Project Understanding: finding the common denominator

Caroline Brown, bottom right, with the Project Understanding group.

by Caroline Brown

While most teens were sleeping during the February break, I was blessed enough to be spending ten life-changing days in the Holy Land. My pilgrimage to Israel was part of the interfaith group Project Understanding, which is funded by the remarkable Roger Tilles and composed of seven Catholic and six Jewish high school juniors. Fostering interfaith dialogue is the main goal of the group, and our leaders, Marianist Brother Roger Poletti of Kellenberg Memorial H.S. and Rabbi Devorah Marcus of Temple Beth’El in Great Neck, guided us smoothly along this indescribably amazing journey of education and faith.

The process began when Father Joe Fitzgerald, the faith-inspiring chaplain at my high school, Holy Trinity, approached me during lunch and informed me that I had been nominated. I was ecstatic, as I’d been aware of the program and had always wanted to participate in it. After conferring with my parents, I wrote a paragraph on why I longed to be accepted and attended an interview with the rabbi. Despite my nerves and rambling, the interview must have gone well, as I received the good news a few days later.

Project Understanding’s pilgrimage to Israel has transformed me in countless ways. Every time I read the Scriptures, I smile because I can vividly picture the sandy desert or glistening Sea of Galilee. Whenever I hear someone speak out against a certain religion or way of life, I try to summon courage from God to educate that person with love and respect. Another of these numerous lessons I learned was that we must open our hearts to change and unexpected adversities, and trust that God knows what He’s doing.

My first experience with embracing the little challenges occurred when we arrived in Israel and the day was rainy and gray. Though the weather slightly hindered our travels and at first we were a little upset, this turned out to be a blessing in disguise because Israel has been undergoing a severe drought for years. We were able to witness the excitement of Israelis at this much needed resource, and see the rarity of waters flowing in the Negev Dessert. By looking past our own selfishness and genuinely feeling joy for others, we were able to get so much more out of each day.

I had always prided myself that after 12 years of Catholic education, I knew my Church history pretty well. Boy, was I in for a shock by just how much I didn’t know! However, all the participants were thirsty for more knowledge, questioning the leaders constantly about every little detail. In a matter of merely ten days, my knowledge of Catholicism and its roots, Judaism, and Jesus’ home has greatly expanded. I’m empowered to share my faith discoveries with others and pass on the faith I cherish. Project Understanding 2012 not only taught me about pivotal events in our history but strengthened my will to overcome doubts and my mind to trust in God.

One of the most memorable moments of the trip was when an Israeli shopkeeper shared this bit of wisdom with me: “The only way to achieve peace is to find the common denominator.” This beautiful, true statement sums up Project Understanding in a nutshell, and I am positive that each participant arrived home with a renewed faith, stronger love for God, and burning passion to spread understanding everywhere we go. Each of us is more aware that we, as people of faith, have a responsibility to spread God’s love and build peace wherever that love may take us.

Caroline Brown is a junior at Holy Trinity Diocesan High School in  Hicksville.