This year, I was fortunate enough to participate in an incredible program called Project Understanding, which selects a group of Jewish and Catholic teens from Long Island and brings them together for a 10 day journey to Israel. Originally founded over 30 years ago by the late Msgr. Thomas Hartman and New York Board of Regents Member, Roger Tilles, the goal of the program is to bring together teens of different faiths to learn more about their neighbors’ religion, as well as their own. After completing a two-part application and interview process over the summer, I was selected for the program, which lasts for the academic year and includes the program’s highlight, a group trip to Israel.
Leading up to our trip, there were three events—a Shabbat dinner and service, a Sunday mass and a community service project. Growing up on the north shore of Long Island, attending Hebrew School since I was five and growing up in a densely Jewish area, most of my friends were Jewish. So, when I attended my first mass in a Catholic High School, I did not know what to expect. This feeling was reciprocated, as all of the Catholic students went to a Catholic parochial school and had little or no exposure to the Jewish faith. Trip attendee, Alex Scagnelli said, “It was amazing to learn so much about the Jewish faith and interact with people of the Jewish faith. I don’t get to do that very often, so it meant a lot to me.”
In February, we embarked on our journey to Israel, led by both a cantor and a priest. Going into this experience, I did not really know what to expect. I, as a Jew, think of Israel as the Jewish homeland. Not only was this my first trip to the holy land, but it was also my first time learning about Israel in the context of Christian faith. Our itinerary was packed from the moment we stepped off the plane. We spent four days in Jerusalem, two days journeying through the Golan Heights, Sea of Galilee, the Jordan River and Tzfat, one day in Tel-Aviv, one day in the South Judean Desert and one day at Masada and the Dead Sea.
Throughout these experiences we explored meaningful sites that were significant to both faiths. We prayed at the Western Wall, visited the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, experienced the place of Jesus’s baptism and mourned at Yad Vashem. Exploring Israel is incredible regardless of the trip or group you are with but looking at the land through the two different lenses is especially fascinating.
“Something that gave me a tremendous amount of hope was the respect and genuine interest expressed by members of each religion towards the group’s collective experience,” said Jacob Rosenberg, trip attendee. “It was deeply moving to see Jews and Catholics praying side by side at the Western Wall and the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, and to hear everyone engaging with questions about the religious traditions.”
Our trip focused heavily on understanding our neighbors’ faiths and learning how, despite our differences, we share many similarities. We also had the opportunity to learn and discuss current issues affecting the State of Israel and interacted with locals. We went to an Arab school in Nazareth and spoke with Muslim teens our age. We went to an organization called Kids 4 Peace that connects youth from different religions and backgrounds and empowers them to be agents of change in Jerusalem. Our group spent a Shabbat at the home of an Orthodox Jewish family in Jerusalem, and also visited the Syrian border to learn about the Syrian Israeli conflicts. These amazing experiences helped us learn about the rich history of Israel and its right to exist.
“It was a life-changing journey. It was through this program that I was able to build meaningful relationships with some of the most amazing people I have ever met,” explained attendee Jolie Lenga. “The impact that Project Understanding—the people and the program—is something that I can barely put into words. This was surely an experience that I would give anything in the world to live again.”
Every aspect of this trip—the people, the sights, the knowledge—was life changing and incredible. Reflecting on this trip of a lifetime, I feel so fortunate to have been able to learn and explore in such a unique way. Project Understanding will forever hold a special place in my heart as a beacon of hope for our future, and as an unforgettable journey. Now more than ever, it is crucial for people of all faiths to learn about and support each other. It is through this type of understanding and “loving thy neighbor” that we can make changes that impact the world.