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Sunday Profile: Rabbi Melissa Weintraub

by Monica Attard
Published on August 1, 2008 in ABC Sydney

ABC Sydney Sunday Profile (Radio)

This is a tran­script of an inter­view broad­cast over Australian radio in August 2008. You can listen to the inter­view on the ABC Sydney website.

Hello and welcome to Sunday Profile. I’m Monica Attard and tonight –  Rabbi Melissa Weintraub who’s on a peace mission!

Rabbi Melissa Weintraub is one of a growing number of women rabbis.

Ordained as a Conservative Rabbi in New York, her great passion takes her much further a field, back to the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians.

You see she’s the co-founder of Encounter, a peace building organ­i­sa­tion that does some­thing not widely known and not widely done. She takes influ­en­tial Jews from around the world into Hebron and the West Bank to sit face to face with ordi­nary Palestinians and witness first hand, the real­i­ties of their life there.

Ironically she can’t take Israeli Jews there because they’re forbidden from entering the terri­to­ries at all.

She says the meet­ings are often very moving and she hopes, they might do more than merely create more under­standing. You see Melissa Weintraub hopes they’ll posi­tively influ­ence Israeli deci­sion makers.

Peace is obvi­ously some­thing which has eluded the Middle East and may well again with news this week that the embat­tled Prime Minister Ehud Olmert who had begun peace nego­ti­a­tions with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas will step down in the face of corrup­tion allegations.

EHUD OLMERT: When a new chairman will be elected for the party I will resign from my duties as prime minister in order to allow the chairman to create a new govern­ment quickly and efficiently.

MONICA ATTARD: Despite the set-back of Ehud Olmert’s resig­na­tion, the US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said she’ll press ahead for a peace deal before the end of this year.

Well, our guest Rabbi Weintraub, is quietly working towards the same goal.

But I began by asking her what it takes to become a Rabbi.

MELISSA WEINTRAUB: It’s a five year process depending on the process depending on the back­ground of which one comes in and it’s very tradi­tional text study, we study Talmud and halakha, ancient Jewish codex of law and thought for five years with a smat­tering of Jewish liter­a­ture and history, pastoral coun­selling as well and some prac­tical rabbinics.

MONICA ATTARD: And what made you want to become a Rabbi?

MELISSA WEINTRAUB: I was always seeking a way to become a ther­a­pist and an activist and an acad­emic all at once. So it was a way of being both a scholar and being in the trenches, finding a way to engage with ideas while also very much relieving human anguish and being involved with the life of the world.

MONICA ATTARD: And have you come from a kind of orthodox Jewish back­ground, your family? Was it some­thing that you actu­ally grew up with?

MELISSA WEINTRAUB: I grew up in a hybrid Jewish family; I like to say that there was reli­gious pluralism at my kitchen table as a child. I grew up in the only kosher home in a small town in the middle of America, in the heartland.

My mum drove three hours for kosher meat and filled the freezers in our house with kosher meat and my daddy has bacon cheese burgers on paper plates in the kitchen.


MELISSA WEINTRAUB: So I really was exposed to different paths up the moun­tain right from the start which I see very much as a source of the work of the peace building work that I’m doing now because I have that kind of bifocal vision of being inside and outside a reli­gious culture and also the larger context in which I lived.

MONICA ATTARD: So would you say at this point in time that it was more the social issues, the pastoral care issues that drew you to where you are now? Or the reli­gious tradition?

MELISSA WEINTRAUB: I can’t single out reli­gious and cultural issues because for me they’re so bound up with each other. Me reli­gious commit­ment is all about relieving suffering. It’s some­thing I see as a reli­gious oblig­a­tion, we are called as Jews to have the oppo­site affair as hard and heart to respond to human suffering and that means always culti­vating a kind of stance of open heart­ness to the pain of the world and doing every­thing we can to relieve it.

MONICA ATTARD: And of course in the heart­land of Judaism there certainly is a lot of heartache, but we’ll come to those issues in a moment. Are you recog­nised as a Rabbi by all the tradi­tions and codes of Judaism?

MELISSA WEINTRAUB: I’m recog­nised by all of Judaism’s liberal nomi­na­tions and I was ordained within the most tradi­tional denom­i­na­tion that still recog­nises women as Rabbis.

So I suppose in Australian Christian terms we corre­spond to the Anglican end of the spec­trum. There are those who are more tradi­tional than us and those that are more liberal than us.

MONICA ATTARD: Yes I was going to say there… is the same kind of split or debate in Anglicanism. Is it as furious and as fast in Judaism as it seems to be in Anglicanism in the world at the moment?

