Ori Nir 0:10
Welcome to this episode of PeaceCast, Americans for Peace Now's podcast, it's November 11. I'm your host, Ori Nir, and with me in person in Jerusalem is Leah Solomon. She is the chief education officer of Encounter. We're here to talk about Encounter and she's here to tell us what it is. I've actually wanted to host Encounter for a long time, we tried to find a time that works for both of us, didn't work. And then on this current visit to Jerusalem just a few afternoons ago, I ran into her at a coffee shop here on Emek Refaim street of the German Colony. And here we are. Jerusalem is a big construction site, there's dust and there's loads in the air everywhere return and the Germany colColony is not an exception. So I apologize in advance. There's going to be background noise to that because seems to be in the the hiatus now, guess we're lucky now. Thanks. Thanks for joining us.
Leah Solomon 1:06
It's great to be here.
Ori Nir 1:07
I usually ask our guests to introduce themselves. So if you may just tell us a little bit about who you are. And what's brought you to Jerusalem. And then we'll talk a little bit about the work that you do. But I know you grew up in the United States, right?
Leah Solomon 1:24
I grew up in Los Angeles. But I've been here since 1999, like more than 20 years now. I came actually just a couple years after graduating college and kind of decided I wanted to, I wanted to work in the field of pluralistic Jewish education, and hadn't ever really done text learning before. I had a pretty decent Jewish education growing up, but I came here to learn I studied at the Conservative Yeshiva, and then at the Pardes Institute, that was for four years, and by then I had met my husband and and here we are. That was post-college. Yeah, yeah, I worked in Boston. For two years after graduating college helped open what's now Gann Academy, pluralistic Jewish day school, was one of the first, there's now a number, but then, you know, it opened in 1997. And it was one of the first pluralistic Jewish day schools, to high schools in the US.
Ori Nir 2:24
And when did you join Encounter?
Leah Solomon 2:25
So I've been with Encounter since 2015, six and a half years ago, shortly after I had, you know, to recall the last Gaza war, in the summer of 2014. I had, it was, it was a real turning point for me, between the, you know, running to the bomb shelters with my kids who were younger than the trauma that they experienced. And, you know, really feeling like, it was very hard. I'm thinking about, you know, we had only a few sirens here in Jerusalem, thinking about people in Tel Aviv, or on the Gaza border, the trauma that they and their kids were experiencing. And at the same time seeing the, you know, the other station in Gaza, our government, even by our own governments counts, you know, about 1300, non combatants, non terrorists, just people killed in Gaza, and also really just frightened by the, honestly, the racism that I saw within Israeli society, the kinds of comments and those three things combined, I kind of felt like, you know, I live here by choice. My whole family has American passports, we couldn't go back to the States, unlike most Israelis and Palestinians who are here, you know, don't have another passport. I sort of said to myself, like, if I'm going to keep living here and keep raising my kids in this reality, I need to work in this field. That was kind of the turning point,
Ori Nir 3:58
I guess, I'm just thinking I talk to a lot of people, obviously, who are involved in work that has to do with these really fascinating conflicts and wars and conflicts always punctuates their, their careers and their personal lives and so on. And I find more and more with with, you know, younger people that 2014 is is a big turning point for many people. So, yeah, so let's, let's talk a little bit about Encounter, just the kind of basics, when it was founded and what it does, and so on, and then we'll get a little more into the details.
