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.