MELISSA WEINTRAUB: In certain denom­i­na­tions it is, I think these ques­tions have been really laid to rest. In my own denom­i­na­tion women have been ordained for 20 years, 50 per cent of my semi­nary consists of women. Women are partic­i­pating in all roles of reli­gious life, marrying people and burying people and leading services and giving sermons and really engaging fully in the reli­gious public sphere and it’s no longer a live ques­tion in the same way.

For Orthodox women there are still really, it’s a very cutting edge debate.

MONICA ATTARD: Is there one kernel of advice or truth that you would pass on to your brothers and sisters in the Anglican Church as they grapple with this issue of the ordi­na­tion of women?

Is there some­thing that holds the key to what is right?

MELISSA WEINTRAUB: I think that the impor­tant thing in embracing reli­gious tradi­tion is to recog­nise that there’s always text and context and purpose and in Judaism for example, tradi­tion­al­ists will point to passages that talk about the impor­tance of women step­ping back from the public sphere because it’s seen as a kind of degra­da­tion of men, of disre­spect to men for women to assume those rules and that there’s really a tradi­tional split in the public and private sphere.

And we live in a different histor­ical context where those soci­o­log­ical assump­tions no longer hold and where the purpose of the text and the intent of the text no longer holds.

So my advice to Anglican women is to be patient and to keep engaging in what I call exoget­ical rivalry over the mean­ings of your tradi­tion and seeking out the deeper values and deeper context of that tradition.

MONICA ATTARD: So would you say at this point in time that from your perspec­tive, the debate within Judaism is actu­ally moving forward for women?

MELISSA WEINTRAUB: Absolutely, it’s clear the direc­tion in which the commu­nity is moving, even in the most tradi­tional Jewish commu­ni­ties, women are having greater and greater access to public rules.

MONICA ATTARD: Ok, now the role of a Rabbi of course is one that has tradi­tion­ally been focused on ques­tions of Jewish law and teach­ings and philos­ophy rather than pastoral care.

You’re doing some­thing that’s actu­ally very, very different aren’t you, through an organ­i­sa­tion which you created called Encounter.

What do you do Melissa in Encounter?

MELISSA WEINTRAUB: We bring Jewish leaders from across the polit­ical spec­trum into Palestinian cities and the West Bank. We have been the most signif­i­cant Jewish non-military pres­ence in Palestinian areas in the West Bank since before the second Intifada and it’s the most reli­giously and polit­i­cally diverse groups ever to partic­i­pate in people to people initia­tives for bringing hard­liners and people who inden­tify with the centre and the right of the polit­ical spec­trum and this is very new and chal­lenging and for many of our partic­i­pants, many of them come with great trep­i­da­tion, emotional and physical.

MONICA ATTARD: I can imagine.


MONICA ATTARD: Does it oppose secu­rity issues?

MELISSA WEINTRAUB: The best way to protect oneself, engaging with Palestinians is to come clearly as a friendly pres­ence, trav­el­ling with people who have enor­mous street cred­i­bility, recog­ni­tion and we have very deep rela­tion­ships with our Palestinian part­ners and there’s hundreds of Palestinians involved with the program so we don’t feel any secu­rity risk.

There’s always danger of a kind of freak or fringe kind of attack but that would be true if we were walking through the streets of Melbourne or Paris or Jerusalem for that matter.

MONICA ATTARD: Sure, but when you say ‘going in with people who are friendly towards Palestinians, do you mean going in with Palestinians?

MELISSA WEINTRAUB: Yeah, every­thing that we do on our program is with a very strong Palestinian pres­ence. Not friendly towards Palestinians but Palestinians who are recog­nised among other Palestinians as having cred­i­bility are with us at all times. So that we’re recog­nised as a friendly pres­ence not an inva­sive or mili­tary presence.

MONICA ATTARD: It seems so simple doesn’t it when you look at the prob­lems that the Middle East has faced that Jews and Arabs could come together and yet they don’t, there’s very little social interaction.

MELISSA WEINTRAUB: These are two soci­eties that are bypassing each other everyday. People often come on our trip and say this is the twilight zone, you know. I’ve lived in Israel off and on for 10, 15 years and I didn’t know there was a whole other country here.

To tell you one story, a woman named Ariel who grew up in an Orthodox home in Baltimore came on the trip and at one point I saw there were tears streaming down her face and she said ‘I feel like this is the twilight zone, I realise that I’m seeing now what everyone around me has been blocking for years’ and just as she said that a church bell went off right over her head and she said ‘I think I’ve heard an echo of that bell in Jewish Jerusalem and thought I was hallu­ci­nating because everyone around me told me that bell didn’t exist’.