Leah Solomon 4:33
Sure. So encounter was founded in 2005. It was actually founded by two rabbinical students who had you know, we're spending their year in Israel, like most non Orthodox, rabbinical students, certainly at the time. Two female rabbinical students, one from JTS, from the Jewish Theological Seminary, and one from the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College. And they both had connections with Palestinians from you know, outside of rabbinical school and they were going to visit Bethlehem meeting up with their, their friends or colleagues. And they saw that their, their fellow students, this was, you know, 2005, the wall, the barrier was in the process of being built. The Intifada, the Second Intifada was just kind of starting to wind down but there was still a lot of fear. And they saw that these experiences that they were having of going to Bethlehem a meeting with Palestinians seeing Palestinian realities of this this intensive year in Israel, their fellow students had, we're not having this a series isn't really had no way to have these experiences. So they put together at the beginning, you know, a bus of - wasn't an organization yet - a bus of mostly rabbinical students. I, full disclosure, I actually participated in the second Encounter program as a participant, yeah, 16 years ago now. And they brought a busload of mostly rabbinical students to Bethlehem. And it kind of developed from there for the first. Just over 10 years of Encounter's existence, we worked mostly with students, there were times when we worked with more senior leaders as well. But for the most part, our target audience was young, emerging Jewish leaders. And we brought about 2000 students, student-aged people to the West Bank, to meet with Palestinians, to understand Palestinian perspective, to see Palestinianrealities on the ground. And in 2016, we made a pretty major shift. We had to date run mostly short term programs, I think the longest program we'd run was just under two days. And in 2016, we decided, you know, it really, it's wonderful to bring emerging leaders, but for a lot of reasons, and particularly around the impact. It makes, you know, what, what if we were to bring people who are currently major leaders within the American Jewish community. And so we shifted toward a more intensive model, we started running what we call intensive seminars, for the West Bank and East Jerusalem for senior executive level American Jewish leaders for four days, and basically, our goals, you know, our encounter, I should have started with this perhaps, but Encounter is a nonpartisan educational organization. So when I say that, you know, educational, I think it's pretty straightforward. We're not an advocacy organization, we're not an activist organization. Our goal is for our goal is to cultivate more informed, more courageous, more resilient Jewish leadership on the Israeli Palestinian conflict. And when I say we're nonpartisan, what I mean by that is not a political, because obviously, the subject matter, everything we deal with is incredibly political. But we are not, you know, it goes back to the educational piece, that non advocacy, we're not we're not here to promote a particular political policy solution, not on the macro level, we're not advocating for to state one state some other formal solution or on the micro level, you know, particular policies. But we are trying to cultivate more constructive Jewish leadership leading toward an eventual resolution of the conflict in which all parties will live with rights, with justice with dignity in this land, so I can think more about that, but--
Ori Nir 8:42
I want to start breaking it down. Yeah. You know, you talked about creating or forging a more, as if I remember all the adjectives, courageous, resilient leadership on this issue. What does that mean?
Leah Solomon 8:58
What does that mean? So, first of all, I should say, and we can get back to this later, up until 2019, we worked almost exclusively with American Jewish leaders. And in 2019, we sort of quietly started working also with Israeli Jewish leaders, so we can talk about that as well. Yeah, so we could talk a little bit about that. It's still very new for us, because obviously, got interrupted a bit started in late in mid 2019. And, of course, the pandemic hit shortly after that. I think it is not, this is an issue that it is not easy to lead on. You know, when I when I think about courageous leadership, like it's much easier for many, many Jewish leaders. I've heard so many people say this to me, it's easier to just not touch Israel, because no matter what I say, no matter what I do, somebody is going to get upset. It's also that's one reason I think it feels risky. People are afraid if they say anything that sounds controversial, which almost any thing in some way is going to be controversial for someone, they take a stand around the Israeli Palestinian conflict. You know, there are a lot of very real risks involved. They might lose constituents, congregants, students, parents might get angry in their schools, you know, donors. So I think that's one reason it takes a lot of courage. People also, I think it's a, it's a hard issue to lead on. I think people don't know, you know, it often feels like it's an intractable situation. You know, what, what can I as an American Jew do? What can I actually do? And so I think there's a sense like, Yeah, this is important to me, but I want to actually do things where I feel like I can have an impact on I don't know how to have an impact here. I think there's a tremendous sense of loneliness, because people, because often leaders shy away from talking about these issues in real deep kinds of ways. And certainly getting into the stickiness, the thorny issues, I think people who do feel like it's hard to find colleagues who are willing to do so. So part of our goal is really just to get people talking about this, really looking and listening to perspectives that they might disagree with, we talk a lot about, you know, I mentioned resilience, we talk a lot about resilient listening, really just being able cultivating the practice of both of sort of rigorous discipline of curiosity. But also cultivating the ability to hear perspectives that we deeply disagree with, both within our own, you know, from Palestinians, but also within our own community. And all of this just coming from a place of recognizing, and we can talk more about the values that underpin our work. But recognizing that the starting point is that Jews are in this land to stay, we're not going anywhere, I think, you know, with all of the threats that we face, they are not, most of them are not really certainly not from Palestinians, existential threats, right. And likewise, Palestinians are not going anywhere, there are somewhere between four and 6 million Palestinians living in this land, depending on how you count, maybe more when you count also Palestinian citizens of Israel, we have to find a way to share this land. And if we're going to do that, we need leaders who are going to help us get there. You know, we can either live by the sword forever, as our former prime minister has stated, or we can find another way. So, you know, I think that's why the leadership on this issue is so important to us.
