I’m four years old, with a pony-tail and a big smile.  I sit in my dad’s old Renault car, he just picked me up from kindergarten and we are driving to Beer Sheva at the heart of Israel’s Negev desert.  Even though at the time the city was not that big, it seemed huge to my four-year-old self.   And as we drive up the main street of Beer Sheva, my dad looks at me through the car’s mirror and points out the grey huge buildings on the side of that street and tells me “This is the Ben Gurion University of the Negev. One day you will be a student here, just like me.”  I asked him “Why should I?” and he answered – “Well, that is just what we do in our family.”   So, at the age of four, a little girl named Rotem started dreaming. 

Sixteen years later I finished my army duty, not far from Beer Sheva, gave back my uniforms and three weeks later stood humbled and excited at the entrance to Tel Aviv University Law school.  Did your parents raise you telling you that college is an option for you? Maybe the only option? Do you remember your first day at college? 

As I was looking out the car window at Ben-Gurion University, on the other side of that street, I saw a boy named Yaakov, in Quarter D (שכונה דלת), the worst neighborhood in Beer Sheva, where children wander around unsupervised, and drugs and violence pervade the streets.  Even though the university was just on the other side of the street, Yaakov never entered its gates.  Not as a visitor.  Not as a student or later as an adult, to buy a pencil for his kid at the university store.  Not even to sit at the coffee shop.  Yaakov never thought the gate keepers would let him in.  Actually, he told me he did enter the university once: on his wedding day, he came with his new wife to take their wedding pictures there, as it is the greenest and nicest place in the desert city of Beer Sheva.

But after Yaakov’s beautiful wedding he didn’t go to the university.  Instead, as so many others on the edge of society, Yaakov got in trouble. He became a drug dealer, as this was the only way he knew to survive.  Yaakov went to jail, Yaakov came out of jail.  And later became a burden on the welfare authorities.  He also raised his kids in Quarter D.  As he would walk along the main street of Beer Sheva with his four-year-old daughter, Yuval, he never told her about that grey building on the other side of the street – the university.  She could not start dreaming of that place. 

Yaakov and I could have never met, but we did. 

I went to the university — he never entered its gates.  I became an attorney in a leading law firm in Israel — he went to jail.  I never dealt with welfare authorities — he was a regular client.  Yaakov lived in an environment that does not encourage learning and does not recognize the importance of education.  I grew up in an environment that nurtured education and that pushed me to study in the university, where I received all the knowledge I needed.  Since he never entered the university gates, he never exposed himself to that knowledge.

Yaakov and I might have never met. But we did.

Thanks to “Access for All,” an Israeli NGO that provides access to university education for all people, especially those who otherwise would not have such an opportunity. We bring 2,400 adults from the margins of the Israeli society, all of whom are welfare recipients, who never set foot on campus, whose children don’t think of higher education as an option – to study courses in four universities — all across Israel.

And how do we do that? 

  • Do you remember how empty it felt at evening time at University? No-one likes to teach at night — so we teach classes to our participants in the evenings when there are so many empty classrooms;
  • Do you remember how you got around at school?  Bike, foot, car, bus? Our participants don’t have cars or money for public transportation – so we take them in buses from their hometown to the campus;
  • Do you remember all the food available to you in the cafeteria, or the local cafes and restaurants?  We don’t know when our participants started their day or when they last had something to eat – so we welcome them with a sandwich and beverages before class.  (Can you hear your Jewish mother telling you never to study on an empty stomach?)

And how do we do that? 

What do we teach them?

  • Remember that time you neded legal advice regarding your employment rights? We teach introduction to law. 
  • You know how you wish someone would have taught you about nutrition and health related issues when you were younger?  We teach introduction to medicine.
  • Think of how you stood helpless in front of the mortgage agent.  We teach introduction to business.
  • And the many times you really hoped someone would tell you how to talk to your children? We also teach introduction to psychology.

Everyone should have access to that knowledge.  Not just those of us who were lucky enough to get in to University. 

And who teaches?

Remember that 21-year-old Army graduate who went to law school?  The curricula is taught by a 100 BA students each year – they are our second target group at “Access for All.”  Students like me, who were never exposed to the periphery of the Israeli society, are actually being taught through their teaching; they are trained and see and experience the makeup of Israel, what needs to be changed in our society, and in what ways that change can be accomplished.

If we do our work right, when those BA students become lawyers they’ll take on pro-bono cases; when they become doctors they will work for government hospitals not private practices; when they become psychologists, they will work with kids in the tough neighborhoods and not in the privileged ones.  If we do our work even better — they will become teachers and the future social change agents of Israel.

Remember your graduation day? How proud you were? And how proud your parents were of you? Access for All graduations are sky-rocketing exciting!  It’s a big happy mess — children all over the place — hanging from the ceiling and the curtains. Those kids are finally inside a university and when they see their mom go up on stage to get a certificate from the Dean of the Law School or when they see their dad has completed a course in the university, they know that the university is a place for them as well. They, too, can start dreaming.

“Access for All” is a story of building a healthier Israeli society.  One in which higher education is the right of every person —  rich or poor, man or a woman, Jewish or Arab, young or old, literate or not. It is also the story of the young generation in Israel who looks at our country and keeps looking for ways to make Israel an equal and thriving society. 

Rotem Yadlin,a current Wexner Israel Fellow in Class 28 at Harvard, serves as CEO for “Access for All,” a nonprofit organization opening university gates for adults from weakened populations, with courses taught by undergraduate students.  Rotem also serves as Director at Levinsky College of Education, as a member of the Diaspora Affairs Ministry’s public advisory committee and as an elected member in her local community, leading the education committee.  From 2009 to 2013, Rotem served as Senior Advisor to the Israeli Cabinet Secretary in the Prime Minister’s Office and, prior to that, as a lawyer at Goldfarb Seligman law offices.  Rotem holds an LLB Degree from Tel Aviv University and was granted the Israeli Bar Association’s “Honoris Causa Award” for reducing social gaps. She can be reached at rotem.yadlin@gmail.com.