A group of Palestinians and Jews stand in a circle in a hotel conference room in Bethlehem. The Palestinians are mostly Bethlehem University students; the Jews are mostly non-Israeli rabbinical students and educators from across the religious spectrum.
A facilitator tells them that she will make a statement and if it is true for them, they must step into the circle.
The facilitator begins. “I am wearing blue jeans.” Several people step forward. Then, “I have family living in Israel.” The statements become more challenging. “I am upset by the violence in the Middle East.” Then, “ I have lost a member of my family to the violence in the Middle East.”
Shana Tabak, the facilitator, speaking to The Chronicle about this “Encounter” activity said, “I cannot describe the power of that moment. There are 50 people standing in the outer circle and five or six Palestinians and Jews facing each other inside the circle.
Suddenly, everyone in the room feels the pain. They recognize that what they share, something profound that they never imagined they had in common, can be just as important as what keeps them separate.”
That emotional power, Tabak believes, can be transformative.
A Milwaukee native, Tabak, 27, is one of a small group of founders of “Encounter,” a program which takes Jews to Bethlehem and Hebron where they have face to face encounters with Palestinians living in the West Bank.
She and her co-founders, members of the community of international Jews living, working and studying in Israel, had a natural curiosity about “what is really going on in the Palestinian community,” Tabak said. They knew that that curiosity also existed among the Diaspora Jews who flood into Israel every year from all over the world.
They created “Encounter” just over a year and a half ago, Tabak said, to give an opportunity to religiously committed Jews from across the spectrum for direct exposure to Palestinian individuals.
And although there are many programs run by international activists working on the West Bank that offer opportunities to encounter Palestinians, Tabak noted, none offer them in a religious framework that allows Jews to feel comfortable presenting themselves openly as Jews.
“Encounter” also provides the means for religiously observant Jews to eat, pray and conduct themselves as halachically prescribed. “Encounter” allows Jews to speak from their authentic Jewish selves, Tabak said.
The program offers participants exposure to a reality they would not otherwise have access to. She described one role-play encounter between an Orthodox rabbinical student and a Palestinian student from Bethlehem University.
The Palestinian student, playing the role of the farmer, said half-jokingly, “I am a Jewish settler and I wish all Palestinians were dead.” The yeshiva student revealed that he was an Orthodox Jew studying in Efrat, a West Bank settlement. “The two conversed all through dinner,” Tabak said.
“From now on, when they return to their regular lives and speak to others in their own communities, they have the experience of a real conversation and it won’t be so easy to generalize about the other side,” she said, adding that the men took each other’s telephone numbers and e-mail addresses.
“A face-to-face meeting offers an opportunity to bring out the humanity of each person in the conflict. It feels to me like there is something divine in that,” she said.
Tabak flew back from Israel late last week, after living there for the past two years. Two days later, she was already hard at work on a grant proposal for Gisha, her employer in Tel Aviv.
That Tabak possesses that kind of drive is not surprising to anyone who has seen her resume. In the six years since graduating magna cum laude from Macalester College with a bachelor’s degree in international studies, she has burned up the pavement.
Among her accomplishments are the acquisition of fluent Spanish and Hebrew and basic Arabic, a Fulbright research grant for a year in Bolivia and a Dorot Fellowship for study in Israel in 2004–2005.
For the past two years, Tabak has been employed by an Israeli human rights non-governmental organization, Gisha: The Center for the Legal Protection of Freedom of Movement where she researches and documents “limitations of freedom of movement among Palestinian residents of Israel’s Occupied Territories, focusing on student access to education.” She also raises funds for Gisha, she said.
Next week, Tabak will move to Washington, D.C., where she will enter Georgetown University Law School. She plans to focus on human rights and public interest law.