Ori Nir 12:38
You know, for full disclosure for listeners, I participated in one of the intense programs. And I'm going to actually tell you a couple of, tell our listeners a couple of stories, a couple of experiences from from that tour. But I want to use that in order to ask you some questions about your modus operandi about, you know, one of the things that really impressed me, and I wanted to ask you about the rationale of that is, you know, you mentioned the issue of values, Jewish values and Jewish content, and you create a sort of a infrastructure almost or or foundation of Jewish values upon which you build the program. And one of the asking a little bit about, you know, why that is, what does that was achieved?
Leah Solomon 13:32
Yeah. So I'll, I'll share a couple of our really our core values that we talk about a lot. So I will start by saying so often in these conversations, we jumped straight to the end of the conversation, right? Do you believe in two states? Do you believe that Palestinians should have such and such right? We get into it, we start some policy conversation almost. And often, those conversations don't lead anywhere, because, you know, I've already staked out my position, you've already staked out your position, and then we just try to prove whose, you know, whose position is better? I think for us, first of all, we are actually guided by those values. You know, we can we wake up in the morning because when I, myself and our staff like we wake up in the morning because we care deeply about the values that guide our organization. And that's what motivates us to do this work. But I also think that pedagogically by starting with values, right? That is some values based conversation. Too often opens up opportunities for conversations with people that if we started on the policy level, we would very quickly find ourselves disagreeing, but when we start with values, it becomes much clearer that there's a lot that we share, and then the question becomes, okay, how do we most, how do we best move forward in a way that instantiates those values? So I'll give you three of our core values to start with, which I think I think it's fair to say that the vast majority of our participants agree with all three of these values. I'm hoping also your listeners, right, so those three values, our first value is have it style, a deep love of the Jewish people and commitment to the Jewish people, for us that's where this work starts, right it starts: I care as an American Jew, an American Israeli Jew, who's lived here for you know, two decades is raising my children here, and my kids start, they're all boys, they're all gonna, my oldest will be drafted in three years, like, I live here. And I'm raising them here because of a deep connection to the Jewish people for this land, a commitment to the ability of the Jewish of Jews to build a secure and thriving future in this land. That's a value that I think every participant that comes on our program agrees with, in one way or another, right, we might define that differently. But that's a really deep commitment. And our second value is to vote to adopt human dignity. Right? So right of all human beings to live in dignity, with everything that I mean, with rights, with freedom, with equality with justice, etc. And, you know, as a as a value, as a foundational value, I think, I think it's also fair to say most of our participants can agree with that as well. I mean, who doesn't agree with that, right? Finding the way to navigate between those two values, one of which is very particular is the commitment to our own people, and the future, our own people's future. And one that's much more universal, but in its own way, sort of particular in the way that we apply it, right. It's a universal commitment to human beings living in dignity. But you know, as expressed in our program, it's the human beings which of whom we are one way or another destined to share this land. And the third value that I'll mention is "aravut" in Hebrew, which we translate loosely as interdependence, and an extra stability, a really deep recognition that we, that our lives, the lives of Jews in this land, and the lives of Palestinians in this land are and have been for at least the last, you know, 100-150 years are deeply intertwined, our futures are intertwined, in a very inexplicable way, we are part of these other stories, you really cannot understand fully the story of the Jews in this land without understanding the stories of Palestinians in this land. And that, that extractability, that sense of interdependence needs to guide our relationships going forward. So those are three values that I think, you know, I'm sure there were people, there are people who could disagree. But for me, having those three values as a foundation to begin, having our conversations creates a very different kind of experience for the participants in our program.
Ori Nir 18:03
So what I'm thinking of doing is telling you a few stories, a few memories that I have, from my experience on Encounter and maybe having you comment on them and telling me a little bit about maybe kind of zoom out and tell me a little bit about how you've experienced similar things because because I think, those maybe three stories that I'll tell really capture a lot of what Encounter does and achieves. So the first one is the group that I was on really included some some pretty heavy hitters within the organizers community. And one of them was, I'm not going to name names, but someone who comes to Israel several times a year, he said, I think if I remember correctly he said I've been to Israel, 30 something times he actually counted them and so on. And he said something that I thought was so interesting. He said, You know, I calculated, you know, several times a year every time I go to the Western Wall, and you know, and he said we visit the Western Wall after you pray, you're supposed to walk back facing the wall, you're not supposed to turn your back that the sacred and so and then he said, I feel that whenever I come to this work, that's the way I approach Israel's relationship with the Palestinians. I, Is this bit having blinders, you know, I look straight and never look back to what's on my backside of the Palestinian or to the side. I just walked back and I always keep my eyes on the Jewish prize. Put it this way. The Western Wall, the Jewish narrative, basically these ways was that his narrative and he said and comfort you know, helped me broaden like this and see more and take more into consideration. I thought that that was really super interesting way of framing things. So I'm telling the story and I wanted to ask you to maybe tell me a couple of anecdotes, anecdotes, if you like, about these "aha" moments about these kinds of moments where people feel like they, they are, they're transforming their perception of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict on Encounter.
