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Encounter

Encounter
New York, New York United States
Leadership team

Yona Shem-Tov, Executive Director

Prize category
National/International
Operational
5+ years
Target audience
20s & 30s, Adults, Baby Boomers, Educators, Jewish Professionals
Categories
Coexistence, Community Building, Experiential Learning, Interfaith, Israel, Jewish Education, Leadership Development, Professional Development, Social Justice

For over a decade Encounter has redefined responsible Jewish leadership on Israel and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Encounter was founded in 2005 by two rabbinical students who recognized the vital need for Jewish leaders to connect directly with Palestinians and with a diversity of fellow Jews. Encounter acts as a unique convener, facilitating constructive first-person encounters between Jews and Palestinians, and between Jews across the political and religious spectra. Through experiential educational programs in the West Bank, East Jerusalem, and North America, we galvanize American Jewish leadership to actualize its potential as a positive force for change.

What Jewish wisdom do you use in your work?

Values: All of Encounter’s work grows out of our values, drawn from Jewish texts and traditions. In addition to drawing from wisdom of the past, Encounter shapes new Jewish wisdom. We take the essence of ancient Jewish values as lenses through which to encounter the present, yielding new understandings and practices – what we sometimes call Encounter Torah.

We have attached a full list of Encounter Values, and want to dive into a few here:

Shema – Listening: What many consider the central Jewish prayer – the Shema – centers on the command to listen. By opening our ears and minds to the voices of others, of humans created in the image of the divine, we carry forth the spirit of this command. Encounter programs introduce Jews and Palestinians who otherwise would never meet. And we introduce Jews across political and religious lines, who would otherwise remain in isolated echo-chambers, or become ensnared in debate with closed ears. The practice of listening to previously unheard voices opens participants up to new understandings of the conflict and the possibility for constructive solutions.

Elu v’elu – These and Those/Constructive Conflict:

“These and these are the words of the living God.” - Eruvim 13b

The Talmudic tradition is handed down through the mechanism of machloket (dispute). The responses of both Beit Hillel and Beit Shammai are preserved and studied, even if one of them is not taken to be law. Encounter does not ask participants to agree with all the views they hear on our trips to Palestinian communities in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. Rather, we encourage them to heed our Talmudic tradition, which values taking in multiple perspectives, including those with which we disagree.

Ahavat Israel – Love of One’s People: In our work, love of fellow Jews is the foundation for love of those beyond the Jewish community. Encounter trips are a Jewish peoplehood experience. Participants experience that it is possible to relate with love to Jews and non-Jews, to Jews we agree with and Jews we disagree with.

As part of this paradigm, Encounter provides the only opportunity for observant Jews to visit Palestinian communities in the West Bank without giving up their Jewish observance. We integrate time for prayer and provide kosher meals. Participants give divrei Torah on the week’s Torah portion, elevating their experience in the West Bank by viewing it through the lens of Torah, and elevating their understanding of Torah by viewing it through the lens of their experience in the West Bank. We give participants personal experience that it is possible to open to Palestinian voices without giving up their Jewish selves.

How does your program work to make that wisdom accessible and directly applicable to your audience's lives?

Communication Guidelines: Encounter’s Communication Guidelines provide concrete instruction on how to embody Jewish wisdom rather than engage in polarizing behavior. These Guidelines are derived from our values and research on how to constructively interact across difference on lighting-rod issues. They create new Jewish wisdom by integrating tradition and contemporary experience. Participants practice using these Guidelines on our programs, and then bring them home to the communities they lead. Synagogues, university Hillels, and organizations across the country use our Communication Guidelines to facilitate constructive exchanges on difficult topics – Israel, the conflict, and beyond – guided by Jewish values.

Leadership Training:

“Whoever saves a life, it is considered as if he saved an entire world.” – Mishnah Sanhedrin 4:9; Yerushalmi Talmud, Tractate Sanhedrin 37a.

Encounter’s model for change is grounded in this wisdom. Encounter participants are Jewish leaders and leaders-in-training. We invest in their personal transformation as individuals and leaders. They then become conduits of transformation for their own communities. Encounter thus fills a gap in established Jewish leadership development. Despite prestigious positions and training, participants report feeling afraid to speak their values on this conflict. Our experiential skills training equips participants to guide their constituents to open to a multiplicity of perspectives, and understand this as part of Jewish practice, not counter to it. Leaders long grappling with how to address the conflict constructively in their Jewish communities now have the tools to do so, thanks to Encounter.

What impact has your program had on your participants?

With Encounter, over 2,500 participants have engaged with Palestinian perspectives from a foundation of Jewish wisdom and community. For nine years running Encounter has been included in the Slingshot Guide, honoring our innovative and effective work. Encounter’s recent external assessment shows that the more touch-points a Jewish leader has with Encounter, the more active they will be in engaging Palestinian perspectives and taking constructive action on the conflict.

Encounter is reshaping Jewish leadership on this conflict. We offer a non-polarizing approach that enables active engagement. Rather than zero-sum perspectives of Jewish or Palestinian, Left or Right, participants leave our programs with tools for inclusive Jewish leadership. Rabbis grappling with how to address Israel in divided congregations use our Communication Guidelines to facilitate constructive discussions. Pulpit rabbis unsure about how or whether to speak up on Israel and the conflict leave our programs to give divrei Torah on their experiences in the West Bank. Encounter’s tools for constructive, Jewishly-grounded engagement activated their leadership.
Encounter participants span the breadth of the American Jewish community, from AIPAC and The Religious Zionists of America to J Street and Americans for Peace Now. They find common ground in Encounter. Foundation funders have shifted their priorities following their Encounter experiences. And Jewish educators at schools including The Alexander Muss High School and Gann Academy have shifted their curricula to reflect Encounter values. We engage participants from The Jewish Theological Seminary, The Reconstructionist Rabbinical College, Hebrew College, and more, impacting the next generation of Jewish leadership. Just eight years ago, future rabbis studying in Israel were called into their deans’ offices for participating in Encounter. Now four-out-of-five American rabbinical schools with programs in Israel include Encounter trips in their Israel education curriculum. And other institutions have simply replicated our programs. Encounter has catalyzed an entirely new field of Israel education and Jewish leadership training.

