Rabbi Melissa Weintraub on panel “Talking About Faith and Politics” at University of Connecticut, April 2018
Rabbi Melissa Weintraub on panel “Talking About Faith and Politics” at University of Connecticut, April 2018

Bridging American Jewish divide over Israel starts close to home

A group of Jewish young adults came together at the Oakland Moishe House recently for conversation, but this wasn’t your usual social gathering — they came to discuss an issue often avoided among polite company. After listening to a series of challenging statements read by a facilitator, they positioned themselves in different parts of the room according to how strongly they agreed or disagreed.

“American Jews should hold back public criticism of Israel out of concern for giving ammunition to Israel’s enemies.”

“Religious and/or political disagreements are a source of pain in my family.”

“I feel safer in the world because of Israel.”

“Settlement expansion is a primary obstacle to a peaceful resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.”

The event was one of hundreds like it presented across the country by Resetting the Table, an initiative founded by a Bay Area couple to bring American Jews together to discuss the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, a fraught issue in Jewish communal spaces.

“Most people are operating with a lot of blind spots on this conflict,” said Rabbi Melissa Weintraub, who co-founded the initiative with her husband, Eyal Rabinovitch. “Most people don’t get a comprehensive view of the bigger picture of what this land means to different people, of what their needs and concerns and aspirations are in relating to this place.”

In just a few years, Resetting the Table has made contact with some 17,000 people, leading trainings and partnering with federations, JCRCs, Hillels on college campuses and other organizations around the country. Its work has had a lower profile in the Bay Area, but that soon will change with help from a Jim Joseph Foundation grant.

Weintraub and Rabinovitch, who live in El Cerrito with their two children, founded the organization with the belief that by engaging in meaningful dialogue on the issue, American Jews have a unique role to play in helping to resolve the conflict. “We won’t move past this impasse unless people are stretching each other and pushing each other and impacting each other’s thinking,” Weintraub said.

A large part of their effort goes toward training practitioners who can lead workshops. It is a rigorous program that teaches the tools of conflict resolution, reflective listening and active facilitation.

“The vision is to build regional hubs of practitioners that can serve synagogues, schools and Jewish communal organizations, to have the cross-institutional conversations they’ve been shying away from,” says Weintraub, who with her husband has led trainings for numerous organizations, including the Anti-Defamation League and rabbinical seminaries nationwide.

The program at Moishe House was a four-part series. Other organizations engage in yearlong trainings for people interested in facilitating workshops. In both cases, participants read a range of viewpoints and perspectives and reflect them back to their fellow participants.

Eyal Rabinovitch training a group of facilitators in partnership with UJA-Federation of New York
Eyal Rabinovitch training a group of facilitators in partnership with UJA-Federation of New York

One Oakland participant, Rena Oppenheimer, grew up in an observant family and attended Jewish day schools for her entire youth, but today she describes herself as “an anti-occupation activist.”

“I’ve been through a lot of transformations in my relationship with Israel/Palestine,” she said. “I had found a home in anti-occupation spaces, but there were parts of myself I had to silence, or hide my love of the Hebrew language, that I just didn’t know what to do with.

“I am dealing with negative ideas about Jews who are right-wing or who identify as Zionists, and I wanted to unpack that a little bit because it’s really painful to carry that around,” she said, noting that many of her own family members fall into that category.

One unexpected outcome of the workshop: Oppenheimer met a woman with views far removed from hers, and the two of them trusted each other enough to meet afterward. They spoke Hebrew the whole time.

Another participant, who asked to remain anonymous to avoid upsetting her parents, said she grew up in a Zionist home and was not exposed to the Palestinian point of view. Doing a deep dive into their narrative, she said, helped her understand for the first time why so many Palestinians could not accept Israel’s right to exist. She learned it had its political basis in the British-imposed borders, whose origins Palestinians saw as racist and colonial.

Weintraub, a Conservative rabbi by training, is also the co-founder of Encounter, a program that takes rabbinical students and Jewish professionals on listening tours of the West Bank, where they meet with and stay with Palestinians.

She was drawn to this work when she was living in Israel in 1996, at a time when the Oslo Accord was still offering hope for peace, and she became immersed in Palestinian culture, making many friends in the West Bank. She wanted others to have the same experience.

Rabinovitch has a doctorate in sociology and went from studying conflict resolution as a scholar to practicing it in the field. The son of Israelis who grew up in Houston speaking Hebrew at home, Rabinovitch stayed away from the Israeli-Palestinian conflict for years, feeling it was too personal, and because he often felt frustrated by the conversations taking place.

He also knew that if he got involved in work with Israelis and Palestinians, he wouldn’t be seen as impartial. But by making the focus of the organization the American Jewish community’s relationship to Israel, he feels his identity as an Israeli American is an asset.

“The work has been a homecoming for me, to be able to be the catalyst for making the conversations that had been frustrating for me happen well,” he said.

Weintraub calls her husband “the wizard behind the curtain” and the “master of methodology,” while she is in a more public role, doing speaking engagements and meeting with donors.

With Resetting the Table, it’s not uncommon for parties with divergent views on the issues, such as religious and progressive Zionists or, say, members of groups like StandWithUs and IfNotNow, to come together in dialogue where they might not otherwise.

“We hope to disrupt everybody’s echo chambers, both on the right and the left, equally,” said Weintraub. “The Jewish community needs a communal intelligence that we’ll only get from everyone pushing each other in different directions. Everyone needs to be pushed and challenged and heard, in order for them to be able to respond to the dilemmas that Israel faces.”

Alix Wall
Alix Wall

Alix Wall is a contributing editor to J. She is also the founder of the Illuminoshi: The Not-So-Secret Society of Bay Area Jewish Food Professionals and is writer/producer of a documentary-in-progress called "The Lonely Child."