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Speech by Rabbi Miriam Margles at the Encounter Gala

by Rabbi Miriam Margles | Published on May 10, 2011

Good evening. I’m Rabbi Miriam Margles, co-founder of Encounter, and co-chair of our board. 

Six years ago, around a Shabbat table in Bethlehem, Melissa and I began to dream up Encounter. I think we were very good at dreaming, at envi­sioning paths and possi­bil­i­ties through the conflict that did not yet exist, and yet, even in my most hopeful and lumi­nous dreaming, I could not have imag­ined this moment. I could not have imag­ined all of these wonderful people gath­ered here tonight, cele­brating. I could not have imag­ined the vision that we had of bringing everyone we knew to Bethlehem would seed the orga­ni­za­tion now respected by every polit­ical faction, every reli­gious denom­i­na­tion and major North American Jewish insti­tu­tion. I could not have imag­ined that in just 6 years our fledg­ling Encounter would be invited to sit at the most pres­ti­gious tables in the American Jewish commu­nity, or eat latkes at the White House with the Obamas. 

For those of you who are new to our work, Encounter trains Rabbis, phil­an­thropists, Jewish profes­sionals and leaders to help resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and to heal internal communal rifts that have arisen in its wake. Our flag­ship program brings hundreds of Jewish leaders on trips to Palestinian cities, where they witness Palestinian life and gain a more nuanced and complex under­standing of the conflict. In our North American program, we work with Jewish leaders and insti­tu­tions to culti­vate strate­gies for more inclu­sive and sophis­ti­cated Israel engagement.

So imagine this: Orthodox and Reform Rabbis; lead supporters of AIPAC and J Street; national-religious settlers and anti-occupation activists all sitting down in front of the sepa­ra­tion barrier and grap­pling, together, with what it means. Imagine–Federation exec­u­tives and board members sleeping in Palestinian homes and staying up all night poring over maps and histo­ries. Imagine Orthodox rabbinical students praying ma’ariv, the evening service, in the living rooms of former Palestinian mili­tants. Imagine — Jewish leaders who had formerly only met on mutu­ally demo­nizing OpEd pages — apol­o­gizing to each other for shut­ting the other down. 

Six years ago we had an auda­cious and seem­ingly naïve dream. A mere six years, 60 trips, and 1,000 partic­i­pants later, Encounter alumni include some of the most powerful leaders of Jewish life and consti­tute the only non-military Jewish pres­ence that hundreds of Palestinians have come to know in their life­times. Encounter has grown from our dream project in Rabbinical school, to one of the most inno­v­a­tive and influ­en­tial orga­ni­za­tions in American Jewish life.

To cele­brate Melissa and the astounding strides Encounter has made, I’ve adapted a piece of the Passover liturgy.

On the first Encounter trip, one of our Palestinian part­ners turned to us and said, “There haven’t been this many Jews in the West Bank since before the second Intifada.” Melissa, if we’d succeeded in bringing only our 40 friends on that very first trip six years ago,
Dayenu—it would have been enough.

If we had brought 40 of our friends on a trans­for­ma­tive expe­ri­ence, but hadn’t created a new model of dialogue across conflict that empha­sizes the dignity and humanity of all parties involved, saying: “look what we can be if we tap into our wisest, most empathic selves,”
Dayenu—it would have been enough.

If we’d begun reshaping the American Jewish conver­sa­tion about Israel, but had made no impact on the Palestinian commu­nity and how they perceive Jews and Israelis,

If we had enabled indi­vidual Jews and Palestinians to chal­lenge their assump­tions about one another, but hadn’t reached the most influ­en­tial Jewish leaders in North America—Jewish phil­an­thropists, Rabbinical school deans, ZOA and Likud board members,

If we had reached the most influ­en­tial leaders, but hadn’t empow­ered our alumni with ongoing training to impact their constituencies,

And, if we had supported our alumni initia­tives, but hadn’t been recog­nized as a key ingre­dient missing from advancing prospects for peace by US elected offi­cials and major DC think tanks,

Dayenu. Each and every step of the journey has been ground-breaking; each step, a powerful, unprece­dented achieve­ment. And while each advance would have been enough, Melissa, you and the Encounter team kept expanding what the dream of what could be possible. When dreaming is the activity of vague hope, it is fantasy. But what Melissa’s inspired lead­er­ship and the tire­less work by Melissa, Encounter’s talented staff and board give testa­ment to is the fact, the concrete fact, that when dreaming is visionary and when hope is a disci­pline, what we are able to accom­plish extends expo­nen­tially beyond each imag­ined horizon. 

Tonight we are cele­brating the last hours of Yom Haatzmaut, Israel’s inde­pen­dence. We are cele­brating Zionism as the possi­bility of deter­mining our own destiny, and we are cele­brating Encounter and its visionary lead­er­ship as helping to shape that destiny in the direc­tion of our greatest hopes, rather than our fears. Melissa, with your entire being you inhabit hatikvah, hope as a disci­pline of human connec­tion, and an affir­ma­tion of all that is best and deepest in all of us.

As a co-founder and on behalf of Encounter’s board, I want to tell you that it is not enough to say how proud we are of you. In the face of cyni­cism, anger, and attack as well as the tremen­dous chal­lenges of getting an orga­ni­za­tion off the ground and truly succeeding, what you have been building in the past six years is stun­ning, it is sacred, and it is changing the world. You are masterful at calling others to live into the highest mani­fes­ta­tion of their values and hopes. Tonight, we lift our gaze toward our greatest hopes: for Israelis, for Palestinians, and the Jewish people in the years ahead. Melissa, it’s hard to find the right metaphor for you, because you are, and have been, so many different things for this orga­ni­za­tion: a creator, a shep­herd, a shining beacon, a marathon runner who won’t give up, a sage and a prophet.

And I am not the only one who thinks so. I have the honor of making a very exciting announce­ment tonight. Melissa and Encounter were nomi­nated by Ruth Messinger and Peter Weiss for the Grinnell College Social Justice Prize for inno­va­tors under the age of 40 who, to quote, have “demon­strated lead­er­ship in their fields and who show creativity, commit­ment, and extra­or­di­nary accom­plish­ment in effecting posi­tive social change.” Out of 1,000 nomi­na­tions from 66 coun­tries, Melissa and Encounter were selected as one of three winners to receive $100,000!
We are so delighted, and over­whelm­ingly proud.

Would you please join me in saying the blessing of shehecheyanu in grat­i­tude for reaching this auspi­cious moment. 

(Rabbi Margles leads) Baruch atta adonai, eloheinu melech ha’olam, sh’hecheyanu, v’kiemanu, v’higeanu, la’zman ha’zeh

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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