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Brookline nonprofit continues ‘chaotic and quixotic’ mission connecting Israeli and Palestinian graduate students amid violence

At Hebrew University, STEP fellows Nina and Manar are studying the causes and treatments of retinal diseases that cause blindness. Photo courtesy of STEP
March 26, 2024

Since the Israel-Hamas war began in October, eight pairs of health and computer science graduate students have found solace together in their labs at Israeli universities. Every day, the pairs, each including one Israeli and one Palestinian from the West Bank or Gaza, check in with each other, ask about each other’s well-being and about their families. They work closely and share deep bonds. Yet the conversation doesn’t stray to the conflict beyond lab walls or the geopolitics that ignited it.

The graduate students are fellows in Science Training Encouraging Peace (STEP), the brainchild of Brookline resident Allen Taylor, an emeritus professor at Tufts University, where he directed the Laboratory for Nutrition and Vision Research for 40 years.

Taylor, who said he was raised in a Zionist family, was a senior Fulbright Scholar at Tel Aviv University Medical School in the late 1990s. Seeing the divides in the region firsthand, he wanted to find a way to ease them. After years of reflecting, he and his wife Kim Kronenberg founded STEP in 2013. Today, they run the program from their Brookline home. 

Normalcy amid violence

Israelis and Palestinians live in close proximity, but they don’t necessarily interact regularly beyond security checkpoints, said Aya, a Palestinian who is now a postdoctoral student at Stanford University. (Aya asked to only be identified by first name for security reasons). “Everyone has a different idea of how the other side is or how they live,” said Aya, who was a STEP fellow at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem from 2019 to 2021.

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When Hamas first attacked Israel last October, STEP was poised to grow. For now, Taylor said, the nonprofit is holding steady. Amid the violence, all of STEP’s fellows have continued working together—the Palestinians in STEP’s current cohort are based in East Jerusalem or the West Bank, with none in Gaza. Doing so is a piece of normalcy amid the violence.

Their labs are “a lot less divisive than the outside world,” Taylor said. Most fellows are working in person, but those living in the West Bank haven’t been able to cross the border back to their universities. “They’ve had to adapt their projects so they can work on Zoom together or online,” Kronenberg said.

“They take it on themselves, actually, to try to keep the motion going,” Taylor added. “Because each of their career[s] depends upon it, so they’re all invested.”

The program has also offered a safety net. When one fellow who wears a hijab felt unsafe on public transportation, her professor started driving her to school every day. And when another Palestinian student couldn’t return home, people in her lab connected her with an Israeli family who opened their home to her.

This kind of loyalty grows among fellows and faculty while they work together, as it did with Aya and her STEP partner Noa. The relationship was strictly professional until the pair had coffee one day. Their connection deepened immediately and the two—whose approaches to work and life differ greatly—are now best friends, Aya said. “The combination between us, like something in the middle, was really good,” she said.

‘Chaotic and quixotic’ work

When Taylor first envisioned STEP, he had just that kind of graduate school relationship in mind. “You develop very trusting and loving relationships with these people,” he realized.

In the years before STEP’s launch, Taylor and Kronenberg, a public health professional and former adjunct professor at Boston University, explored the concept. They traveled back to Israel several times and vetted their idea with a wide variety of people there and beyond.

“Basically, every single person, from taxi drivers to garbage collectors to relatives to scientists to Nobel laureates, all said ‘Please do it,’” Taylor said. So they committed to work that Taylor described as “chaotic and quixotic,” in a place where he and Kronenberg are still learning the cultural, political and interpersonal nuances.

STEP officially launched in the 2013-2014 academic year under the auspices of the Nevin Scrimshaw International Nutrition Foundation based at Tufts, and in 2018 became an independent nonprofit. The program includes a stipend that covers tuition and some living expenses for pairs of health and computer science graduate students for the duration of their master’s or doctoral programs. STEP provides half of the funding, while each fellow’s school provides the other half.

STEP founders Allen Taylor and Kim Kronenberg at their home in Brookline. Photo by Andrew Burke-Stevenson

To apply to STEP, prospective fellows must already be accepted into an Israeli university. From there, they write a scientific proposal, then Taylor and a steering committee member interview them via Zoom. “Allen grills them scientifically in a friendly way,” said Kronenberg. She and Taylor ask the faculty about each applicant’s credentials and “about their willingness to be part of a program where Israelis and Palestinians [are] working together.”

The program “hasn’t been easy to grow, to pioneer this sort of thing,” said STEP steering committee member Rob Russell, who is former director of the Jean Mayer USDA Human Nutrition Research Center on Aging at Tufts University. It began with just two fellows, Kronenberg said.

One, Ahmad Abu Al-Halaweh, is now STEP’s regional representative. Part of his work is supporting Palestinian applicants, who have historically faced more challenges, including language, while navigating the process. “Ahmad…might be in communication with someone for two to three years” before they apply to STEP, Kronenberg said.

Over time, the program has grown. A ninth pair recently joined the current fellows roster, while 38 pairs have graduated so far. After graduation, poised for leadership in their fields, they’ve brought comfort and trust with each other to their work. One graduate now at the Palestinian Ministry of Health recently reached out to contacts at Hebrew University from his STEP days to work on developing a vaccine together.

Taylor and Kronenberg hope to pick up where they left off last fall and to build with new partners. The two don’t agree on exactly when and how that will happen next, but they remain committed to the values that led them to found STEP in the first place. “I was brought up to believe that being Jewish is about giving back to the community and what they call tikkun olam,” Kronenberg she said, referring to the Hebrew for “repairing the world.”

Whatever comes next, as stories—and work—continue to flow from their fellows, “I think our students are extraordinarily courageous,” Kronenberg said. “By working together, especially now, they exhibit extraordinary bravery.”