Israel and Benedict’s: Knowing One Helps You Know the Other


Jacob Anthony Amaro

When I think about it, Israel and St. Benedict’s are not very different. Benedict’s is a source of hope in the midst of the violence and crime that surrounds it. Israel is a beacon of hope at the center of the terror and chaos that encircles it.

As my classmates at St. Benedict’s Preparatory School travel to Israel for a science project — having already received their guests from Israel for ten days at SBP a few weeks ago, I’ve been invited to think about my experiences when I was on the project a year ago. I’ll start with this:

We don’t often see that we’re wrong until we step in the other’s shoe. It is in our nature, as humans, to disregard any other truth but our own.

I won’t deny that sometimes the other is wrong. But what could we lose by trying on a different shoe — gaining a new perspective?

The First Step

This is exactly what I did last year for a project that took me across the Atlantic to Israel, the Holy Land. I walked where Jesus Christ walked, ate where He ate, stood where He stood. And in the end, I gained perspective — a fresh understanding of my faith and, by extension, my life.

When I stood at a monument overlooking the Sea of Galilee, where Jesus walked on water, I reflected on what that had to do with me. And I came up with this — Jesus will walk with me always, no matter what I’m walking through — on the vast waters of the oceans or in the sweltering sands of the deserts. At a monastery in Tabgha, where Jesus multiplied bread and fish I remembered — God will never leave me without what I need. At the Basilica of the Annunciation, where Mary said “yes” to God’s will I decided — I have to be more like Mary and have faith in God. The “Via Dolorosa,” the path Jesus walked to his death I determined — I have to walk through my suffering, just as Jesus did His. At the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, built over the traditional location of Jesus’ death, burial and resurrection I pondered — In what ways am I preparing for the resurrection of Jesus? At the Yad Vashem museum, a key Holocaust museum and memorial I asked — What am I doing today that is taking away from the happiness of others? And at the grave of Oskar Schindler, a monumental figure in Jewish history I wondered– In what ways can I be a beacon of hope for others?

What can only be described as a spiritual odyssey began at the end of my sophomore year, when Father Edwin Leahy, O.S.B., encouraged SBP students to sign up for a science project which would take place the following year, with a group of students from an Amal School in Hadera, Israel. Truth is, I was reluctant to sign up. I wondered: “How will I work with students located so far from me? Will it take too much time away from my schoolwork and interests? Will I even make the cut?”

I had no idea that the project would bring Israel to the U.S. and the U.S. to Israel. I was scared, too. Fr. Ed had described Israel as an advanced society, its science and technology second to none. Surely, I thought, there were Benedict’s students better at science and more deserving. I also had a limited perspective. I knew Israel only in the context of the Bible — how it had been saved by God. And I was familiar with associations of the country with conflict in these scary, modern times. I knew nothing of the rich history that followed the biblical eras, nor of its importance today for people from all walks of life.

Eventually, though, my pure love and gratitude for science, and the chance of working with minds from a radically different environment — a couple of kids from the other side of the world — compelled me to sign up. And the following year, I received word that I had been selected to join the project.

The Second Step

Discussions between us — SBP students and Amal students — began first as messages in WhatsApp, a mobile messaging application, and gradually shifted over to Skype video calls as we grew more comfortable with each other. We learned their names. Daniel, Ori, Idan, Etai, Gal, and Matan, and their backstories — including their age, hobbies, and interesting facts.

Communications proved difficult because of the six-hour time difference between Israel and the United States. But we made the most of the conversations and “face-versations” we had. It helped that their English was great.

I recall, in particular, the relief that washed over me when we decided — via our first Skype video call — to develop a mobile phone application for our project. We had deliberated for over a month, as new ideas kept distracting us every time we were close to making a decision.

My relief, I soon realized, was short-lived. In less than a week, we were back to deliberating: Would we develop a GPS app? A fitness app? A social media app?

We took a few more weeks to decide that our app would combine a GPS system with the Judeo-Christian ideal of love of neighbor. Weird, right?

Well, that’s what I thought — until we started to pull our ideas from the realm of the abstract to the real world.

That process began in December, a mere couple of months after our first point of contact with them, when the Israeli students visited us for a week.

The Third Step

Our visitors arrived at a good time of year. Christmas, a Christian celebration, and Hanukkah, a Jewish celebration, were right around the corner. And snow was falling.

