For a 15-year-old sophomore from Lower Merion High School, the most poignant moment of her first visit to Israel came when she inserted a piece of paper containing a private prayer between the ancient stones of Jerusalem's Western Wall.
While this may sound like a fairly standard post-Israel anecdote, it does have a bit of a twist. The student, Anannas Mustafa, happens to be a Muslim. In fact, her father is a Sudanese Arab.
Mustafa was one of more than 40 Muslim, Jewish and Christian Delaware Valley-area teens who went on the Common Ground Mission, sponsored by the Jewish National Fund. JNF financed the trip through private donations.
"It was an experience of a lifetime," said Mustafa, who had already traveled to a number of Middle Eastern countries, but had never been to the Jewish state. "It was so inspiring because we saw so many amazing things and went to so many spiritually rich places and met so many awesome people."
The program explored the three major monotheistic faiths and their connection to the Holy Land, according to Evan Levitt, a JNF campaign executive.
Through daily seminars, discussion sessions, and meetings with Israeli Jews, Muslims, and Christians, the students had numerous opportunities to deepen their knowledge of their own faith, as well as that of others.
According to Levitt, JNF hopes that the trip doesn't wind up being a one-shot thing, but that the model will be repeated and implemented as a national program.
Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell served as the program's honorary chairman. The trip lasted from Dec. 26 to Jan. 6.
Some Unique Opportunities
Led by an Israeli tour group, the teens traveled all over the country, though they did not venture into the West Bank or Gaza. However, the Israeli guides did take the teens to the top of the Temple Mount in order to get a closer look at the Dome of the Rock and go inside the Al Aksa mosque, which in 2000 was the site of clashes between Palestinians and Israeli police — even though these stops were not listed as part of the original itinerary.
Initially, the plan had been to send an equal number of teens from each faith, but, in the end, only seven Muslims participated, compared to 17 Jews and 17 Christians.
Mustafa, who'd already been involved in inter-religious dialogue through a program run by the Interfaith Center of Greater Philadelphia, said that she was the only Arab Muslim on the program, and that a number of Muslim parents were hesitant to send their children to Israel on a Jewish-run program.
Mustafa acknowledged that some of the political and theological discussions were tough.
"They dealt with very difficult issues, including the whole mess of Israel's founding and the Palestinian reaction. They heard about the struggle to live side-by-side," explained Kareem Elbayer, 25, one of three chaperons — one Muslim, one Jewish and one Christian –for the trip. "It was very balanced. We heard the Israeli narrative and the Palestinian narrative."
Elbayer, the son of Egyptian immigrants, is vice chair of Muslims for Progressive Values, an organization promoting a liberal interpretation of Islam. He earned a law degree and a master's degree in international relations at George Washington University in Washington, D.C.
"If one of the Muslim kids heard an anti-Semitic comment in the future, he would definitely stand up and say, 'That's wrong,' " noted Elbayer, explaining that the participants broke down religious and ethnic barriers to become friends. "The overall message," he insisted, "was one of optimism and hope."
Dave Greenockle, a 27-year-old history teacher at Council Rock High School North and the designated Christian chaperon on the trip, said that the purpose "was to have students interact, to discuss the different political issues going on and to highlight commonalities in our monotheistic faiths."
Since returning, several of the students said that they have been in contact with one another through e-mail and text messaging. The whole group is expected to meet again later this month, although what's supposed to happen next in terms of continued dialogue or programs isn't exactly clear.
Becki and David Zaritsky, 17-year-old twins from Langhorne, said they came away from the trip with a newfound love of Israel and a deep respect for other religious traditions. They also encountered some of the discord within Israel, including complaints by Israeli Arabs that they face discrimination.
"We shouldn't be afraid of our differences. We should celebrate them because that's what makes each religion unique," said Becki Zaritsky, a junior at Neshaminy High School.
She did note that she came away from the mission with a more particularistic viewpoint as well.
"I love Israel, and I want to go back as soon as I can," said Zaritsky, who became a Bat Mitzvah at Ohev Shalom of Bucks County in Richboro.
Her brother added, "There is so much history, so much to take in — it's hard to believe it all happened there."