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The Scarlet & Black

Young innovators accept Social Justice Prize: Rabbi Weintraub

Rabbi Melissa Weintraub, one of the winners of Grinnell’s Social Justice Prize (SJP) for her work as the executive director of Encounter, expressed great appreciation of Grinnell’s community and overall attitude towards social justice. Encounter is an educational organization dedicated to teaching Jewish leaders ways to help resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

The SJP came as a surprise to Weintraub, one that has allowed her and her organization to stretch out in new ways.

“I knew we were finalists, but I was stunned and overjoyed,” Rabbi Weintraub said. “There were so many amazing organizations being considered. I mean I was completely blown away when we were one of the winners. It was really perfect timing in terms of my organization’s life history.”

Rabbi Weintraub is a noted speaker and educator and has taught on four continents. She was ordained as a Conservative Jewish Rabbi at the Jewish Theological Seminary and went on to co-found Encounter in 2005. Until recently, Weintraub was the Executive Director for Encounter. She now works to change the narrative of the Israeli/Palestine Conflict within American politics.

“I wanted to dedicate myself to directly working with communities in a way that one doesn’t as an executive director,” said Weintraub. “I realized more and more that I was involved with administrative things, and that someone else could do that. I was better suited to continue to innovate and work directly with people and communities.”
Rabbi Weintraub grew up in Illinois and had always held a positive view of Grinnell College, although she admits that she knew less about Grinnell than previously.
Weintraub remembered it as being a nice neighboring liberal arts college and knew there was a social justice connection, but didn’t realize the extent of Grinnell’s community and environment for fostering social justice.
“I think I’m struck by the general spirit of wanting to talk across lines of disagreement that I think doesn’t exist in many other places,” said Rabbi Weintraub. “I think people take for granted here their capacity to explore issues from a lot of different sides with a lot of sophistication and complexity. On most campuses those conversations are really fiery and polarized and people are talking past each other. I really think you guys should export that skill.”

When describing her feelings of the overall attitude of students on campus Rabbi Weintraub couldn’t ignore Grinnell’s atmosphere.

“I’ve had a bit of college envy since I got here, not so much envy of being in school again, but of being in the kind of environment that Grinnell College has,” Weintraub said. “It really is a much warmer and culturally engaged community as opposed to other colleges.”

The Social Justice Prize winners have been busy since they arrived in Grinnell. The welcome ceremony began at 4:15 p.m. on Tuesday, Oct.25, and there have been opportunities for students to interact with winners throughout the past few days.
“We’ve had a really intensive schedule, so I haven’t really been able to wander around as much as I would like,” Weintraub said. “You know how it is, once you’re in a place you think ‘Wow, maybe I should stay a couple extra weeks.”

The Grinnell College Young Innovator for Social Justice Prize honors individuals under the age of 40 who have demonstrated leadership in their fields and who show creativity, commitment, and extraordinary accomplishment in effecting positive social change. Weintraub specifically appreciated the fact that the prizes are awarded to younger individuals than are usually recognized.

“It’s fantastic and a testament to Grinnell’s belief and confidence in its own students and what they might become. They’re really invested in helping their students get where they want by allowing them to envision themselves working outside of college and see that there really isn’t that much distance between where they are now and their aspirations.”

Weintraub has also gotten to know her fellow innovators.

“Interacting with the other Social Justice Prize winners has been humbling, inspirational, and amazing,” Rabii Weintraub said. “Each of them is extraordinary as individuals and in the way that they set out to make change. I’ve envisioned when I retire to go work with James [Kofi Annan] against slavery in Africa. Really, quite inspiring.”

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