These and Those

Musings from Students of the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem

[Alumni Guest Post] Encounter: Bringing More Into View

Posted on May 20, 2012 by The Director of Digital Media

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Bruce Shaffer‘s (Pardes Summer ’06, Spring ’11) testimonial about Encounter originally appeared in Boulder Jewish News, March 8, 2012. We reposted to These&Those with his permission. Copyright 2012, Boulder Jewish News.

Encounter: Bringing More Into View

By Bruce Shaffer on ‍‍March 8, 2012 – 14 Adar 5772

Zoomed in tight, images from the West Bank of Leila’s eyes flash anger. Shireen’s hold sadness. Sami’s seek possibilities. Ali – who could’ve given up – still looks for understanding. But at my Limmud Colorado 2011 photo show, it was the viewers’ expressions that interested me. There was dissonance, between perceived on-screen faces and on-the-ground facts presumed. Surprise, that I could enter Palestinian Authority administered towns such as Bethlehem, Hebron and Ramallah. And getting a bit personal… curiosity about my friendships on the other side.

Got me wondering, too. Our American Jewish community is focused on the multifaceted picture called the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Yet most of us – and those who inform us – have never met a Palestinian, nor come face-to-face with Palestinian perspectives. Wouldn’t that experience, provided capably and credibly, complement our advocates’ and policy-makers’ understanding of and relationship with the situation? My viewers seemed to think so, and some wanted to know how-to.

For the most wide-angle, honest and educational look at West Bank Palestinian life you’re likely to get, I recommend Encounter, an “educational organization that cultivates informed Jewish leadership on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict….[and that does] not take specific positions regarding the outcome of the conflict.” Yes, that’s my experience from eight programs: an open, supportive educational setting that doesn’t push a partisan agenda or particular political solutions. Instead, Encounter delivers close-ups that you’re unlikely to find elsewhere:

  • Presentations by locally respected Palestinian leaders about personal and political issues related to Palestinian life.
  • Meetings with prominent Palestinian activists dedicated to non-violence, and lesser-known mainstream leaders.
  • Walking tours of important geographic areas.
  • Optional home stays with local families.
  • Confidential, facilitated discussion within the Jewish group.
  • Informal social gatherings with Palestinians

These programs – no two are the same — have improved my depth of field. I can be up-front, hang in the scene, look through many lenses. Random incidents and events, improvements, setbacks, family stuff – dramatically alter my subjects’ p.o.v. And even after eight programs, the same is true for me. Jammed up against the separation fence, I just might distort this short concrete section into endlessness, plant thoughts in the Palestinian construction workers below, read minds of the uniformed Israelis above. Reluctantly, I’ve had to face it: subjectivity, narrative and impression are big players in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Go on Encounter and see for yourself. Then re-compose, process and develop your own picture.

Encounter encourages participants to listen to and absorb Palestinian narratives and claims without disregarding what they already know and believe to be true. ….Underlying all of Encounter’s work is the core belief that innovative strategies for peace will be created only when influential stakeholders in a conflict have opportunities to meet one another, to open themselves to previously disregarded points-of-view, and to develop relationships across political and ideological divides.”

Those divides include the wide ones within American Jewry, too. “The trip is not a left wing trip. The trip is not a right wing trip. The trip is for everyone at every place on the political spectrum. Call it Responsible Zionism.” (Rabbi Michael Goldstein) Indeed, Encounter activities include voices from from AIPAC to ZOA. Colorado participants have included Rabbis Deborah Rappaport and Marc Soloway, Margery Goldman, Matthew Markman, and Judge Murray Richtel. Next week, Boulderites Shari Edelstein and Julie Shaffer* will join rabbis, philanthropists, and members of the Jewish Funders Network for a program in Bethlehem.

I dream not that Encounter is going to resolve the conflict. But it is surely challenging the array of voices that are heard in that endeavor. As Rabbi Elka Abrahamson, President of the Wexner Foundation and Encounter alum has written:

I imagined an afternoon of sweet tea, hot pita and conversation about pathways to reconciliation through personal connection. Though too rational and likely too old for such naïve visions, my head blossomed with summer of love celebration spirit, when peace would guide the planets and love would rule the stars. Those dreams hit the wall. The roots of this conflict are deep and twisting and after a day exploring the reality on the ground, finding resolution felt as insurmountable as the cement fence that separates, defines, contains and protects — all at the same time.”

I’ve owned that feeling of insurmountability, so why do I stick with Encounter and encourage your participation? Because in this same week that I have booked flights for my 13th visit in Israel, found an apartment for another extended stay, enrolled in a Tel Aviv ulpan and a Jerusalpolem Jewish studies institute, and filed my application for Israeli citizenship, I remind myself that I want to be a “responsible Zionist.” And because it’s all part of the same package called the pursuit of justice for all, to which we, as Jews, are called.

May every Jew and those concerned about the Jewish future fully engage with Israel…our home­land, our sacred land. May you be among those with the courage and tenacity to turn this seam [between peace and war] into a juncture of healing. Let us vigorously support Israel in its pursuit of justice and peace, and never give up on the quest for leaders with the wisdom, tenacity and guts to resolve differences. It is the backbreaking obligation of being Yisrael…which means the ones who struggle. Please God, may we live up to our name.”

Amen v’amen.


The author participated in Encounter programs during 2008 – 2011, including as trips photographer. He has made several other visits to Palestinian and Israeli administered areas in the West Bank, and also recommends educational visits to Jewish villages there.

*JS is the author’s wife.