Leah Solomon 20:31
Yeah, that's a great question. I love that anecdote. I will answer your question, I promise. But I wanted to say about the anecdotes that you brought, I think it's, it's a really important observation about the work that we do. One of the one of the things that we talk about, actually, the very first morning of the program, is there's a concept called inattentional blindness. Or sometimes cognitive tunneling is another term that's used. But the reason I think it's so important is inattentional blindness. You know, you hear like they say, do experiments where there's like a basketball game, and they tell you to focus on like, counting the number of baskets or things like that. And then I have a gorilla walk through the game. And often, you know, people will ask people, What did you see? And they did not at all see the gorilla, right? It's like you're paying attention to one thing, and you don't have a lot of famous experiments about this. But one of the places that inattentional blindness and you literally don't see it, it's not a physical blindness, but it is a psychological blindness, they did not at all see the gorilla. One of the places that inattentional blindness comes up most, most profoundly is in situations of intense danger or trauma. Where so that they'll talk about it. Like, for example, there's a story that we tell about Yona, our executive director, tells about a plane that went into crisis. And you know, the pilots actually locked into seeing things, he couldn't see outside of very specific range of vision, and was missing all sorts of incredibly important stimuli, because there was a situation of, of immense pressure and danger. And I think that that happens to us. In this situation, we perceive ourselves, we as Jews, I mean, we, you know, we perceive yourself to hurt for generations have lived with so much fear, so much trauma for very good reasons. You know, persecution over the centuries, that we often don't see, right, our vision actually shuts down in a very real sense. And a lot of our work is widening those lenses that you described. So I'm really glad that you brought up that, that example, because I think, you know, you can't effectively grapple with the situation when you can't actually see the whole situation. So a couple example, stories. Look, I'll start with one one is, there's a village that we visit, it's actually been in the news lately, because -- did you want me to go there or do you want me to wait?
Ori Nir 23:13
Keep going and we'll come back.
Leah Solomon 23:16
We can talk about it. It's, you know, you might have heard recently about the Israeli government approving building permits, Palestinian building permits in the West Bank alongside building permits for more Jewish building in the West Bank. The whole story around that this facility has been in the news because they were originally told that they could build more buildings. And then under immense pressure from Jews in the surrounding communities, Israeli Jews, were then denied. So, but it's a very small village is surrounded by like 12 Jewish communities. And it's right next to Alon Shvut where many of our participants spent a lot of time especially in the Yeshiva in Gush Etzion, it has a lot of names. Yes. And there's a tiny school there that is under, there's a long story behind it. But basically, it has a demolition order, which is currently frozen for the past 12 years but hasn't been, you know, hasn't been lifted, that could be put back into effect immediately. And people, we stand in the village and listen to the mukhtar, the head of the village council. This village they basically have not been able to build since 1967. They have this tiny school that really is not, you know, sufficient for the needs but what I think for the needs of the people living there, what I think it's so powerful for our participants, one little piece of it is standing. It's almost like a mirror experience, right? They stood in Alon Shvut, many of them are in similar settings and looked out, and they don't even know that this village is there, it's just sort of part of the scenery. Yeah, there's some Arabs living there. And all of a sudden, you come into this village and it comes alive, you're looking at the exact same view, but from the reverse viewpoint, seeing the extraordinary growth of a launch foods and the communities nearby the beautiful building, the multiple, you know, large school buildings, and this dinky little school and in a community that has never participated in any form of violence against against Israelis, I think it's just a very, very powerful reversal. Suddenly, the village comes alive, there are real people, hundreds of people living here. And you might have walked past it driven past it hundreds of times if you live in that community, and never really seen it.
