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Rabbi Melissa Weintraub and Yona Shem-Tov

Equipping rabbis, Jewish profes­sionals, leaders and phil­an­thropists with first-hand knowl­edge of Palestinian life, Encounter trains Jewish leaders to help resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and to heal internal Jewish rifts formed in its wake. Since 2005, Encounter has brought over 1,000 promi­nent and emerging Jewish leaders on trips to Bethlehem, Hebron and East Jerusalem to gain first-hand expo­sure to Palestinian life.

What makes Encounter so inter­esting – and its posi­tion so powerful – is how it has situ­ated itself staunchly within the estab­lished Jewish commu­nity and success­fully engaged profes­sional and volun­teer Jewish leaders across demo­graphics, denom­i­na­tions, and gener­a­tions. Its goal is to seed a new cadre of American Jewish lead­er­ship equipped to grapple with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, catalyzing change in communal insti­tu­tions, board­rooms, class­rooms, and across campuses.

Founded six years ago, it has been led since its incep­tion by Rabbi Melissa Weintraub, who I first met about ten years ago in a Jerusalem apart­ment where I’d come for some extra-curricular Kabbalah study with a favorite Hebrew University professor. While dialogue programs aren’t new to the field, Encounter’s inno­va­tions under Melissa’s lead­er­ship were plen­tiful, including its thoughtful culti­va­tion of Palestinian part­ners and its nuanced (and distanced) approach to (initially unwanted) media atten­tion. Melissa under­stood that the deli­cate work Encounter does would be better fostered initially without bright lights and unnec­es­sary public scrutiny. She correctly surmised that the program’s power and the need it served would speak for them­selves to their core demo­graphic – their partic­i­pants – and that nothing would be lost keeping their heads down and hearts focused on the impor­tant and chal­lenging work in front of them.

More recently, however, she hasn’t been able to keep out of the spot­light. Melissa was invited to the White House for this year’s Jewish American Heritage Month recep­tion. She was also awarded the first ever Grinnell College Young Innovator for Social Justice Prize, which came with a $100,000 award (split between the inno­vator and her orga­ni­za­tion). A few weeks ago, Encounter honored her for six years of service, as she is now step­ping down from her role as Executive Director.

Lest you fear that Encounter will suffer in Melissa’s absence, though, along­side the announce­ment of the Grinnell College prize award, Encounter announced that Melissa would be succeeded as Executive Director by Yona Shem-Tov, a rising Jewish and inter­faith leader to keep your eyes on.
“Encounter is the orga­ni­za­tional embod­i­ment of my most deeply held values,” says Yona. “I am deeply honored to grow the impact of one of the most effec­tive forces for creating inclu­sive and compelling Israel engage­ment strate­gies for the North American Jewish commu­nity and for helping to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.”

Yona has worked as an inter­faith educator for Abraham’s Vision and as a group leader for American Jewish World Service in Nicaragua, El Salvador, and Mexico. A noted public speaker, Yona has presented on Israel and inter­faith educa­tion before The Congress of Imams & Rabbis in Seville, the German Consul General and members of German Parliament in Berlin. She also consulted to the The Edmond & Benjamin de Rothschild Foundations on the devel­op­ment of the Ariane de Rothschild Fellowship. It aims to develop a network of entre­pre­neurs with a demon­strated interest in social change and cross-cultural dialogue, with a focus on indi­vid­uals and orga­ni­za­tions from Muslim and Jewish commu­ni­ties in the USA, UK and France.

After watching Yona present and facil­i­tate dialogue among Jewish and Muslim leaders from around the world, our staff at The Edmond & Benjamin de Rothschild Foundations recruited her for her unique blend of charisma, strategic vision, theo­ret­ical knowl­edge and program­matic execu­tion,” says Baroness Ariane de Rothschild. “Yona has an excep­tional capacity to bring together people from diverse back­grounds, and outstanding program­matic vision that has helped us success­fully seed an unprece­dented network of Jewish and Muslim social entrepreneurs.”

With this tran­si­tion, Melissa may solidify her place as an inno­v­a­tive Jewish leader even as she intro­duces us to another. Similarly to how they execute their program­ming, Encounter’s lead­er­ship tran­si­tion has been long in the works and method­ical in its execu­tion. Few Jewish orga­ni­za­tions created in the last ten years have attempted the tran­si­tion away from founding profes­sional leader that Encounter is now making. This signif­i­cant crop of Jewish start-ups (one that JDub, along with Encounter, is often included in) is regu­larly derided for its depen­dence on charis­matic founders and inability to “prove” impact, while simul­ta­ne­ously chal­lenged to evolve into sustain­able insti­tu­tions. Time will tell, but all indi­ca­tions are that with this tran­si­tion, Encounter will yet again prove that a big vision, coupled with prag­matic execu­tion, is a possible – and neces­sary – equa­tion for a 21st Century Jewish organization.

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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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