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Transforming Conflict in a Personal Way

by Chantal Abitbol
Published on July 11, 2008 in The Australian Jewish News

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.

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Our Mission

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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