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Below are Rabbi Joanna Samuels’s opening remarks preceding Encounter alumnus David Karnovsky’s presen­ta­tion “City Planning in the Shadow of the Conflict.” Please click here for more infor­ma­tion on this presentation. 

It is a plea­sure to be here tonight to come together to appre­ciate the work of Encounter. I have to begin this evening by wishing Yona Shem-Tov a very happy birthday, and to say to you that I hope that as you reflect on the year that has passed, and the year ahead, as one tends to do on birth­days, that you see your lead­er­ship of this orga­ni­za­tion the way all of us see it: as effec­tive, as purposeful, as dynamic, and as having a deep impact on one of the most pressing issues facing our world.

I am also delighted to be here in the company of dear friends David Karnovsky and Sue Kaplan. When I met both of you, more than 12 years ago, I was working at B’nai Jeshurun as the Social Action Coordinator while in my final year in Rabbinical School. At the time, I thought “I want to be like Sue and David when I grow up.” Of course, now I seem to have grown up and when­ever I spend time with the two of you, I still think “I want to be like the two of you when I grow up.” So thank you for being the kind of people whose commit­ment to justice and equity and inquiry, and whose grace and good humor and irrev­er­ence help the rest of us to know that such a path forward is possible.

David, when you told me that you would be spending a sabbat­ical in Jerusalem studying city plan­ning, it was clear that your expe­ri­ence would not be complete without partic­i­pating on an Encounter trip. Indeed, Encounter has become one of those expe­ri­ences that is a must for all those who care about the future of the State of Israel. Encounter’s bril­liance is in its elegant simplicity: 

What if we could listen to the voices of our Palestinian neighbors? 

What if we can make room, just for a day for a different narra­tive, a different love story of people and place? 

What might happen to our heart and our mind if we can, for one 24-hour period, meet the other – not to debate – but to listen, to witness, to play, and to eat? 

There is a beau­tiful teaching of the Sefat Emet on this week’s parashah. As you may recall, Parashat Chukat finds B’nei Yisrael in the wilder­ness, complaining to our imper­fect leaders as we find our way through a wilder­ness full of poten­tial enemies. Chapter 21, verse 21 teaches:

וַיִּשְׁלַח יִשְׂרָאֵל מַלְאָכִים, אֶל-סִיחֹן מֶלֶךְ-הָאֱמֹרִי לֵאמֹר. כב אֶעְבְּרָה בְאַרְצֶךָ, לֹא נִטֶּה בְּשָׂדֶה וּבְכֶרֶם–לֹא נִשְׁתֶּה, מֵי בְאֵר: בְּדֶרֶךְ הַמֶּלֶךְ נֵלֵךְ, עַד אֲשֶׁר-נַעֲבֹר גְּבֻלֶךָ

21 And Israel sent messen­gers unto Sihon king of the Amorites, saying: 22 ‘Let me pass through your land; we will not turn aside into field, or into your vine­yard; we will not drink of the water of the wells; we will go by the king’s highway, until we have passed your border.’

So B’nai Yisrael is making its way through the desert and what is clear is that another people is along­side us so for that moment in time, our fate is linked to them. The Sefat Emet reminds us that the Midrash teaches that in the case of any other command­ment, you only have to do it if the oppor­tu­nity presents itself – but in the case of peace – and also in the case of truth – we must seek out these command­ments. We must actively seek out peace, we must actively seek out truth. 

What enabled us to seek out peace? The Sefat Emeth teaches on this that Israel attained peace by virtue of being in the wilder­ness, the place outside human settle­ment. We had to go after it, we had to pursue it. The wilder­ness is a place where one pursues, one does not wait for the oppor­tu­nity to arise, for nothing will arise by waiting. And so the Sefat Emeth teaches, that because Israel trusted in God and were drawn to follow God into the wilder­ness, we attained the quality of shalom, of peace. We became seekers of peace and so there­fore we merited peace.

On an Encounter trip, we are given the gift of a kind of wilder­ness, like the one our ances­tors traversed. In leaving those familiar, flow­ered, hilly stone streets of South Jerusalem behind, and going through check­points and meeting those, like in Sihon, whose fate is linked to ours, we enter the place where peace can be and must be sought out. Encounter creates the condi­tion by which we feel compelled to seek out peace.

Some of us, like David, are moved to take that work further, linking the compul­sion for peace with the nuts and bolts that enable peace to blossom. And so it is my plea­sure to intro­duce David Karnovsky who will teach us all about City Planning in the Shadow of the Conflict: Reflections on How the Conflict Has Shaped Jerusalem.

Rabbi Joanna Samuels is Executive Director of the Educational Alliance’s Manny Cantor Center.

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Encounter is an edu­ca­tional orga­ni­za­tion dedi­cated to strength­ening the capacity of the Jewish people to be construc­tive agents of change in resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Moti­vated by the relent­less Jew­ish pur­suit of hokhma (wis­dom) and binah (under­stand­ing), Encounter cul­ti­vates informed Jew­ish lead­er­ship on the Israeli-Palestinian con­flict by bring­ing…

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