Ori Nir 26:07
So here's the thing, my story, it's gonna be a little long, but it's worth it's worth the wait. I come to the West Bank in the US started many years ago in 1986. And at the time, it was before the person defined it. So kind of page five story, try to think about it. And remember that one of the ways I used to live my news andideas for stories was just reading the Palestinian newspapers. So one day I read this Palestinian paper that there was a leak from a settlement berry farm, in Alon Shvut, there was some kind of an accident was not intentional. All the cow dung that was kept in a positive manner - I don't know what you call it exactly - the cows dung on a certain platform and their drippings go down. And then supposed to be taken by you know, there's the tanker trucks that come in. And someone apparently forgot to turn off the phosphate or something, and tons and tons and tons of it's just washed down the valley to the the fields of the neighboring villages. And so I read about a great story and the story, and I go there, and I meet with the mukhtar of the neighboring village, and sometimes we go about, and he shows me, and obviously, that was the, you know, kind of symbolic symbolism of this, you know, excuse the word crap going down from the settlement and covering the lands of the house, to neighboring Palestinians, and so on. Anyway, so that was a story. And then I went with Encounter to Khirbet Zakariya and there was a déjà vu moment, I said to myself, this is the place, this is what happened. And so after the mukhtar, you know, spoke to us and so on. I went to him and told him the story. And his eyes welled up. And he said, that was my father. You know, he's the son. And, you know, and we talked about it, and we kind of embraced because he said, he didn't remember that he actually joined his father then. And he remembered it, he remembered me, this was you know 1986. And on the bus, we went on the bus, the person sitting next to me about this, and her reaction was, wow, so this really has been going on for generations. Yes, it's one of those things where, you know, he talked about the kind of tunnel vision people tend to forget about the longevity of the occupation and its impact on people. So, again, I was wondering if you if you want to share maybe some some anecdotes, if anything comes to mind of this kind of aha moment that people have on Encounter.
Leah Solomon 29:20
Yeah, I mean, well, you hit on one of the things that I think goes back to the beginning of our conversation and it's also one of our values, which is hatmadah, steadfastness. I think you know, we talked about there's a well known mishna from Pirkei Avot, "lo alecha hamlacha ligmor, v'lo ata ben chorin l'hibatel mimena" - It's not your your you don't need to finish the work, but you're not free to desist from it either. You need to you need to work on it. And I think, you know, to go back to the beginning of our conversation, I think this is one of the reasons that people are so reluctant to lead to take up this issue because it feels like ugh, it's been around for so long, and it's never going to get solved. So why bother? And I think a lot of our job is to say, you know, yes, it has been around for a very long time, we need to, we need to be steadfast. And we need to see ourselves as responsible. Even if we can't solve everything, right, there's all sorts of every major change in the world happened to because individual people and individual organizations, you know, made incremental change that eventually led to major change. You know, the image that popped up for me when you asked about this, actually, and yeah, that village has been there. And it's been there for 400 years or so, at least, they can count back. He can give you, you know, genealogy for 400 years. Certainly been there since 1967. It looks almost the same as it did in 1967. Because they haven't been allowed to build anything, right? It's not, when you look around you see unfinished buildings. As an unfinished minarets. It looks almost like a ton of neglect. And when you speak to them, you really not it. It's not a wealthy village, certainly, but it's not a lack of building materials or ability, they can build things, you know, there are people working there and construction, they're simply not permitted to expand. And by law, there, it's almost impossible to get permits. And like I said, this village was recently told that after, you know, more than 50 years, they could, they were going to be granted 50 permits. And the pressure was to build a permit to build 50 units, which are desperately needed. The young people of the village are moving to cities, because they just can't, right, they're sort of what they call silent transfer. And there was such intense pressure that they were then not included, there's that promise to grant 50 Building Permits was withdrawn. But what you actually made me think of was another very, you know, often powerful moment for people of being on our programs, transformative moments, we use checkpoints, are a very pervasive reality in Palestinian life. And so on our programs, first of all, we have to go through checkpoints. Sometimes, depending on the group will also go through a walking checkpoint, which is the only way for Palestinian, even with permits, to get from the West Bank to inside the Green Line, they have to go through walking checkpoints, they're almost without exception, aren't able to go in cars, or to bring their cars or to traveling cars. And, you know, so we've had experiences where, for example, driving through the Qalandiya checkpoint from Ramallah back into Jerusalem, we'll have soldiers come up on the bus to ask for people's IDs to seated. And it's usually a fairly uneventful moment in the sense of, you know, they look at a few IDs, they figure out very quickly that this is