What happens when you take six Jewish teens and six Catholic teens to Israel? This was the very question that Roger Tilles and the late Fr. Tom Hartman hoped to answer in 1988 when they organized Project Understanding, a grassroots, non-profit, interfaith initiative aimed at creating an open dialogue between Long Island teens in Fr. Hartman's Catholic community and Tilles's Reform Jewish community. Tilles and Hartman became close friends while working together on a project about Kristallnacht. They realized that their upbringings had left them with, as Tilles put it, an "us and them" mentality around different faiths. Project Understanding was conceived as Tilles and Hartman worked to diminish that barrier, promoting interfaith friendships and dialogue before highschoolers left for college.
After 35 cohorts of Project Understanding, we now know that teens return having learned about another faith through firsthand experience while gaining a deeper sense of their own beliefs. Encouraging students to build interfaith friendships enables them to learn from, share their beliefs with, and understand one another. Project Understanding is more than a trip to Israel from Long Island, it's a journey that helps teens develop a deeper appreciation of their own faith while they learn more about the beliefs of their peers.
The Project Understanding experience begins five months before the cohort's journey to Israel. Participants are first nominated by their clergy. Each parochial school, synagogue, or parish can nominate one high school junior. The nominees are then interviewed by all program leaders, Catholic and Jewish. The leaders are looking for an open mind, open heart, leadership skills, and active involvement in the teen's home church or synagogue. Twelve students are selected from the applicants: six Jewish and six Catholic. The program consists of four events leading up to a 10-day Israel experience.
Each cohort kicks off with a program that lays the foundations for students to build connections and sets the stage for the upcoming year as they share their Hanukkah and Christmas traditions with each other. All events focus on allowing students to learn about each other's faith while facilitating a free exchange of cultures. The events include a Shabbat dinner and service at the Jewish leader's congregation, a community service project, an Israeli-themed lunch, and a Catholic Mass. Each of these events builds community and begins conversations about faith prior to the students' trip to the Holy Land.
During February break, the students and leaders spend 10 days exploring Israel. They visit many of the holy sites of Judaism and Catholicism, experiencing Shabbat in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, celebrating Mass at Notre Dame in Jerusalem, and exploring each other's religion against the backdrop of the Holy Land.
Throughout the trip, students question one another and discuss religious practices, beliefs, and values on a deeper level than at home, according to past participants. Marnie Z., a teen from the most recent cohort shared, "Whether it was the warm sensation of the Kotel (Western Wall) or observing the Catholic students praying in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, Project Understanding has provided me with a deeper connection to my own faith and a better comprehension of Catholicism."
These friendships, coupled with immersive experiences in the Holy Land, spark powerful dialogue and promote interfaith understanding. As another recent participant, Sally J., stated, "Project Understanding was a life-changing experience that not only helped me connect to my own faith, but also [helped me] understand the depth of my peers' faith."
So, what happens when you take six Jewish teens and six Catholic teens to Israel? They return with a deepened understanding of their own faith and an appreciation of another faith. Naomi S. summed it up perfectly: "Project Understanding gave me the opportunity to dig deeper into [my own and my peers'] faith, allow myself to truly listen, and understand that I am part of something greater than myself." That is what Project Understanding is all about!
Following their Israel experience, students and their families participate in a local interfaith Seder. The students speak at their synagogues, school, or parish about what they have gained from their experiences.
Participants in Project Understanding have gone on to become rabbis, join the priesthood, and become involved with AIPAC and Seeds for Peace. Many alumni have shared that Project Understanding was instrumental in their faith journey throughout college and into adulthood.
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