As far as popular travel spots go, most Jews probably wouldn’t put the West Bank at the top of their list. Given the current political climate, it’s difficult to overlook the security risks involved in visiting the Palestinian territories.
Still, for a few, it’s a chance they’re willing to take to meet ordinary Palestinians and hear their stories.
An immersion program called Encounter offers Diaspora Jews just that—an intimate meeting and overnight stay with a Palestinian family.
In March 2005, the first group—consisting of 40 emerging leaders from various US and Israeli yeshivas—participated in the experience. Since then, Encounter has organised 20 trips for about 500 participants worldwide.
“We can’t keep up with demand,” Encounter’s co-founder and North American director Rabbi Melissa Weintraub told The AJN. She was in Melbourne last week to participate in this year’s Globalisation for the Common Good conference.
“Encounter has broken new ground in significant ways, including attracting many ‘unusual suspects’ — from Orthodox yeshiva students to executives and board members of major Jewish organisations, most of who have never before met Palestinians face-to-face.
“Many of our alumni return from an Encounter program saying, ‘This trip was the first time that I was able to listen to Palestinians’.”
It’s also a first for many Palestinians to be “exposed to a non-violent, friendly Jewish presence,” she added.
The novel idea was born around a Shabbat table shared by Palestinian non-violent activists and rabbinical students back in 2004.
“I was leading a ‘twilight zone’ double life—shuttling from Palestinian living rooms and universities to Machon Schechter, where I studied Talmud and halakha everyday as a Jewish Theological Seminary rabbinical student.
“I felt a huge sense of responsibility… and [we] started fantasising about bringing everyone we knew to sit around that table with us.”
Security risks are an “inherent component” of the program, she admitted. “[We] travel as a group on the bus with visible Palestinian partners and are identified as a friendly, rather than invasive presence.”
Ultimately, she said, the program takes no specific stance regarding the outcome of the conflict. “Our vision is one of genuine peace,” she emphasised.