Some see Encounter as their Jewish community. Many Jews – especially young people – feel alienated from organized American Jewish life because of discourse and action on Israel. For them, Encounter is a community in which they can open up again to the value of Jewish wisdom and practice. And we enable those deeply connected to Jewish life to meet with Palestinians in their home communities without giving up their Jewishness. In both of these cases, through Encounter, participants have an experience of Jewish community they didn’t know possible. Our model challenges the false binary in which many feel pressure to choose between universalist values motivating engagement with Palestinians and particularist values honoring Jewish community. Our programs provide firsthand experience that you can have both.

In their own words, this is the impact Encounter has had on participants:

“My Encounter trip taught me that committed Jews, even in the center, or on the right of the political spectrum can view the conflict through a Jewish moral and ethical lens. I can care about the security of Jews in Israel and also care deeply, as a religious Jew, about the Jewish response to the millions of humans on the ‘other side.’”
– Abbie, June 2014, Bethlehem

“Participating in an Encounter trip was transformative for me both in my relationship to and understanding of the conflict, and also in relationship to fellow Jews. The ability to participate in a conversation about a volatile and emotional topic wherein healthy disagreements were raised and discussed helped me connect better with my community members. Furthermore, knowledge and familiarity with Palestinians and Palestinian narratives challenged, and through that, strengthened, my relationship with Israel.”
-- Tamar, February 2016, Bethlehem

“Before I went on Encounter ‘Palestinian’ was just a word. Now it is a face, a memory, a human being. Go. It is one of those rare experiences that can truly change your life.”
-- Ruth, Trustee, Nathan Cummings Foundation

What have you learned about applied Jewish wisdom that contributes to your success?

“You are not obligated to complete the work, nor are you free to desist from it.”
– Rabbi Tarfon, Pirke Avot 2:12

We learn from our tradition not to shy away from difficult problems. The cannon of Jewish text (the Talmud) is argument about the highest-stakes issues and culture wars of the day. This is what it means to engage as a Jew: to commit to wrestling, and to finding a way that Jewish wisdom can be applied in every era. Encounter is an innovative Jewish response to one of the most divisive, morally complex, and high stakes issues of our time. We have learned that dissonance is not something to shy away from. Drawing from this Jewish tradition, our success is founded in part upon honoring this multi-vocal tradition, treating with dignity those we have been taught to regard as enemies – both Palestinians and Jews with dissenting perspectives.

Encounter has bridging capital. We have learned that by holding space in which we don’t force participants to take sides we are able to bring together Jews from all along the political and religious spectra. We take seriously the idea that all people are created in God’s image, and practice seeing both Jews and Palestinians in this way. From this Jewish grounding we see clearly the dignity of all people, supporting our non-partisan approach.

We have learned that grounding our work in Jewish tradition supports participants to open up to new and challenging perspectives. Providing the familiar and affirming context of a Jewish group and Jewish sources enables participants to feel safe to explore the new and unfamiliar places and perspectives they encounter with us.

And we have learned that well-worn texts and traditions can reveal new wisdom in a new context. Looking out into Jerusalem from the West Bank can give entirely new meaning to the daily recitation of prayer for Jerusalem to be rebuilt, part of the silent Amidah. Reflecting on the week’s Torah portion with the words of a Palestinian speaker resonating in the mind can reveal new opportunities to use Torah to repair the world.
“You are not obligated to complete the work, nor are you free to desist from it.”
– Rabbi Tarfon, Pirke Avot 2:12

We learn from our tradition not to shy away from difficult problems. The cannon of Jewish text (the Talmud) is argument about the highest-stakes issues and culture wars of the day. This is what it means to engage as a Jew: to commit to wrestling, and to finding a way that Jewish wisdom can be applied in every era. Encounter is an innovative Jewish response to one of the most divisive, morally complex, and high stakes issues of our time. We have learned that dissonance is not something to shy away from. Drawing from this Jewish tradition, our success is founded in part upon honoring this multi-vocal tradition, treating with dignity those we have been taught to regard as enemies – both Palestinians and Jews with dissenting perspectives.

Encounter has bridging capital. We have learned that by holding space in which we don’t force participants to take sides we are able to bring together Jews from all along the political and religious spectra. We take seriously the idea that all people are created in God’s image, and practice seeing both Jews and Palestinians in this way. From this Jewish grounding we see clearly the dignity of all people, supporting our non-partisan approach.

We have learned that grounding our work in Jewish tradition supports participants to open up to new and challenging perspectives. Providing the familiar and affirming context of a Jewish group and Jewish sources enables participants to feel safe to explore the new and unfamiliar places and perspectives they encounter with us.

And we have learned that well-worn texts and traditions can reveal new wisdom in a new context. Looking out into Jerusalem from the West Bank can give entirely new meaning to the daily recitation of prayer for Jerusalem to be rebuilt, part of the silent Amidah. Reflecting on the week’s Torah portion with the words of a Palestinian speaker resonating in the mind can reveal new opportunities to use Torah to repair the world.