Tara Alpert: Israel Service Fellows

Maase Olam

You'd think an American biology nerd would be superfluous in a country rife with Nobel Prize winners, globally lauded science institutions, and technological innovations galore. But despite Israel's reputation as a leading nation in biotechnology, crystallography and physics, science education is not readily accessible to all sectors of Israel's population. For this reason, Yale-bound Tara Alpert relishes the opportunity to share her geekdom with a crew of science-curious Druze and Arab middle and high school students in M'rar, a mixed village near the Kinneret. So far her students have learned about bacteria growth, non-Newtonian liquids, and have even created a terrarium made from found materials in the village. While most of us can only pretend to know what those terms actually mean, Tara's students are happy to dive into these experiments, simultaneously improving their chances of entering Israel's competitive science arena while growing more comfortable speaking English.

When she's not peering into microscopes and preparing petri dishes, Tara lives and works in Akko, where she teaches English to both Jewish and Arab teens. With her group of advanced English students at Hilmi Shafi, an Arab Middle School, her goal is to use games to make English accessible, social, and fun, rather than just another component of her students' academic schedule. Her strategy is apparently working, as the English staff has told her that her kids' grades have noticeably improved. Though she keeps her English classes light and fun, every lesson is approached with the unsettling knowledge of the inherent inequalities that her students face as Arab citizens of Israel.

"Before starting here, I did not realize how important English is to these students. It is a required subject on their high school exit exams called Bagrut and without taking one of the higher levels in school (regardless of your exam score) the Arabic students are not allowed to continue their education in university. Jews who are not well-versed in English can still make a decent living and career through other routes including the military (a non-option for Arabic students), but for the lower performing students at Hilmi, this is the end of the road. I feel like my time spent here is really meaningful."

She faces different hurdles as a mentor and educator at Manof, a Jewish boarding school for youth with troubled backgrounds. Students at Manof are more difficult to engage in English, and though Tara has studied Hebrew for several years, she still struggles to break the language barrier. Many of her students have a history of criminal activity, family dysfunction, and behavioral issues, but Tara is quick to point out that this has not prevented some of them from achieving a very high degree of English fluency. Though this has been by far the most challenging aspect of her service, Tara values the opportunity she has had to see firsthand the issues faced by at-risk youth in Israel's periphery.

As her service in Israel comes to a close, and Tara prepares to return to a rigorous biochemistry PhD program in the States, how will she integrate her identity as a Jewish agent for social change in Israel with her presumed life path as a scientist in the Diaspora?

"The lack of knowledge and awareness about Israel, even among the American Jewish community, is still glaring. Continuing to work in a college environment is a great place for me to get involved in student clubs and activities related to the issues in the Middle East, and to help students discover for themselves that the media doesn't always provide an accurate portrayal of this immensely complex issue. Hopefully I can encourage people to look deeper into the conflict than they ever have before."

To read more about Tara's work in Israel, check out her blog: http://morefalafel.blogspot.co.il/