That’s the degree of the lack of recog­ni­tion of even basic humanity and contact, there’s just total discon­nect that she hadn’t even believed that that bell existed and being there it felt so unde­ni­able and obvious connecting with people like her on the other side she felt great reso­nance with and those clicks happen so often on our trips.

To give you another example, we brought a group of really high level American Jewish leaders a few months ago and a woman, one of our Palestinian panel­lists is an up and coming Fatah leader and one of our American Jewish partic­i­pants asked her, ‘what will the day after occu­pa­tion look like?’ and the women responded, ‘I just want to be stopped by a Palestinian policeman’.

MONICA ATTARD: And did the Jewish partic­i­pant under­stand that?

MELISSA WEINTRAUB: Well in our debriefing session after­wards, this came up as one of the most poignant and moving moments of the day.

For all of our Jewish partic­i­pants these are people who are part of Zionist organ­i­sa­tions, lobbying organ­i­sa­tions on behalf of Israel and they so iden­ti­fied with the state­ment, it was really a break­through moment for them because it really stirred up their empathy, they remem­bered coming to Israel in the 50’s and the 60’s and feeling euphoric and being stopped by a Jewish policeman and there’s some­thing so tribal and primal about it and at the same time, some­thing so profound for them in recog­nizing this was a symbol of having control over ones destiny, being able to rule over oneself.

MONICA ATTARD: And how do expe­ri­ences like that trans­late into some­thing more concrete polit­i­cally? Can they?

MELISSA WEINTRAUB: We’re an educa­tional organ­i­sa­tion, so one of the reasons we’ve had such success in reaching constituen­cies that haven’t before been touched in this work is because we don’t impose any polit­ical agenda on our partic­i­pants. We support them to come to their own conclu­sions on the basis of what they see and that said, there’s tremen­dous polit­ical import to the program and people come out most often, simply wanting to take respon­si­bility. What can I do to lessen our contri­bu­tion to the stale­mate and the morass?

So that looks different for different people on the basis of the perspec­tives that they come in with. Some people it means I want to oppose Israel’s settle­ment policy, for some people it means I want to do work on human­i­tarian considerations.

We had one person recently who came who is living in a settle­ment himself, he iden­ti­fies with the national reli­gious right. And he said I believe that Israel needs to main­tain control over these terri­to­ries, but for the first time in my life I know what the occu­pa­tion means, I know what the word occu­pa­tion means and now I want to know what a respon­sible occu­pa­tion would look like.

MONICA ATTARD: It’s a matter of moving the debate away from the possi­bility of a non occu­pa­tion to accept­able occupation.

MELISSA WEINTRAUB: For that person, that’s what it meant. That’s not what it means for many of our partic­i­pants, it means many things for many partic­i­pants, but what it always means is that their engage­ment with the situ­a­tion will be informed and nuanced and more wise because they’d had direct engage­ment with real people and they will have greater sympa­thetic under­standing for the needs and claims of the other side.

And we’re working with our partic­i­pants to culti­vate that sympa­thetic under­standing because a lack of recog­ni­tion is really at the heart of this conflict and conflict trans­for­ma­tion is going to require culti­va­tion of deep recog­ni­tion of the humanity and the needs and the claims.

MONICA ATTARD: People on both sides come to it with long histo­ries of the conflict and of the enmity that must be very very very diffi­cult for them on a personal level to overturn.

MELISSA WEINTRAUB: Absolutely, one of our Palestinian part­ners who does peace educa­tion work has taken to spending most of his peace educa­tion resources on trauma coun­selling. And he realised that in the begin­ning of the second Intifada when one of his students came to school, a five year old with white hair. She’d just woken up in the morning with white hair after a soldier had entered into her house in the middle of the night and carted away her father.

She was so trau­ma­tised that she had an early onset of white hair and he realised that every act of violence is the result of an unhealed wound and that to do peace educa­tion what he first and fore­most needed to do was work through the wounds of the past and present with his students and I think that’s very much true on the Israeli side as well.

MONICA ATTARD: So do you find your­self focussing on, or targeting leaders on both sides who have partic­u­larly opposing views on the dispute?

