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ALUMNI SPOTLIGHT

Natasha Westheimer, Class of 2009
Senior Economic Development Associate, Water Team
Office of the Quartet

What are you doing now?

While attending the University of Maryland, I created my own major in International Development and Conflict Management, where I first discovered how water was tied up in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. After graduating, I spent a year working for the Center for Transboundary Water Management at the Arava Institute in Israel. (transboundary water is a water body that crosses borders). Ever since then, I have worked on water management in the Middle East and received a Masters in Water Science, Policy and Management from the University of Oxford.

I currently work for Office of the Quartet in Jerusalem. The Office of the Quartet is comprised of the UN, US, EU, and Russia and is mandated to support Palestinian economic and institutional development through advancing the viability and sustainability of key sectors, including: water, energy, movement and trade, and rule of law. This work not only seeks to benefit those in need, but also provides a platform for economic growth that can support, but not supplant, final status negotiations.  I work on the water team, where we support the sector in securing a reliable water supply for residents of the West Bank and Gaza, while ensuring it is a commercially viable sector. Through this, we work with both Israeli and Palestinian partners to ensure that the utilization of water resources, which are shared, ensures that basic water needs and rights are met.

Because I studied water management and international development, my day-to-day includes developing technical analysis and research to inform policy decisions with Israeli and Palestinian authorities, international agencies, and donors. 

What is it like to be an environmentalist in Israel working with Jordanians and Palestinians?

It is no different than working on these issues anywhere else in the world. We can all agree that water is a basic right, and nature does not follow political borders. Therefore, ensuring that everyone achieves their basic right to water means we have to work with everyone who shares water resources. Challenges in managing transboundary water is seen across the world. Managing shared resources, for instance between the U.S. and Mexico, or even in the Chattahoochee Basin, should be conducted in an equitable way. Basic access should prioritized, various needs should accounted for fairly, and protecting the environment should always be considered, especially in these uncertain times. 

How did Weber guide you in this direction?

Weber gave me the tools to think outside the box and ask the hard questions along the way, such as: why is the Jordan River and Dead Sea drying up? And in what ways does Israel contribute to this? What values do I believe a Jewish state should uphold? These are not easy questions to ask. Having the ability and confidence to be curious -- and be okay with thinking differently -- is something I strongly link to the teachers, classes, and Weber’s environment. Weber allows people to think differently, be who they want to be, challenge the status quo and create create new possibilities to solve problems. These are the values that underpin my time at Weber.

How did Weber inform your Jewish Life or did it?

Weber showed me the importance of a Jewish community, that Jewish communal life is non-homogeneous. Weber thus taught me that Jewish Life comes in all sorts of forms, where there is beauty in diversity of practice and beliefs. My Jewish community today embraces the pluralism that I first encountered at Weber.

The Talmud says, “whoever saves a life, it is considered as if she saved the entire world.” You and three other activists, who hardly knew each other, worked together to save the life of a Yemeni man, Mohammed Al Samawi, by helping him escape the ruthless civil war in Yemen through texting, social media, and using your network of government contacts. His harrowing and terrifying experience has been made into a book, The Fox Hunt: A Refugee’s Memoir of Coming to America and possibly a movie.

How did this intense experience change your life or did it?

Well, this was just three weeks of my life, four years ago –  pretty insignificant in the grand scheme of things. But it has reinforced that I can solve even the most existential problem by being resourceful and mobilizing people around me. I didn't have the skills or experience with helping people escape civil war, but in a matter of three weeks, I was able to help mobilize support from the people and the systems that I knew at the time. The reality is that this surreal experience happened because I had the privilege to build those networks and utilize them when we needed. Of course, it sometimes still surprises me that this even happened, but I also believe it is nothing that other people don’t have the capacity to do, if they have the time, energy and networks that could support such an effort. I am still in touch with the three others involved in the evacuation, and Mohammed of course.

What is your fondest Weber memory?

My favorite memory is being outdoors with students and faculty at the Shabbaton weekends.

What advice would you give to Weber graduates?

Keep asking questions; let the curiosity that Weber instills guide you to new places

Previous Alumni Spotlights

Zach Marks, Class of 2010

ALUMNI SPOTLIGHT

ZACH MARKS, CLASS OF 2010
Coordinator, Global Artist Strategy & Audience Development, Artist & Label Services at Spotify

What are you doing now? Spotify is in 65 different countries and has 80 people working directly with the artist, their record labels, and management partners, to help tell the artist's story and keep Spotify culturally relevant and growing. Each country has their own specific strategies and I help make sure our narrative is cohesive and has the same general strategies and goals in mind as the artists and record labels. I have been fortunate to travel to Cuba, Croatia and throughout Europe as part of my job.

How did Weber set you on your path? I have always been interested in music. I am probably somewhat unusual because I was singularly driven on what my end goal was in 9th or 10th grade. Because the odds of succeeding as a musician are incredibly remote, I wanted to go into the business part of music. I started looking at universities with a music program and NYU was perfect. Not only did it have a major in Music Business, but it also offered access to internships and incredible networking opportunities in New York.

What was special to you about Weber? The laid back atmosphere allowed me to listen to and play music whenever I was not in class. There was a student community that was interested in the same stuff. We often discussed a variety of artists and styles of music. Weber created and supported a culture of openness and discord that went beyond music. Whether it was geopolitical views, music, or which artists we should support, Weber allowed us, even encouraged us, to have healthy contrasting opinions and express our differences. We explored and debated these differences in positive ways without shutting down an argument. I am grateful, after the fact, that Weber really fostered this culture of critical thinking that frankly does not exist in a broad spectrum across education at any level.

