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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.

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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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