MELISSA WEINTRAUB: We target leaders who we can leverage to have a deeper impact on the situ­a­tion. And we target a diver­sity of leaders, it’s really impor­tant that we have Palestinian leaders from various sectors of society, Christians and Muslims, school chil­dren, youth leaders and chiefs (?) and polit­ical leaders and grass­roots activists and on the Jewish side as well that we have both reli­gious and secular leaders. People who are directing insti­tu­tions and jour­nal­ists, phil­an­thropists, people who can have impact in their spheres.

What’s most impor­tant to us is that we’re reaching these people who have constituen­cies and who can have a greater impact after the trip.

MONICA ATTARD: Hmm. So this might be an unfair ques­tion and please tell me if it is, but who’s minds is it harder to open in your expe­ri­ence? Jews or Palestinians?

MELISSA WEINTRAUB: Our program is focused on opening Jewish minds. We believe that we have an oblig­a­tion, respon­si­bility towards our own commu­nity and we seek to inspire similar efforts on the Palestinian side. Not because it’s harder to open Palestinian minds or because Palestinians are more or less respon­sible for the current stale­mate because we as Jewish leaders, as Rabbi’s who created this program want to take respon­si­bility for our own community.

That said it’s had an enor­mous impact on our Palestinian part­ners as well and we have had Palestinians who are involved in the program who have said, I think I might have been involved in violent resis­tance if not for your program and that’s some of the more dramatic end of things but we’ve also had Palestinians say this program helps me keep my sanity, just having Jewish leaders come here and want to hear my story, want to hear my suffering it’s very therapeutic.

We really have become the unap­pointed ambas­sadors of the Jewish people in the Palestinian areas and coming as a friendly and non violent presence.

MONICA ATTARD: So what do they talk about?

MELISSA WEINTRAUB: They talk about every­thing from what is dating life like here to what is it like to raise chil­dren here and what do you eat for break­fast to human rights issues, targeted assas­si­na­tions and home demo­li­tions and freedom of move­ment issues.

We always have someone to give a polit­ical frame­work, usually a PLO nego­tiator who is involved in Camp David who can come and answer more polit­ical ques­tions like Fatah– Hamas rela­tions and history of the peace process, but often people are as moved by discov­ering that every Palestinian under the age of 25 loves Brittany Spears and where people love to travel and those kinds of human moments are just as impor­tant as under­standing the impact of the sepa­ra­tion barrier on Palestinian fami­lies and other polit­ical issues.

MONICA ATTARD: And what’s been the reac­tion to Encounter from the Israeli Government?

MELISSA WEINTRAUB: We have not had much inter­ac­tion actu­ally with the Israeli govern­ment; we’re bringing American Jewish and Diaspora Jewish leaders on this program because it’s illegal by Israeli mili­tary order for Israeli’s to enter into Palestinian areas of the West Bank which is why we’ve been the only Jewish pres­ence there.

So our impact on the Israeli govern­ment is secondary, it’s via our partic­i­pants who are high level global leaders and who then in turn have an impact on the Israeli public, but that’s really secondary.

MONICA ATTARD: But as you mentioned, the Israeli mili­tary must give you permis­sion to go in there as well.

MELISSA WEINTRAUB: It’s legal for anyone holding an inter­na­tional pass­port to enter into Palestinian areas, so we don’t need to get any special permis­sion. We travel in as tourists, just as Christian busloads from Europe are coming into Bethlehem.

MONICA ATTARD: And have you seen any polit­ical or human­i­tarian deci­sions arise or be made as a result of your work?

MELISSA WEINTRAUB: There’s not a one to one corre­spon­dence, it’s hard to single out any partic­ular factor, but we have had, give you one example. In May of this year we brought a very promi­nent group of Jewish leaders who are part of a confer­ence that Shimon Peres had convened of the 120 leaders of the Jewish world and I fritted around Shimon Peres’s garden in May watching all of them so full with this expe­ri­ence talking to their Israeli coun­ter­parts deci­sion makers in the Israeli govern­ments and you have to find some way to see and expe­ri­ence and listen to what I just saw and heard and experienced.


MELISSA WEINTRAUB: So when those Israeli decision-makers hear about the expe­ri­ence that can lead to prac­tical change, it also can just renew hope and there was a study done by Israeli Palestinian think tanks that two thirds of each public want roughly the same solu­tion and 50 per cent of each public believe that only their side wants it.

There’s a sense of such deep distrust of the good­will inten­tions of the other side of the public and also at the level of policy making and that leads to poli­tics of unilat­er­alism and distrust and refusal to make conces­sions on both sides.

MONICA ATTARD: So Melissa from where you stand, are politi­cians pris­oners of their own constituen­cies or are the constituen­cies pris­oners of the politi­cians who govern them?

