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Speech by Yona Shem-Tov at the Encounter Gala

by Yona Shem-Tov | Published on May 10, 2011

I want to begin by thanking Melissa for that beau­tiful and moving intro­duc­tion. Melissa has been a friend and colleague for many years and I’ve been blessed with a front-row seat as she’s guided Encounter to its expo­nen­tial growth over these last six years. As you’ve already seen and heard, this is a woman whose vision and lead­er­ship has brought into fruition a powerful force for far-reaching change arguably the most exis­ten­tial issue facing the Jewish people in our gener­a­tion. So it is partic­u­larly poignant for me to accept her moving words, and blessing to ascend into the role of Executive Director of this phenom­enal orga­ni­za­tion. I feel espe­cially blessed to join such an incred­ible team of people and supporters. 

Yom Ha’atzmaut carries a partic­u­larly personal histor­ical reso­nance for me and it seems rather auspi­cious timing for the the begin­ning of this new chapter. Sixty years ago, on Erev Yom Haaztmaut in May of 1951, my father and his family arrived in the newly created State of Israel via airlift from Baghdad, on the first planes of Operation Ezra and Nehemiah, which trans­ported some 130,000 Jews from Iraq to Israel. 

Six years later in May of 1957, iron­i­cally also on Yom Ha’atzmaut my mother, a hidden child survivor of the Holocaust arrived via Italy to the Port of Haifa on a ship called, ‘Pace’ – Polish for ‘Peace’. A child survivor of the Holocaust, my mother had narrowly escaped death on more than one occa­sion during the war — thrown from the window of a moving train fast approaching Belzitz and followed by a series of incon­ceiv­able events that led to her baptism in a Church and to be hidden by a Catholic woman named Krisha through the remaining years of the war. At the young age of 17, a Holocaust survivor in a new country, my mother arrived in Israel just over half a century ago. 

I grew up in a home of this rich cultural complexity where Hebrew, Arabic, Polish and English inter­min­gled and seam­lessly inter­twined. My father’s stories of swim­ming in the Tigris River collided with alto­gether different stories of my mother being bounced on the lap of Nazi soldiers. I learned to move with ease, in and out of profoundly different cultures and histo­ries, and to move through the world with a kind of kalei­do­scopic lens.

And it seems to me that the kalei­do­scope is a fitting metaphor for the powerful work of this orga­ni­za­tion. A kalei­do­scope lets us see all these micro­scopic little pieces at once – as part of a constantly changing, complex whole. With a slight twist this way or that, the objects tumble into a stun­ning multi­plicity of new patterns and possi­bil­i­ties. The kalei­do­scope symbol­izes our capacity to contin­u­ously seek out new ways of seeing the world we thought we knew.

Encounter is an orga­ni­za­tion that is equip­ping the leaders of the American Jewish commu­nity with kalei­do­scopic lenses.

This orga­ni­za­tion – in all that it does — enables us all to turn what we know a little this way, a little that way, to inte­grate what that person sees that we don’t yet see, and so on and so on, and then little by little new possi­bil­i­ties come to light and take shape. Our trips to Palestinian cities, our Israel educa­tion curricula, our train­ings, and our ongoing work with our alumni help us all look at a world we thought we knew in entirely new ways; so we can gain a broader, deeper, and more complete under­standing of the conflict and see parts of the overall whole we simply would have other­wise never seen. These are the crucial pieces we all need to see, we must see, in order make wiser, more informed deci­sions about this conflict that is so impor­tant to us and yet so seem­ingly immovable.

Today, as we reach the end of Yom Ha’atzmaut and Israel enters its 64th year, I cannot think of a more exciting and pressing moment to build upon the strength of the foun­da­tion laid by my prede­ces­sors, to lead it forward and expand Encounter’s impact mani­fold. To put it simply, this powerful new way of seeing that Encounter enables is bringing about tectonic, paradigm-shifting change. In light of their Encounter expe­ri­ences our alumni are reshaping phil­an­thropic prior­i­ties and trans­forming advo­cacy approaches in signif­i­cant ways. Our partic­i­pants return from their Encounter expe­ri­ences able to envi­sion the future of the Jewish people and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in bold new ways.

And so as we bring Yom Ha’atzmaut to a close, I’d like to ask each of you to consider: in what way will you join us this year, in Israel’s 64th year to bring about this change? How will you join me and the amazing Encounter team as our collab­o­ra­tors, our part­ners and our guides as we shep­herd this orga­ni­za­tion to its next level and expand its impact in ways they’ll say we couldn’t have imag­ined in six short years from now? 

Each of us here in this room has a role to play and Encounter encour­ages us to step up and play that role. I couldn’t be more honored to join an orga­ni­za­tion that is the embod­i­ment of my deepest held values and my most cher­ished aspi­ra­tions for the Jewish people and the State of Israel. 

The first blessing before the Shm’a in our morning prayers so beau­ti­fully captures my wish for us: “Or chadash al Tzion tair v’nizkeh kulanu meheirah le-oro,” — “May You make a new light shine over Zion, and may we all soon be worthy of its light.” 

It is my hope and wish for all of us in this new year for the State of Israel — for Israelis, for Palestinians, and for American Jews –that we seek out those sources of light and that they give us the courage and capacity to realize a vision of the future that merits the radi­ance of this new light. 

Baruch ata Adonai Yotzer Ha Me’orot. Blessed are you Adonai who forms the radiant lights.

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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