I recently had the privilege of helping lead an Encounter trip to Bethlehem, East Jerusalem and Ramallah.  I came away with the strong belief that all communal leaders should participate in one of these trips.

Encounter is an organization near and dear to many Wexner alumni and, in fact, many alumni were on my trip.  Started 10 years ago by two WGF Alumni, Rabbi Melissa Weintraub (Class 14)  and Rabbi Miriam Margles (Class 14), and currently led by WGF Alum, Yona Shem-Tov (Class 17), the organization plays a role in our community that is simple, elegant and profound.  Encounter brings American Jews to Palestinian areas in order to hear the perspectives of Palestinians.  Full stop. Encounter does not advocate for a particular political solution to the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians.  Instead, Encounter tries to make sure that American Jews particularly those in leadership positions are knowledgeable of a wide range of Palestinian viewpoints and voices, so that their connection to Israel and our leadership is more richly informed.  

Since its founding in 2000, American Jews from across the political and religious spectrum have participated in Encounter trips.  The participants on my trip indeed reflected the diversity of our community’s leaders: respected pulpit rabbis (Orthodox, Conservative and Reform), Hillel directors, leaders of communal organizations and agencies of all sizes and missions, prominent academics and funders.  Together, we spent four intense days learning from Encounter’s Palestinian partners who were equally diverse.  Some were parents, community organizers, politicians, business owners, Muslims, Christians, optimists and pessimists.  

Our group practiced “resilient listening” hanging in and staying present to viewpoints that were difficult to hear  and spent time processing our reactions with our peers.  We tried to understand our compassion, our anger, our frustration and our empathy more deeply.  We listened to the speakers and we listened to each other.  I witnessed my colleagues wrestle with what they saw and heard.  I witnessed courage, open-heartedness, and respectful communication. I felt proud to be part of a group of colleagues who struggled to hold competing truths and invited human connection.  

We live in a world where these qualities are waning.  This is true of our community as well.  Encounter can provide space for us to hear Palestinian perspectives; it can also help us to be leaders of greater nuance, generosity, and connectedness.  I came back with a heavy heart, but a profound sense of possibility.


Rabbi Joanna Samuels, WGF Alum (Class 10), is proud to work for Educational Alliance as the Executive Director of the Manny Cantor Center. Prior to assuming this role, Joanna served as the Director of Strategic Initiatives for Advancing Women Professionals and the Jewish Community and as the spiritual leader of Congregation Habonim. Joanna currently serves on the advisory board of the West Side Campaign Against Hunger. She is a magna cum laude graduate of Barnard College and of the Jewish Theological Seminary and resides in New York with her husband and children. She can be reached at joanna@joannasamuels.com.