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Life in Jerusalem: Peacefully Crossing the Green Line

by David Basior
Published on April 7, 2006 in JTNews

Living in Jerusalem this year has brought a few impor­tant things to my atten­tion about the next gener­a­tion of Jewish leaders for North America. They are smart, inno­v­a­tive and fit into very few of the boxes our fore­fa­thers and mothers have established.

Where I study at Machon Pardes in Jerusalem, there are 140 Jewish young adults, the majority in their 20s and 30s, studying Hebrew texts and Jewish thought. Nearly all Pardes students will go on to become Jewish educa­tors, lay leaders, or rabbis. It is one of the year­long insti­tu­tions where non-Orthodox, tradi­tional learning takes place.

Because we are studying in Israel, ques­tions are not only asked of halachah (Jewish law), theology and philos­ophy, but also about Israel, including its poli­tics and policies.

This year’s class in Jerusalem all began their educa­tion as the Israel Defense Forces disen­gaged from the Gaza Strip. The Israeli poli­tics and circum­stances surrounding disen­gage­ment have been termed “soul-searching.” In post-disengagement Israel, it is hard for liber­ally minded North American future educa­tors to live anywhere and not realize that the issue of land has been going on forever –  that maybe the apart­ment they live in once was Arab land, while the Palestinian village nearby was once home to their forefathers.

As the sepa­ra­tion barrier is contin­u­ally being built and changed, the panoramic view of Jerusalem now includes a history and pres­ence of walls erected for secu­rity. Meanwhile, six miles down the road from Jerusalem, the IDF controls the crossing into and out of Bethlehem, a city over the Green Line.

Searching for ways to know more about the people on the other side of the barrier, to put a face to the “other,” a grass­roots initia­tive has developed.

Members of every North American Jewish move­ment have come together during their time in Israel to grapple actively with the complex­i­ties of Israeli policy and destiny. They have reached out to where no other group before them in their predica­ment has – the other side of the Green Line. While engaging with Palestinians, increased knowl­edge and under­standing of every side becomes the goal. These future educa­tors are flocking toward is called The Encounter Program.

Founded in fall of 2004 by Jewish Theological Seminary student Melissa Weintraub and Reconstructionist Rabbinical College student Miriam Margles, the two saw a gap between the Jerusalem-dwelling, Jewish young adult learning commu­nity, the Christian inter­na­tionals doing Palestinian soli­darity work, and the everyday Palestinians on the ground.

The two rabbinical students began putting together tours that brought groups of Jewish leaders into both Bethlehem and Hebron to hear the stories and situ­a­tions of Palestinians, face-to-face.

A variety of Palestinian orga­ni­za­tions are repre­sented and ample time is provided for asking tough ques­tions. By design, each encounter is more an oppor­tu­nity for the Jewish partic­i­pants to listen and to absorb, to be chal­lenged and to seek understanding.

Since March 2005, the Encounter Program has brought more than 150 Jewish leaders to Bethlehem and/or Hebron in the quest to bridge the gap and learn just how far it divides. These few programs have already made Encounter “the largest groups of Jews to enter into Palestinian areas since before the al Aqsa intifada in 2000” says Weintraub.

Weintraub says Encounter is “the most reli­giously and polit­i­cally diverse Jewish group ever to do this work in the PA-administered areas. Even the veterans of the good ole days of Oslo don’t remember ever before seeing a mechitzah minyan – or kosher food, for that matter – brought into the heart of Bethlehem.”

Weintraub notes the impor­tant differ­ence Encounter brings, as partic­i­pants are not solely the typical secular leftist activists that have made up the majority of Jews spending time east of Israel proper.

Every partic­i­pating party is impacted by this work. The Jewish groups that partic­i­pate come out with a more broad­ened, human sense of the Palestinian situ­a­tion, while, Palestinians meet with reli­giously committed Jews as a friendly, non-violent pres­ence. Each is thereby opened to the other side as a poten­tial partner.

Hundreds of Palestinians have partic­i­pated in Encounter, whether hosting Jewish guests for a home stay, addressing groups about their activist work, or in presenting the polit­ical needs set forth by the PLO.

The Encounter vision state­ment is as follows: “We seek to expose reli­giously committed Jewish leaders to Palestinian perspec­tives – both personal and polit­ical – so that they can make up their own minds having had direct contact with Palestinian faces, a wider net of infor­ma­tion, and personal witness to real­i­ties on the ground.

We target reli­gious Jews from across the denom­i­na­tional spec­trum – Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, and Reconstructionist – inviting them to go past media repre­sen­ta­tions to encounter Palestinians face-to-face in a Palestinian context.

We have not sought to convince Jewish partic­i­pants to adopt any partic­ular point of view, but rather to listen, witness, and ask chal­lenging ques­tions, both of their Palestinian coun­ter­parts and of them­selves and their own communities.”

As an alumnus of two Encounter programs, my perspec­tive has been widened, my heart opened, and my senses awak­ened. Perhaps, as Weintraub suggests, we will be opened to new ways of perceiving the situ­a­tion through this face-to-face encounter, and our under­stand­ings will for once embrace every side of this complex predica­ment, leading to reconciliation.

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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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