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Speech by Rabbi Melissa Weintraub at the Encounter Gala

by Rabbi Melissa Weintraub | Published on May 10, 2011

In antic­i­pa­tion of this gift, Rebecca asked me which photo I’d like hanging above my desk, and I knew that this was the one. Because for me this picture is the embod­i­ment of Encounter’s story, though it may not be obvious why at first glance.

I’d like to share with you why it means so much to me.

The first ever-Encounter trip, six years ago, held a scene much like this one. 

Rabbinical students – some­what stiff rabbinical students – were swinging their hips in imita­tion of Palestinian adoles­cents. A young Palestinian man who had recently confessed to me his struggle to remain committed to non-violence in the face of the esca­lating situ­a­tion, was now exuber­antly beating drums with two yeshiva students learning in a neigh­boring settle­ment. The room was virtu­ally exploding with clap­ping, stomping, dancing, and sheer joy.

But I don’t love this scene because it’s a feel-good image of Palestinians and Jews dancing together or sharing super­fi­cial joy.

On the surface, this is actu­ally a scene I might have dismissed as perfectly nice, but ulti­mately irrel­e­vant. This was the end of the second intifada, and many of us were asking: what had all the small-scale Oslo-era initia­tives, bringing together Jewish and Arab musi­cians and teachers, really accom­plished in the big picture? 

And this is also a scene, as Sami said, many of the Palestinians in the room typi­cally would have spurned as an expres­sion of what many term ‘normal­iza­tion;’ that is, eating hummous together while pretending nothing’s wrong. 

And this is a scene many of the Jews in the room might simi­larly have written off, as some­thing only for fringe peaceniks, dodging or masking the real dangers around us with kumbaya naivety. 

But this felt different. This gath­ering, felt monu­mental. First of all, this was a scene of “unusual suspects,” people who were never to be found in such a scene: Orthodox, centrist, right-wing, left-wing: young Jews who were change-agents and multi­pliers in their own networks. These were the right people, with social capital in commu­ni­ties beyond the increas­ingly margin­al­ized secular leftist peace bubble. As Miriam said, we didn’t know we were soon going to be bringing AIPAC, Federation, and American Friends of Likud, Jewish Agency leader on these trips, but we had already gath­ered that, if we were to create not only indi­vidual, but wide­spread cultural change, that we needed to reach power brokers and “trusted messen­gers” to new constituencies.

And even more impor­tantly than the right people being in the room, the magic of this moment was that we had inverted all those well-intentioned but ulti­mately limited people-to-people initia­tives that had swept all the hard stuff under the rug in the name of re-humanizing and restoring basic rela­tion­ship. Rather than look away from what was hardest, we leaned into it.

In the twelve hours previous, there had been no evasion or side­step­ping. We had listened to the stories of trau­ma­tized chil­dren, bereaved parents, enraged activists. We had disagreed vehe­mently within the Jewish group, over the morality of the sepa­ra­tion barrier; the collapse of the peace process; the rightful future of Jerusalem, refugees, and the bound­aries of this land. We hadn’t ignored the harsh real­i­ties around us. Nor the sharp differ­ences among us. 

We had created a model that could hold Palestinian and Jew, right and left, reli­gious and secular, in conver­sa­tion with each other. And with the support of our care­fully crafted program­matic struc­ture, our partic­i­pants had confronted scary, desta­bi­lizing, at times shat­tering perspec­tives. And it turned out the sky didn’t fall, but the earth cracked open. It turned out they had so much to say to each other, when they were supported to do so. They had hung on despite all impulse to shut down, they had listened to people they might other­wise have avoided, and they were already buzzing with new possi­bil­i­ties, more sophis­ti­cated and creative thinking. 

So they were, in this moment, exhausted and shell-shocked, and yet perhaps a bit intox­i­cated and proud, of having risen to the chal­lenge. And so they danced. 

This was not the dancing of escape or forgetful oblivion, shel­tering ourselves or making light of the trou­bles outside. This was the dancing, the profound release, of having confronted those trou­bles head-on with eyes wide open. Of having faced our fears and blind spots suffi­ciently to awaken; to open ourselves, wher­ever we stood, to the limi­ta­tions of our prior world­views, and the wisdom of Jews and Palestinians we had previ­ously dismissed. This was the dancing of relief, of walking through fire and coming out the other side, of doing what we most feared, and most needed.

I thought to myself, looking around me at such a scene, ‘This is it. I’ve done what I came to the world to do.”

The next day, when we returned to Jerusalem, a partic­i­pant said to me, “I think I just encoun­tered what everyone around me is blocking, what this sepa­ra­tion barrier is condi­tioning us to forget, at our own peril.” And that was how the name for Encounter was born.