How did Weber inform your Jewish life today? Because of Weber and my upbringing, there is such a strong tradition to debate. There are no right answers to many questions. Therefore, it forces an individual to challenge what their principles are on a constant basis to avoid dogmatic reactions. Judaism is good at avoiding that dogmatic way of thinking because it encourages a healthy level of scrutiny to any information that exists. That is definitely a big part of who I am and what informs the decisions I make professionally and personally.

What were your favorite Weber moments? Shabbaton was fun particularly in the context of music. It gave me a sense of being part of a larger community.

As an alum, what advice would you give to recent graduates? The world does work in general progressions. Don’t get too discouraged if things are not working out in a single moment of time. Don’t let your ego get in the way of being happy. Never feel you are above doing anything. Never feel you are too good to be at a certain level or take a certain job. Eventually, you will get to where you want to go. Don’t think, “What if I fail?” Build your universe around your passion.

Sarah Gelman, Class of 2005

ALUMNI SPOTLIGHT

Sarah Gelman, Class of 2005
Senior Geologist, ExxonMobil

What are you doing now? How did you get here?

You never know in high school where you are going to land. After graduating Weber, I went to MIT to study Earth and Planetary Sciences. In high school, I was very interested in space, astronomy, rocket science, or astrophysics.  I was very interested in math at Weber and wanted to major in Physics or Math/Philosophy.  At one point during my time at MIT, I went on a field trip to Yellowstone Park from the geoscience department and enjoyed learning about volcanoes.  I still enjoyed space, so I merged the planetary aspect with the geology aspect. I learned a lot of earth-based geosciences, but my senior thesis was on Earthlike Extra Solar Planets (planets around other stars outside of our solar system).

After MIT, I wanted to go to graduate school and choose what would be super-epic or awesome --volcanoes or earthquakes?  I chose volcanoes. I enrolled at the University of Washington to study, research, and teach from 2009-2014.  I published several papers, performed research in Chile, and followed my advisor to Zurich for additional research for six months.  During the summer of 2014, I worked as an intern at Exxon Mobil in Houston, focusing on Geology in the Caribbean, specifically Trinidad and Tobago.  The internship turned into a job offer.  I am now a Senior Geologist within the research part of the company. I look at offshore seismic and well data, but typically you cannot walk on it or look at it.

In graduate school, I studied how heat moves through solid earth, and I became proficient at studying the heat equation.  How long will magma stay molten versus how long will it take to freeze? Basically, what is the interplay of the storage of molten rock in the subsurface versus eruptions? Now, I try to understand when organic materials (dinosaurs) get buried deep enough by sediment and begin to heat up, how much does it heat up before it becomes oil and gas?  I try to understand that when organic material is buried, matures, and produces oil and gas, where will that oil and gas go?. I am involved with a new of frontier exploration and advise people all over the world.  As scientists, we don’t know very much about this area but want to manage uncertainty and make predictions about what is possible based quantifiable data.

How did Weber help set you on your path?

It set me up academically and personally. Due to my experience with Weber Town Halls -- which were challenging, controversial, and without a right answer -- I am not afraid to offer my opinion when asked complicated questions, to offer a diverse opinion, and to express and form well thought out opinions. I also enjoyed the community building aspect of the school - meeting people, caring about one another, and creating a tight-knit group through activities like Shabbaton and Peace by Piece. I work with a diverse group in my office, people from the Middle East and North America, Jews, Christians, and Muslims, and I credit Peace by Piece with the beginnings of understanding and relating to different people. These are experiences that are not normally offered to young people.

How did Weber inform your Jewish Life?

I learned a lot about our religion at Weber which has traveled with me. What also has traveled with me is a certain amount of practice, but also a desire to share and learn with everyone around me.  I tend to be in communities that are very diverse religiously.  Having a sense of the diversity of the way we all interface with our religion is something that I am not just exposed to but am proud of what Weber taught me.  

I also believe that volunteering is teaching with your heart. Weber gave me a little more heart out of classes, and more openness than your average high school would give you.

Living in Houston, how did the Hurricane affect you?

I live in the Heights. We only had street flooding but no damage.  The days afterward, I volunteered in Braised Bayou, the center of the Jewish Community. I became close to a family I helped. The experience was rewarding, but at the same time, devastating.

What is your fondest Weber memory?

Not coming from a religious family, I really enjoyed Shabbaton. There were some moments that were so vibrant that it would be some of the closest I have ever had to having a truly emotional spiritual experience. They were full of life, love, and community.

As an alum, what advice would you give to recent Weber graduates?

Life is an adventure told in chapters (5-year packages or less) with a bunch of chapters you don’t even know about. Be inspired by all the chapters ahead; you have no idea where they are, and do not overlook opportunities that are in front of you.  If you’re open-minded and you have a generic toolset, then you are well poised to try almost anything.

What is it like to be a female scientist today?

Super optimistic view: As a female scientist, I can state there are lots of opportunities for women and minorities. At MIT and ExxonMobil, there is an encouragement to apply. It does not mean special treatment, just encouragement. It’s not just for the sake of diversity; it is because having more opinions and different ways of thinking opens lots of doors that we might otherwise not realize are there.

Pragmatic view: Men and women work, think, and interact differently in subtle ways. Women scientists meet people all over the world and have plenty of opportunities to succeed in many areas of the world. I hope women feel empowered in school that they can succeed in math and sciences, have a family, be any religion, and accomplish a lot. Think of your career as limitless and open.