Teen Mission to Israel to Explore the Three Major Faiths

Programs like the Alexander Muss High School in Israel and Birthright Israel are designed to teach young Jews more about their homeland.

As such, participants spend time exploring major historical sites — Masada, the Western Wall — and absorbing the past, from the birth of Zionism to the roots of the Arab-Israeli crisis.

But the Common Ground Mission — a new 10-day trip to the Jewish state for teenagers in the Philadelphia/Delaware Valley region — has a much broader approach in mind: to explore Israel as the birthplace of all three of the Abrahamic religions.

Accordingly, the trip, which will be offered for the first time this December, is meant not only for Jewish high school students, but for Christian and Muslim adolescents as well.

As Gene Epstein, creator of the program, explained: "There are so many trips that go to Israel, but they all go there strictly to solidify their own beliefs. We want to show where the roots of the others lie, and the incredible similarities that we have.

"After all," he added, "we all came from the same place — within a stone's throw of each other."

To coordinate this endeavor, Epstein, 68, a retired car salesman who lives in Bucks County, has teamed up with the Jewish National Fund, an agency that's run dozens of programs in Israel over the years. Israel Experts, a tour company, designed the itinerary, and Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell has signed on as honorary chairman.

Calling Rendell a "longtime supporter of Israel," spokesperson Chuck Ardo explained the governor's motivations for lending his name to the campaign.

"Clearly, finding an understanding between people of various faiths and various backgrounds is critical if we're going to find a solution to the problems we face in the Middle East," he said. "The governor sees that the mission here encourages this kind of understanding."

'Stop the Negativity'

Epstein said that the interfaith effort grew out of his increasing concern over violence, bigotry and racism.

"If you look at the world today, you see conflict in Israel and Darfur, anti-Semitism, trouble in France," he said. "And here, too, there are fights in schools, gangs, abuse, racism. We have to stop the negativity that draws everybody in."

He said that the program aims to change these behaviors by targeting teens, and teaching them to understand and respect one another.

The 10-day itinerary stresses commonalities among the religions — guided discussions will focus on Jerusalem as the meeting place for Christianity, Islam and Judaism — but will also expose attendees to the particular facets of each religion. In this spirit, among the usual tour stops will be added visits to Nazareth, the childhood home of Jesus; the Al Jazar mosque in Akko; and the mystical Jewish city of Tzfat.

Epstein said that the mission — open to 10th- and 11th-graders — is looking to take about 40 to 45 participants. He stressed that board members would do their best to see that each of the three faiths is represented equally.

Jared Benoff, a 15-year-old applicant from Newtown, said that he was immediately intrigued by that prospect.

"I'm going to Israel next summer with" the North American Federation of Temple Youth, explained Benoff, who belongs to Shir Ami-Bucks County Jewish Congregation, "but that trip is to learn about your own culture. I want to go on Common Ground because I want to learn to experience different cultures and to advocate a vision for peace."

To learn more, visit: www. commongroundmission.com.



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