In the six years that have passed, despite the rapid growth of our impact — we are still swim­ming upstream, and avoid­ance, unfor­tu­nately, has only inten­si­fied in our commu­nity. If already, in 2005 , a climate prevailed of forget­ting about the Palestinians behind the sepa­ra­tion barrier, now there’s a regretful though under­stand­able trend, of the conflict — if not Israel alto­gether — becoming the trou­ble­some “elephant in the room” in congre­ga­tions, campuses, class­rooms, and communal orga­ni­za­tions. It’s just too volatile, divi­sive, and messy to go there. But this internal communal inability to grapple with what’s hardest openly across polit­ical lines without rancorous antag­o­nism – is as poten­tially destruc­tive to our future as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict itself. 

And so, in these same years, we’ve brought Encounter’s methods to new areas: Communal insti­tu­tions like the JCPA and Hillel who’ve sought our guid­ance in creating a more open, respectful and vibrant conver­sa­tion about Israel; day schools who are piloting our new Israel educa­tion curricula (which I can’t wait for us to get to share with you in its final form); answering the call of this gener­a­tion for a more balanced, nuanced explo­ration of the conflict, exposing students to multiple points of view, Israeli and Palestinian, and teaching them commu­ni­ca­tion skills to discuss fraught and sensi­tive issues before they get to their embat­tled college campuses.

We’ve imbued all of our work with the spirit of that first trip, captured for me by this picture: providing the struc­ture and support we as a people need to confront and speak about what’s hardest without shame or fear; to surface what’s buried; to look in the eyes of what we’re afraid of, but most need to face. To build up the Jewish people’s capacity to grapple together with the most diffi­cult dimen­sions of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, with skill, honesty, and compas­sion towards all sides. So that we can all engage in the broader thinking and informed, creative problem-solving we need to build our greatest hopes for Israel in its 63rd year and beyond.

We couldn’t be doing any of it if not for all of you, and its so amazing to look out into this sea of faces of people. I’m reminded as I look out at all of you of so many acts of generosity and kind­ness and support; trips you partic­i­pated on; gifts you gave; advice you gave; ways you chal­lenged us, and helped us to better ourselves and sharpen our thinking.

I’d love to thank every person in this room indi­vid­u­ally, but I will spare you 190 thank yous.

I do want to name Shana Tabak; Miriam Margles, who we heard from earlier; and Ilana Sumka. Ilana, my Co-Director and partner across the Atlantic, was our very first staff member, and has been the bold and tire­less leader of our Israel office and Middle East team for the last five years. We some­times call ourselves the four mothers, because these four women have poured all of their immense creativity and vision into nurturing and growing this orga­ni­za­tion from its gesta­tion in to all it’s become.

It’s such a plea­sure also to publi­cally have an oppor­tu­nity to thank Brenda Berry, Jon Lopatin, the Cummings Foundation, the Righteous Persons Foundation, the Jacob and Hilda Blaustein Foundation, the Kaplan Family Foundation, Bikkurim and the Kaminer family – for being our earliest, corner­stone supporters– and believing in us before we had a website, any orga­ni­za­tional infra­struc­ture, and a single staff member. I don’t know what they saw in us, but they seemed to know what we were going to become.

I also want to thank our event chairs, Jimena Martinez and Michael Hirschhorn; and Brenda Berry and Jon Lopatin (some over­lap­ping names). 

I now have, what is for me, actu­ally, the biggest honor of the night, which is to intro­duce Ms. Yona Shem Tov, who is going to be our new Executive Director!

Yona has been my friend and colleague for years, and I can tell you: there is no one whose life is more aligned with our mission than Yona Shem-Tov, who walks our walk and talks our talk in every aspect of her life, stretching herself and supporting everyone around her to wrestle with what’s most diffi­cult and most impor­tant. She draws people to her, from the Baroness de Rothschild, who courted Yona to envi­sion and co-create a transna­tional network of Jewish and Muslim social entre­pre­neurs, to Robert Chazan, the head of NYU’s Wagner-Skirball program, who sought her out to co-create a national network of Jewish history educa­tors, of which she served as Associate Director. 

She comes to us after pursuing doctoral work at NYU, where her research focused on citi­zen­ship and history educa­tion in Muslim and Jewish schools, and she is a noted public speaker, who has presented on Israel and inter­faith educa­tion all over the world: before the German Parliament, at The Rabbis and Imam’s Conference, et cetera.

You’ll all get to know her over the coming months and years, and come to know what I can vouch for: Yona is as bold as she is compas­sionate; as thoughtful as she is dynamic. I am so thrilled that we found the perfect steward to take Encounter into the next chapter.

Yona accepted our offer less than a week ago – and isn’t even offi­cially begin­ning until September. It isn’t often that someone in such a posi­tion would get up to address most of the supporters and stake­holders of the orga­ni­za­tion that they will lead! So I invite all of you to appre­ciate her (as Rav Carlebach puts it) Holy Chutzpah, and give her a warm and generous welcome. 

Before Yona says a few words to close our evening, it’s my honor to present a gift to her. Yona asked me for a few words of inspi­ra­tion to me. I’ll just read a little piece of it. It’s from an Adrienne Rich poem:

I have to cast my lot with those
who age after age, perversely,
with no extra­or­di­nary power,
recon­sti­tute the world.

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.

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