an American group, and they let the group through sometimes it's slightly more complicated. Sometimes we'll have an Israeli or two with us who has a permit. Sometimes they'll notice that we have Palestinian Jerusalem residents with us who are able to go on a bus. But for many, many years, it's happened many times. And I remember the first time it happened to me when I was in the Palestinian area, seeing soldiers and all of a sudden feeling afraid. And up until that time, you know, having lived in Israel for many years, I would see soldiers and to me, these are like, you know, there are people they're here to keep us safe. They're they're my were my what my children will eventually be my husband served in the Army, you know, plenty of friends and family members. Soldiers are always a comforting presence. And I think that's true. I always had that for many of our participants, and all of a sudden to go through checkpoint and experience, you know, the experience of having someone in uniform calm and ask for your ID. All of a sudden, you can feel a little bit of what Palestinians feel every time it has to go through a checkpoint. I'm very little bit. But I think also going back to your question about the kind of longevity of this seeing young people. This is what every - not every actually about half of Israelis - but so many Israeli Jews like this is what they're doing. And this is what they have to do. This is what they're, you know, they don't go to college at 18. They go to the army and the longer this goes on, the more young people have to serve in the army. This is you know, this is what our children's lives look like. And it will keep going and going in every generation unless we do something to interrupt that cycle. And I think that is often a really transformative moment for people in our program. Seeing no longer children, but really young people and recognizing the ongoing impact and the wit, the degree to which both Israeli and Palestinian children growing up growing up, are growing up in this reality and are impacted by this reality.
Ori Nir 35:16
I was really impressed with, you know, the tours that I participated in with people's strong emotional reaction. It was full reaction to moments that were difficult, that were emotional in nature and so on. But there were also some kind of personal or human catharsis. When we went to Palestinian homes and had a meal there were people who actually spent the night. Why do you, why do you include that in the program?
Leah Solomon 35:46
We actually stopped doing overnights for a lot of reasons. But we but actually, we do more visits to Palestinian homes than we used to. Look, I think the sounds really awful to say, and I don't mean it in a, I don't think for the most part, it's intentional. But you know, we were talking before about seeing, really seeing the reality, and how we often don't see the reality. Inattentional blindness and the feeling that like when you're really fried or traumatized, it's really often hard to see the other, it's easier to see your own pain, your own suffering, your own fear. And I think that's a barrier has also played a really major role in making Palestinians and Palestinian life, and just kind of lived experience of Palestinians, Palestinian perspective, like, almost invisible, I mean, first of all, physically invisible, right, it used to be that you would have to drive, you'd have to drive through Bethlehem to get to Gush Etzion, for example, right and the countless examples around the West Bank. Now, there are bypass roads, many, many bypass roads around Palestinian communities, the barriers literally makes much of Palestinian life invisible. And the more that people become invisible, the easier it is to not really see them as full human beings are to see the fullness of their humanity. And that actually is really dangerous for us. We, it's true that we also, you know, we end up being where we test see that they're actually really extraordinary people on the other side, yes, there are people that are real security threats. I'm not trying to minimize that. I live here, I want my children to be safe. I want my family to be safe. I have felt that fear. I lived through the Second Intifada, I lost friends in the Second Intifada and in other, you know, flare ups. And security is a real thing. But it is not the entirety of the Palestinian people by any stretch of the imagination, right, we talk. We hear the other it's just like this very common phrase that's thrown around, there's no partner. But what does that mean? There's no partner. There are hundreds of thousands of partners. And the only way to start breaking down that inability to, to see the fullness to understand the incredible range. There's not there's not one Palestinian we'll be talking about what are the Palestinians want? What do the Palestinians think? What do they believe? That's an absurd question is asking, What does the Jews believe? What do the Jews want? Right? It's an incredibly multifaceted society, with many different, you know, opinions and perspectives and desires. And people working for for change, for positive change. And I really, you know, in my experience, and I've worked in experiential education for for more than two decades, and there is no substitute for actually encountering other human beings. And so, you know, I think part of that can happen in a hotel room, meeting another person, but it happens, there's just much more fullness when it's in people's homes, when you see their families when you see them, you know, as full humans.
Ori Nir 39:26
So, I want to end our conversation soon. with talking about the the takeaway, the follow up, you know, what people do with that incredible experience here? But before that, just because you mentioned the Israeli program, which I wasn't even aware of, maybe a few words about that?
