Growing up amid the cornfields and soybeans of Illinois in a small town called Bloomington Normal, Rabbi Melissa Weintraub knew from a young age she was anything but normal. Her family was one of only about 100 Jewish families in town, she says, and her mom kept the only kosher kitchen in the community. Rabbi Weintraub’s mother would drive three hours to a kosher butcher in Chicago, stocking their freezer with enough meat to last until their next kosher meat run. Her father, on the other hand, ate decidedly unkosher cheeseburgers over paper plates, she recalls with a laugh, so as not to sully the family’s dishes as he broke the Jewish prohibition against mixing milk and meat.
So not only was Rabbi Weintraub “aware of cultural and ideological rifts in the U.S. at a young age,” she says, her childhood was also marked by bridging and translating multiple cultures — often at her own dinner table.
Is it any surprise then that, decades later, Rabbi Weintraub is a co-founder and executive director of Resetting the Table, a groundbreaking organization that aims, among other things, to bridge the partisan divide.
The roots of Resetting the Table lie in Rabbi Weintraub’s first organization, Encounter, which was founded in the thick of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. “It was four years into the second intifada (or Palestinian uprising) and it had become illegal for Israelis to enter Palestinian areas of the West Bank and almost impossible for Palestinians to enter Israel via permit,” she recalls. But as an American citizen, Rabbi Weintraub had freedom of movement and her typical week looked like religious studies in Jerusalem one day, a birthday party in the Palestinian city of Ramallah another, and an NGO meeting in Bethlehem, which also lies in a Palestinian area off-limits to Jewish Israelis.
Bouncing between worlds with colleagues, friends and acquaintances on both sides, “felt like … living in the twilight zone,” says Rabbi Weintraub, who adds “people were obsessed with each other but had virtually no contact with each other’s actual humanity and lived experiences. I was becoming increasingly convinced that each of these worlds needed each other’s perspectives to amass the creative and collective intelligence to transform the conflict and the mistrust that fuels it.”
Through having a “conversation across disagreement” Weintraub hopes to shift “rigidity into receptivity.”
Realizing her life had become a bridge and she needed to help “bring thousands of people across it,” Rabbi Weintraub, another rabbi and a group of Palestinian activists founded Encounter.
“The goal was really recognition on a deep level,” she says, adding that the idea wasn’t to gloss over the conflict or emphasize similarities between the people but, rather, to facilitate Israelis and Palestinians “confronting the hardest and most painful things through each other’s eyes.”
In 2014, a decade after she co-founded Encounter, she decided to bring the same philosophy to that other increasingly fevered conflict — the American political divide.
Resetting the Table grew out of the understanding that doing transformational work with Jewish Israelis and Palestinians also necessitated peacebuilding work within both communities; a piece of that meant “overhauling the polarized argument within the broader American Jewish community.” Rabbi Weintraub also realized that the American public “was one spoke in the wheel” — one of the many third parties involved in the conflict.
Just as she didn’t seek to paint over differences between Israelis and Palestinians, Resetting the Table works “to transform political disagreement into the source of strengthened relationships, creative problem solving and collective insights,” she says.
Resetting the Table has a wide variety of offerings, from facilitation training to communication skill workshops to story slams to educational materials; interventions range from 90 minutes to eight months. If there’s an overarching theme to all of these modalities, it’s that Resetting the Table’s facilitators help people learn how to follow the heat rather than avoid hot-button issues. For example, in workshops, they often have participants excavate personal stories, in particular “formative life experiences that have shaped people’s political makeup,” says Rabbi Weintraub. Then facilitators teach people to listen for what seems to matter the most to the speaker and “ask into” sensitive material — especially what they don’t agree with. Through having a “conversation across disagreement” Rabbi Weintraub hopes to shift “rigidity into receptivity.”
The ultimate goal, according to Rabbi Weintraub — who says she became a woman of cloth because she wanted to be “a therapist, an academic and an activist all at once” — is to build “a more cohesive society, a shared society, in which we don’t erase our disagreements but make them generative, in which we see our counterparts as our partners in sustaining our democracy.”