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The Big Jewcy: Yona Shem Tov And Rabbi Melissa Weintraub: American Jewish Leaders Encountering Palestinians

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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