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Face To Face: Interview with Ilana Sumka

by Lorenzo Kamel
Published on February 1, 2009 in What's Up Magazine

[This inter­view orig­i­nally appeared in Italian, and has been trans­lated for this website.]

Where and when were you born?

In North Carolina, USA, on May 31, 1975. Now I live in Jerusalem, Israel.

What is your occupation? 

Executive director of Encounter in the Middle East.

What is your cultural forma­tion and your previous work experiences?

When I was 14, my family moved to Kenya. Living in Africa for 4 years shifted my outlook from an American to a global perspec­tive. I seek a balance between commit­ment to my Jewish commu­nity and immersing myself in the world around me. I spent ten years in New York City as a labor orga­nizer, polit­ical campaign manager, and worked in inter­na­tional devel­op­ment before I came to Jerusalem.

Who is behind the project Encounter and how many years ago did it start?

Encounter was founded by Rabbis Melissa Weintraub and Miriam Margles in 2005.  They had a vision of bringing Jewish leaders to Bethlehem to see “the other side”. The first program was such a success that there was imme­diate demand for another program.

What kind of program­ming does Encounter do?

Every month, we bring 40 Jewish partic­i­pants to meet Palestinians in their home commu­ni­ties. We work to trans­form fear into under­standing to enable Jewish leaders to fulfill their roles as reli­gious peace-makers.

What moti­vated you to under­take your mission?

I orig­i­nally didn’t want to get involved in this work. I thought that the conflict had to be solved by Israelis and Palestinians without American involve­ment. But the American Jewish commu­nity is already very involved.  I partic­i­pated on an Encounter program in May 2006, and real­ized that I wanted to play a posi­tive role to ensure that Jewish American involve­ment in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is informed and compassionate.

The next event in your year’s schedule?

We are orga­nizing a program called “Taking It Home: How to bring your Middle East expe­ri­ences back to your home commu­ni­ties in America”. This is a work­shop to train our alumni how to share their expe­ri­ences. The majority of Jewish Americans have never met Palestinians, so our partic­i­pants bring some­thing unique to their home communities.

What do you think about the concept of “clash of civilizations”?

The meeting of differ­ence civi­la­tions is only a “clash” when indi­vid­uals fear differ­ence. When we trans­form fear into curi­ousity, instead of a clash we have an exchange of ideas. This can be strength­ening and beau­tiful, not destructive.

Is terrorism a result of despair?

I don’t know what terrorism is born from. Many people trans­form despair into nonvi­o­lent activism and commu­nity building. Some people feel despair and engage in violence.  Violence will not solve this conflict.  It is our collec­tive respon­si­bility to seek out a new, creative way to co-exist on this land.

What was the last country that you visited and what were your impressions?

In January I visited Turkey. I appre­ci­ated being in a predom­i­nantly Muslim country that inte­grates values of liber­alism and reli­gious practice.

A ques­tion that people usually ask you?

Do you really think anything will ever change in the Middle East?

Your merits?

I strive to find compas­sion for all people. I truly believe we are all sacred creations, and that everyone is on earth to bring their own spark of light into the world.  I try to help people find that spark in themselves.

A passion?

I love to dance. Usually in private!

Something that changed your life?

I was in down­town Manhattan on September 11th, 2001. Watching the attack on the World Trade Center was the most awful day of my life. Finding elements of grace and healing in the after­math opened my eyes to an entirely new way of being in the world.

Your favorite writers?

Gabriel Garcia Marquez, John Irving, Julia Cameron, Iyanla Vanzant.

A thought to conclude your interview?

I look forward to the day when the Holy Land reaches its full poten­tial of being a sacred place where people of all faiths and all prac­tices can cele­brate, worship, learn and love in safety and harmony.

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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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