Yonatan Shefa, assistant director of the occupied territories department at the group Rabbis For Human Rights in Israel, says his heart lies in bringing people of all backgrounds together.
Hired four years ago in an effort to bring new blood into the organization, which started up in the 1980s, he said that on his first day on the job, he got his boss’s blessing to try and cultivate intercultural dialogue.
Shefa, a native of Toronto, and a rabbinical student at Yeshiva Sulam Yaakov in Jerusalem, spoke last week at an event sponsored by Congregation Darchei Noam’s social justice advocacy committee.
Rabbis for Human Rights, which represents about 100 rabbis and rabbinical students from different streams of Judaism, is the only rabbinic organization in Israel explicitly dedicated to human rights.
Its mission is to inform the Israeli public about human rights violations and to pressure the state institutions to redress these injustices. It also engages in direct action to aid victims of human rights abuses.
The organization concentrates its work on such areas as rights of the poor, rights to housing, Bedouin rights in the Negev, human rights work in the occupied territories, promoting human rights education in Israel, and teaching human rights in pre-military academies.
Shefa said that several months ago, he arranged a meeting between students at his rabbinical school and a group of students from the largest Islamic college in Israel.
“We decided to meet at a park, break into groups of two or three, and go on a hike. Along with trail were small flags printed with questions, which the group discussed until it got to the next flag.”
The questions started simply, he said, and then got more intimate, without getting into any political rhetoric.
“We tried to include questions that were challenging to both sides and that people answered from their own experience.”
Shefa said that at that meeting, as well as others he has arranged, there is always “the first electrical moment [in which we discover] that 98 per cent of the people had never spoken to anyone from the other side.
“I love witnessing that moment. People tell me it is scary and exciting, but all it takes is that first step. Whatever conversation has not taken place is scary,” he added.
“There is a lot to cultivate, but for me, that moment is crucial. It changes people’s lives forever. They can no longer say they haven’t spoken [to the other side]. It shifts people’s hearts and outlooks.”
Shefa said his background is in public policy – he has a master’s degree from the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University – but his interest lies with people.
“If we have peace, we have the natural realization of human rights. It’s important to bring everyone into conversation. If we’re going to live in peace, it is going to take all of us. If you say ‘you’re wrong’, then you’ve lost that person.”