In the recent wake of the Pittsburgh shooting, as a Jewish educator it seemed normal to seek comfort and advice from my colleagues, friends, family and the amazing network of Jewish professionals that surround me. However, the best source of comfort and solace comes from a most surprising place; the Catholic teens who were members of an interfaith journey to Israel this past February.
Project Understanding, started 30 years ago, brings together Long Island students in their junior year of high school, for a once in a lifetime adventure to Israel. What makes this organization unique is it gives these students the opportunity to see the country through the eyes of their interfaith peers, creating fresh perspectives and understanding.
This trip not only changed the lives of the students, but mine as well. I had the chance to experience a land I have spent much time in from a new angle. Sharing this trip with a group of people who feel just as strongly connected to the land of Israel as I do but not for the same reasons allowed me to see this amazing country through a new lens.
Project Understanding was spearheaded by close friends Roger Tilles and the late Msgr. Thomas Hartman, who had the idea of bringing together a group of Jewish and Catholic teenagers from Long Island to give them the opportunity to learn about each other’s religion, their own religion and about themselves.
The journey begins at home as the students gather for multiple pre-trip events including a local Shabbat dinner and service, a Catholic mass and community service event and an interfaith Seder, the highlight being a ten-day journey to Israel. The group travels to both Jewish and Catholic sites and learns from and with one another about their religion, beliefs and values.
After the tragic events in Pittsburgh, Emily Falco, a senior at Holy Trinity Diocesan High School and participant in 2018’s Project Understanding group, reached out to me. Emily has arranged a vigil at her school to honor and remember those who were killed in the Pittsburgh shooting and asked me to speak. She expressed how in these difficult times it is critical for us to come together, especially with those of diverse voices, and we need each other’s support more than ever.
In our lifetime, we have seen the release of Nelson Mandela and his presidency, we saw the first black American President, we saw the legalization of gay marriage, we saw a Jewish vice-presidential nomination… just imagine what the next generation will not only see, but what they will “do” if they work together.
I feel privileged to be a part of an amazing group of teenagers who, while they come from different religious upbringings, come together as one not only in times of good but are there for each other in times of need and distress. The only way to eradicate hate is to replace it with love and appreciation as we learn about each other and appreciate and celebrate our differences, together!
On Thursday, Nov. 15, I, a Jewish educator, will speak and lead others in prayer in the most unlikely of places: Holy Trinity Diocesan High School amongst a group of Catholic school students. We will gather to memorialize those who died tragically and pray for their bodies to rest in peace and that their families find comfort.
While we will pray in different languages and practice different religions, our faith can leave us with a mutual feeling of love, understanding and trust. While this attack in Pittsburgh was a blatant act of anti-Semitism, it is also an attack on our nation as we are all players in this land together: our differences are what make us a truly great nation.
As last year’s Project Understanding participants prepare to head off to college, I am excited to see how this interfaith journey impacts the decisions they make, the paths they choose and the role it plays in their everyday lives. Wherever their journey takes them this shared experience will be cherished forever as the time we stood by each other — and learned to love the people we have become because of it.