MELISSA WEINTRAUB: I wouldn’t state it so strongly on either end but in our peace building work we often say that govern­ment leaders make treaties and people make peace, polit­ical leaders and even the top level of those that we take, can’t make change that would be unpop­ular with their constituen­cies without having us bring their other people that can support them in making those bold coura­geous decisions.

One person came recently and said any leader on either side that would do what would need to be done here to move the situ­a­tion forward would be tremen­dously unpop­ular to the point of being threat­ened with assas­si­na­tion; I think there’s some truth to that. That we really need to shift the conscious­ness of both populations.

MONICA ATTARD: Hmm. And would there be much benefit for you in taking Israeli leaders who are actu­ally in Israel onto the program to do precisely what you take American Jewish leaders in there to do?

MELISSA WEINTRAUB: Absolutely, and we look forward to that day. It’s one of the tracks of expan­sion that we hope to develop with support of the Israeli govern­ment when we get there. We do take Israelis on a tour of East Jerusalem where Israelis can legally go.

But it’s very different than entering into the heart of Palestinian terri­tory and the West Bank. And that’s the world that’s just cut off from Israeli experience.

MONICA ATTARD: And so what is stop­ping you at this point in time. Have you found reluc­tance on the part of Israelis to go in?

MELISSA WEINTRAUB: It’s illegal for secu­rity reasons, it’s illegal for prob­ably liability reasons, but it’s not some­thing that we’ve managed to get permis­sion for.

Can’t get visas for Israelis to enter into Palestinian areas, it’s easier to get Palestinians into Israel than it is to get Israelis into Palestinian territory.

MONICA ATTARD: Can the two popu­la­tions live together?

MELISSA WEINTRAUB: Absolutely, there’s no other choice so, one of the things that the Palestinians say when we ask them what do you want to commu­ni­cate? They say we just want the partic­i­pants to know we’re not going anywhere.

A bit of a defen­sive posture, but it’s very impor­tant to them to have that kind of basic recog­ni­tion, we’re here in this land. And I think for the Jewish partic­i­pants that’s so true as well, they often come with the ques­tion; do you recog­nise our right to exist?

And it’s really basi­cally the same question.

Do you recog­nise our pres­ence in this land that we’re not going anywhere, we can’t be swept into the sea or returned to Europe and we have to share this land and both parties are coming with that ques­tion because they know that they are to stay and have such fear of the others non recog­ni­tion and desire to destroy.

MONICA ATTARD: Have you found Melissa, any antag­o­nism towards your work from Jews who live in the United States who when they hear from you, what you’re doing feel as though you’ve kind of crossed a line?

MELISSA WEINTRAUB: We’ve had tremen­dous success in the US in partic­ular in breaking through that kind of resis­tance because what we’re doing is really in Israel’s interest in serving Israel’s welfare.

And we frame what we’re doing very much in terms of engaging the next gener­a­tion and caring about Israel. There’s been all kinds of studies in the US about the degree to which young Jews are disen­gaging from Israel.

There’s a distancing from caring about Israel and the qual­i­ta­tive studies have deter­mined that that’s largely because they want to decide for them­selves what to think. They don’t want to be told to have soli­darity with a distant nation state, they don’t want to think in black and white terms and they really want an open and welcoming and inclu­sive commu­nity where they can be exposed to competing claims and multiple narra­tives and that’s very much at the heart of what we’re doing and I think there’s a real awak­ening in the Jewish commu­nity in the States that what we’re doing is pivotal in engaging the next gener­a­tion with Israel and that we’re not telling people there’s any partic­ular poli­tics or outcome but simply engage­ment with the full reality of Israel.

And we tell all of our partic­i­pants, go to Sderot and meet with Gush Katif evac­uees and go on an IDF tour of the sepa­ra­tion barrier.

What we’re doing is no meant as an alter­na­tive to all of those other kinds of Israel expe­ri­ences that will help you grasp the Israeli narra­tives. What we’re doing is meant as a comple­ment to all of that and it’s just as an inte­gral part of under­standing the reality around you for all of those who care about Israel.

MONICA ATTARD: That was Rabbi Melissa Weintraub, the co-founder of Encounter an organ­i­sa­tion dedi­cated to exposing Jewish leaders to Palestinian life.

And that’s Sunday Profile. Thanks also to our producer Belinda Sommer. If you’d like to go to our website you can down­load a tran­script and the audio and you can even podcast the show. That’s at abc​.net​.au/​s​u​n​d​a​y​p​r​o​f​ile. I’m Monica Attard, Talk to you next week.

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