiliary board officially launching next year, Friends of Ofanim is growing.

“We’re really just about to take off,” he said.

Shiffman said that, as an Israeli, the education disparity was something he was well aware of. “It’s relevant for everywhere in the world, even here,” Shiffman said. “If you’re coming from undeveloped areas that don’t have the infrastructure, the school system and all the tools … it’s hard through those barriers in order to give yourself the right opportunity that other people would have.” 

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