Yona Shem-Tov, the newly appointed executive director of Encounter Programs brings to this position a remarkable set of experiences as a multifaith educator and activist. Last night I learned more about Yona while attending a Gala to honor the outgoing director of Encounter, Rabbi Melissa Weintraub.
Yona was educated in Toronto in a Jewish day school, so she comes to this work with a strong grounding in her own identity and tradition. At the same time, Yona has always appreciated national and cultural diversity. Her mother survived the Holocaust as a child in Europe; her father was born in Iraq and was part of the first airlift of Jews from that country to Israel in 1951.
While Yona began her career as a passionate Jewish educator, serving as a Jewish day school history teacher, her interests extended outward toward other faith communities and the challenges they face. She eventually studied for a PhD at New York University; her research involved the teaching of history in Jewish and Muslim-American schools.
Yona’s multifaith engagement includes envisioning and launching The Ariane de Rothschild Fellowship, a transnational network of Jewish and Muslim social entrepreneurs and teaching in a path breaking program for youth involving a Jewish and a Muslim Day School through Abraham's Vision.
Last night, Yona spoke movingly of her vision for Encounter, a program that brings American Jews to the West Bank to experience Palestinian life. Close to 1000 Jewish leaders (and emerging leaders) have already participated, gaining a more nuanced understanding of the conflict. Yona shared with us the metaphor of a kaleidoscope. She challenged the audience to bring new pieces of reality into their line of sight. The beauty of the image captivated me. While interreligious engagement is sometimes fraught with pain, it is also a place where new and beautiful visions can arise.
I found the idea completely lovely, and I look forward to keeping my eye on Yona Shem-Tov and on Encounter.