Leah Solomon 39:45
Yeah, I mean, look, the truth is that for many years, we've quietly worked like, for many years, we quietly worked with Israelis. We had a program about once a year for five or six years. I think it's was before we started working with, this was when we were still working with students. And, you know, long interesting story about how that developed. But we were experimenting. And you know, when I first interviewed for the position in 2015, I actually said, you know, I had been wanting to move to this field. And I said to Yona, our executive director at the time, now she's our CEO. I said, you know, I'm interested in this work, but I just, you know, I'm, I believe in the work with American Jews, I think it's incredibly important. I think it's even more important now than I did then. But it's really it's our on the ground, like, how are things gonna change if we don't reach Israeli when she said, You know, I asked the exact same question in my for my interview for the position, several years back. And, you know, at the time, I remember, she said to me, we're gonna make it happen, we'll work together, we make it happen. It is something we have heard over and over and over from our, from our American Jews, participants from, you know, supporters, all sorts of people, that and I really, you know, we could go, I could go on for a long time about why American Jews are stakeholders in this and why the work with Americans is so important. But also, you know, the work with Israelis, like Israelis are here, we have the ability to vote, you have the ability in a much more proximate way to make change on the ground. And it had been something we wanted to do for a long time. And so we started bringing cohorts of senior leaders, we stopped doing the same way we stopped working for the most part with younger leaders, among Americans we stopped working with, you know, we, we felt it would be more effective and more impactful to work with senior leaders. And so it's something that we have been experimenting with a little bit before the pandemic, we just got started again. But our hope is that this can make a real shift. Perhaps, you know, I think this is one of the things that you've hit on with the longetivity, we are under no illusion that this is a short term, project. This is a really long term, we're in it for the long game. And I think that there is all sorts of work that can happen in the short term that minimum can make people's lives better on both sides of the Green Line. And I think it's really Israeli leaders, influential civil society leaders who are in a position to make that change in ways that American leaders are not in the same way.
Ori Nir 42:44
Since you mentioned you and I just wanted to talk just a little bit about this path of Encounter. Yona is amazing. Yona Shemtov, right? She is she a dynamo. I've never seen anything like it. She's just full of charisma. One of the things that I just wanted to share this because I was so impressed with this. You know, I have organized the APN study tours to Israel for more than a decade now. And it was the piece always difficult and so on. Your operation was just exemplary. And it was just amazing how everything clicked. And the staff were just fantastic. I mean, really great. So, you know.
Leah Solomon 43:37
Well. Thank you. And I will also say one of the things that I think characterizes our staff, intentionally is, is a real sense of involving everyone in a serious way. Right? I think that's one of Yona's strengths as a leader. But I'm also bringing it up because I think it's really important for the work that we do as well, like any sort of change what's going to happen, it's going to happen in ways that involve all sorts of different players, that's not going to come from top down. It's going to come you know, there's a lot of work on this, if you've ever done anything with adaptive leadership or read anything about adaptive leadership. When you're looking to make systemic change, which is what will be needed in order to transform the current reality. You actually need people on all levels of society working together. I think you can see this in all sorts of mass movements around the world. That it has to come not only from the top, not only you know, grass tips, but also grass roots. And I think that's kind of something that we try to do organizationally and that Yona's been really key in implementing implementing among the staff. We have eight not a big staff, I hope we'll grow, you know, we're hoping to grow Especially now that we can get back to, in person work, we've done a lot of work online as like everyone else. For the last year and a half. We, we have two full time people here on the ground in our Jerusalem office we have, we also have a halftime office manager was back and forth from Jerusalem and Cyprus, you know has lived here for many, many years since he was a teenager. And we also really recently hired, started working with a tour operations firm to help build capacity. We've done all of those amazing operations, our operations team was amazing. But it's it's hard to build capacity that way. And so working with an external operations firm gives us the ability to, you know, to scale up, which is our hope as we as we start returning to being able to bring people in person.
Ori Nir 45:55
So let's talk a little bit about, you know, the follow up work that you do and what it is that you hope to accomplish. You might you brought here about 2000 Jewish leaders, so?
Leah Solomon 46:08
We brought up till..two thousand emerging leaders close to 2000. That was that was, you know, up until 2016. And we continued running those shorter programs for a couple more years before we phased out. But at this point we've brought close to close to 3000. Total. Of whom, yeah, a few people of whom about 500 are executive level American Jewish leaders. So you know, executive directors of Federations or Hillels, of JCRCs, of senior rabbis, heads of Jewish state schools, etc. People at that level, many lay leaders as well. And, yeah, now it's close to about a 80 or 90 Israeli senior Israeli leaders as well. So yeah, pushing 3000.
