Newark Catholic students and Israelis find common, hallowed ground

Newark Catholic students and Israelis find common, hallowed ground

Staff Writer, New Jersey Jewish News

Spending time in Israel last month, the students were struck by the “beauty” of the landscape and the religiosity of the inhabitants. That they attend a Catholic school in Newark may have even deepened the experience for them. 

As part of a year-long project with peers at Amal High School in Hadera, seven students from St. Benedict’s Preparatory School headed to Israel on March 8 for a week of sightseeing and app building. The students from the respective schools have spent the last year working together to create what they describe as a “help” app that will enable users to request and offer assistance for various tasks, from road service to snow removal. Communicating mostly via WhatsApp, the popular smartphone messaging app, to erase the nearly 6,000 miles between them, they expect to launch in July their app, which they named “GoGet.”  

They met face-to-face for the first time in December when students from Hadera came to Newark (“Developing an app bridges cultural, geographic divide,” Dec. 28, 2017). This time it was the New Jerseyans’ turn to attend classes at their counterparts’ school, enjoy home hospitality, and have an in-depth look at a foreign country. And, of course, continue to work.

On March 23, a week after they returned to Newark, students Jack Correia and Juan Garcia talked to NJJN about their impressions of the Jewish state. 

Juan, who is spiritually inclined, said the holy sites, especially in Jerusalem, were “really powerful,” and he was particularly moved by his visit to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. “We got to touch Jesus’s tomb and see where he was raised,” he said. “My family is Catholic, so I have a good understanding of what we were seeing. But I think every person in the group, even if they weren’t religious, still felt the spirit there.” 

He added that seeing Israel in person changed his perspective on biblical narratives, and will affect how he experiences morning prayers at St. Benedict’s. “We read from the Bible in the morning, and some of those places mentioned in the Bible — Wow! I was there. Now I read it so differently.”

But most powerful for Juan was the lesson in cruelty he learned from visiting Yad Vashem – The World Holocaust Remembrance Center. “Seeing what other human beings do to each other — it’s pretty crazy,” he said.

Jack was enamored with the landscape. “Jerusalem was very beautiful and so different from any location near New Jersey,” he said. “Where we live it’s very industrial. Israel felt more natural and green.”

He also noted how religion infuses everyday life. In Newark, he said, “many people are religious, but also there are a lot of people who aren’t. In Israel, almost everywhere we went we saw religious symbols. Even in the school there were those bar things on every door — it’s like a blessing,” he said, referring to mezuzot. “The religion encompassed the entire country. I’ve never seen that before.”

Jack said that everywhere they went was “beautiful,” called floating in the Dead Sea “cool,” and appreciated the fresh perspective. “I’m surrounded by Christians and the Catholic religion. It was nice to see different religions. The trip opened my eyes to something new.”

Both students had spent time abroad before — Jack in Ireland, Juan in Colombia — mostly to visit family, but Jack enjoyed the fact that this time they were traveling for reasons that went beyond sightseeing. “I’ve never gone on a trip with a mission,” he said.

One similarity Juan found between Israel and Colombia was the poverty of the respective inhabitants, of which he said that in Colombia, “people are poor and impoverished and they live their lives anyway. In Israel, it was almost the same.”

Jerusalem reminded him of a small town in Colombia halfway between Medellin and Armenia called Buga, which is among the country’s most visited religious sites. “You see how religious people are” in both places, he said.

The N.J. and Hadera students were also able to carve out some time to work on the app, which is now in the hands of an Israeli student who is fixing the remaining bugs. And like their counterparts experienced during their visit to Newark, St. Benedict’s students had a chance to sit in on classes in the Amal High School. Jack attended a math class (it was in Hebrew, but the Israeli students translated), and he thought it was taught similarly to his calculus class. In fact, neither of the boys found the school particularly different from their own, though their study time was limited. 

“We didn’t get to go to many classes because we were sightseeing a lot,” Jack admitted.

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