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Speech by Cindy Bernstein at the Encounter Gala

by Cindy Bernstein | Published on May 10, 2011

Hi. My name is Cindy Bernstein, and I first went on Encounter as a partic­i­pant in April 2009. 

I first learned of Encounter two years ago, while living in Jerusalem for a few months before returning to New York to start a Master’s program in International Affairs at the Columbia University School of International and Public Affairs. 

As I read over my course descrip­tions, I was seized with fear; it was inevitable that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict would come up in class. What would I answer my class­mates when they asked if I had ever met a Palestinian? If I ever spent time in the West Bank? The answer to both was no. I would lose all credibility. 

Meanwhile, some­thing was abuzz in Katamon, and a friend of mine told me about a program called Encounter that takes young American Jewish leaders into the West Bank to meet with Palestinians. My first thought was: that is way too radical for me. How could I tell my family? My family are all archi­tects and engi­neers, so they are liter­ally building the yishuvim (the Jewish estab­lish­ments or settle­ments) in the West Bank. What if my cousin, stationed at the check­point to Bethlehem, saw me entering or leaving? What would the teachers from the Orthodox yeshiva semi­nary, where I had spent two years learning after High School, say? Would this be a betrayal of the people I loved and respected most?

But I decided I needed to see for myself why so many people in my commu­nity – people as unlikely as myself to go meet with Palestinians – were calling the expe­ri­ence absolutely mind blowing. In a way, I was going to spy: to report back on the program’s agenda. A few weeks later, I was on the bus, entering into a very intim­i­dating and unknown terri­tory (that somehow was only ten minutes away from Jerusalem – a city I called my home for years). Two days after that, I found my life absolutely changed. 

Upon returning to SIPA, Encounter became my gold card. In conver­sa­tions on the conflict, I auto­mat­i­cally gained respect when I mentioned that I had been a part of a program working to bring about recon­cil­i­a­tion, to bridge the divides between Jews and Palestinians. As a result of Encounter, I decided to focus my studies on human rights and conflict reso­lu­tion. I sought out oppor­tu­ni­ties to continue my educa­tion in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and the Middle East region. I trav­eled to Turkey, to Jordan and to Syria to engage in recon­cil­i­a­tion work. I also assumed the posi­tion of the student head of the Human Rights depart­ment at SIPA, with the goal to trans­form the dialogue there as well. 

Last March, I had the oppor­tu­nity to serve as the Teaching Assistant for a class at Columbia University School of Journalism that would be trav­eling to the region. One day a Palestinian student of mine approached me to speak about the conflict. She was specif­i­cally curious to know whether any Jews or Israelis have committed them­selves to recon­cil­i­a­tion. I imme­di­ately told her about Encounter, and took her to the office in Jerusalem. We met with members of the Jerusalem staff – some of whom are here tonight – for over an hour. As we walked out of the office, I saw that Mariam was crying. She looked at me and said “you know Cindy, before coming on this trip I thought there was no way there could ever be peace, but after meeting these people – after seeing Encounter – I am confi­dent now that there can be.”

Encounter has brought me back my voice: the moti­va­tion to partic­i­pate in hard conver­sa­tions and work together with Palestinians and others with diverse polit­ical perspec­tives to build bridges between our ideas. My Encounter expe­ri­ences, in fact, have encour­aged me to dedi­cate myself to working to trans­form the very discourse that surrounds the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. 

Last summer, I joined the plan­ning committee of the Wexner Summer Institute, a pres­ti­gious gath­ering of young Jewish leaders. Not only were my fellow plan­ners also Encounter alumni, committed to creating a struc­ture of supportive, open dialogue about Israel and a commit­ment to respect­fully tackle the thorniest issues. But, Greg Khalil, past legal adviser at the PLO nego­ti­a­tions support unit, and a past Encounter speaker (I believe he’s some­where here tonight!) even joined us as a presenter. This would have been incon­ceiv­able before Encounter. The community’s embrace of Greg, as well as the content and tone of the discus­sions throughout the Institute, demon­strated the extent to which Encounter has begun to reach tipping point in trans­forming the main­stream Jewish community.

Melissa, and Encounter, thank you for teaching me that being a modern Orthodox, reli­gious Zionist and peace-builder are not mutu­ally exclu­sive. For showing me, and so many other Jewish leaders, a new path. On Yom Ha’atzmaut, I espe­cially want to thank you for empow­ering me to be a leader in building a future for the land that I love, and moti­vating me to be part of the solu­tion. To engage in the conver­sa­tions, to tackle the hard ques­tions, and to build bridges, both in the Middle East, and in New York.

Click here to see a video of the speech.

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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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