Ori Nir 47:06
So there's a great deal of emphasis I've noticed on on the follow up work on what people do with their experience and with accumulated information experience following the outcomes of progress. Maybe talk a little bit about that? about how you do it, and what you what you hope to accomplish?
Leah Solomon 47:23
Yes, so one of the I hate to say that the pandemic was a blessing or silver lining in any way. You know, but I will say that one of the, you know, kind of forced opportunities of the past year and a half was that we had the bandwidth to focus more on our work with people who had already had this experience, people within our network of leaders. And so we were able to invest the time and energy in that a little bit more. You know, here's what I will say, I think that you know, we said at the beginning, our goal is to cultivate more informed, courageous resilience, I would also add constructive Jewish leadership on this issue, part of what that means is, first of all, that people who come on this program, recognize or begin to view the issue of the conflict as a Jewish people that issue. Part of what it means to be a responsible Jewish leader is to grapple with these issues and to support one's constituents, in grappling with these issues, that we simply it's just simply too pressing too urgent, too consequential to, to advocate that to other people. Because, you know, we as do as leaders don't step in, the vacuum will be filled by the media, by loud, shrill voices from other you know, all sorts of other places, as we see over and over and there's so much vitriol. But very, it's very hard to find places where people can actually engage across echo chambers, in really constructive ways, and really diving into this. So part of what we want to do and we strive to do is to support people to actually first of all to begin leading on these issues at all, to see that as part of their responsibility. We have a number of different initiatives that we've started in the past year, year and a half of creating spaces in which people can connect with other people who have had this experience leaders, both across sectors but also you know, we have a group of Jewish educators meeting heads of school or heads of, you know, Israel curricula, or Jewish studies departments who are really thinking about and working with each other on how can they lead, educate on this issue more effectively within Jewish day schools or other education Jewish educational settings congregational rabbis meeting Orthodox leaders, we've got many orthodox leaders, how can they engage their congregants or their students more effectively? So that's one piece of it. And another piece of that, I would say, is supporting people to integrate Palestinian narratives, alongside Jewish narratives on issues of the Israel and the Israeli Palestinian conflict really helping not just, you know, they had this experience for themselves, helping their the people that they work with their communities or organizations to also begin to hear Palestinian voices in ways that can be constructive and can help us think together what what could it really look like to build a future and to contribute? I mean, there's so many ways in which American Jews are invested and actually have a voice, whether that's through philanthropy, whether that's through lobbying, whether that's through the many, many countless programs that bring American Jews to the region. So what does it look like for us to be more constructive stakeholders in that, and part of that is integrating Palestinian voices into all of our Israel engagement in the hopes, really, of building of supporting Israel and working to build a better future for both Palestinians and Israelis in this land. And I guess the third thing that I will say is like listing up there so many organizations, I think so often, this issue is defined in binary terms, black and white terms, you are either pro Palestinian, or you're pro Israeli, right? It's totally zero sum, totally us in them. And there are so many people on both sides of the green line, I don't mean to sound you know, all rose, rose colored glasses like this is a very, very hard issue. But there are also the one thing that really keeps me going is there are so many individuals and so many organizations who are actually working for a future that will be not, there will be both pro Palestinian and pro Israeli or pro Israel or pro Jewish, right, that will actually seek to ensure a better future for for all inhabitants of the land, and whatever we can do to work with both ourselves as an organization, but also the people that we work with to lift up those voices to strengthen those voices to give them more traction within Jewish communal discourse. That's also something that, you know, we've worked really hard. And I think we've had, you know, different kinds of success. Like I said, it's slow and it's hard, and it's incremental. And it's not always like, things that you can plaster on, you know, the cover the years our impact, the impact is often much quieter and more anecdotal. But I think that it's very real. And I'm, like blown away by what a lot of the people in our network do. So.
Ori Nir 52:55
So Leah, this is a Thursday, I know exactly what you're going to be doing at the end of the workday, following you on on Facebook, I know that you're going to start working with yeast because you are a challah queen. I'm blown away by the incredible challah that you bake. So I want to say Shabbat shalom. Thank you very, very much for this fascinating conversation. It was really, really interesting.
Leah Solomon 53:21
Shabbat shalom to you and all your listeners, and really it was just a pleasure and a privilege. Thank you.