The only real beef they had with the United States, I’d say — and they’d agree — was its unforgiving, bitterly cold winter. Israel is always, always hot. Cold to them is what we here consider the “beautiful 50s and 60s.”

So they shivered, I recall, when we were outside and the temperatures consistently read below 20℉.

Weather aside, our visitors savored the moments they spent with us. Most of them had never been to the U.S.

The Fourth Step

On days we stayed at school, the Israeli students went to Convocation and class with us, joined us in various activities around the school, and worked with us on the project.

They loved class and Convo, but they loved SBP students more. The twinkle of their eyes whenever they spoke to SBP students revealed this.

At school, we made some real progress on the project, taking time out of class to work on it. By the end of their visit, we had begun to draw out, on paper, what we wanted our app to look like, brainstormed names, and conducted research.

The Fifth Step

When we were not at the Hive, we were out in NYC or somewhere in or around Newark.

Our packed itinerary took us to Time Square in NYC, where we watched “Phantom of the Opera,” an iPlay America in Freehold, N.J., and the 9/11 Memorial Museum.

It was during this time, away from school, that we grew close. For me, in particular, the 9/11 museum was a great way to connect with the Israeli students. Entering my sophomore year, I had come back from a two-week retreat to Poland, where I had visited the Majdanek Concentration Camp. I had also been placed in that summer’s Holocaust course. These experiences helped me speak meaningfully with the Israeli students, not only about the Holocaust but about issues in my own life, too.

The Sixth Step

Their departure from the U.S. was a sad moment for me. We bade them farewell in the lobby, promising to see each other again soon.

The Seventh Step

Before I knew it, however, I found myself, luggage and all, in Lod, a city in Israel. The air was fresh, wonderful to inhale.

The Eighth Step

Our visit to Israel was divided between touring, visiting host families, and working on the project. I wrote day-by-day logs describing what I did. You can find them here (titled “logs”).

In short, I went to many cities with a religious and/or cultural significance: Nazareth, Tabgha, and Jerusalem, to name a few. Within each of these cities, we visited smaller locations —  some of them places where Jesus himself had been. There was the “Via Dolorosa” (The Way of the Cross), the Basilica of the Annunciation, the Sea of Galilee, the monastery in Tabgha, Mount Precipice, the tombs of King David and Oskar Schindler, Yad Vashem, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, and the Weeping Wall.

With every experience, Israel became more than just a conflict-stricken country. Its rich history inspired me to look at myself.

Growing up, I had read and heard much of the Bible. Going in person to some of the places I had learned about made the stories less abstract and, by extension, God less abstract. It’s difficult to accept sometimes that God came as flesh for our salvation, but visiting places where he had been — including the supposed room of the Last Supper — brought him closer to my reality. I brought all of these realizations home with me.

The Ninth Step

All the while, we worked on our project whenever we could. We spent the last two days concentrating on the project. The end result? A working app. Proud of our work, we presented it to a committee in the Amal School, and we received glowing reviews. The project taught me to work with others. With zero coding, business, and marketing experience, I had no choice but to depend on others. I learned a lot by doing so.

The Tenth Step

When we were not out on an excursion or working on the project, I spent time with my hosts — the Sinay family. To this day, I am grateful for every moment spent with them.

On the first day, coming back from our welcome gathering at the Amal School, Daniel Sinay’s mom greeted me at her house’s door — with a hug and a kiss. Who was this lady? And why was she hugging and kissing a stranger? But then I thought back to the tradition that the Neocatechumenal Way follows, which we borrowed from the Hebrew tradition — greeting each other with a kiss of peace. Then I understood. I hugged and kissed her back.

That reception warmed my heart. It was as if Christ himself had embraced me. The Sinay family welcomed me into their home and family. Whatever I needed, they offered.

I felt at home when I joined them for a birthday dinner celebration on the first night. I felt at peace when I played their piano in my free time.

On the last night, they took me to a marketplace to buy things to take home. And on the last morning, they gave me a gift and one to bring home to my mom, and they baked cupcakes for SBP students. I cried on my way back to the U.S. I was going to miss my new family.

The End of the Journey

My trip and pilgrimage to Israel opened my eyes to a new understanding and a new way of understanding, which I’ve kept close ever since.

When I think about it, Israel and St. Benedict’s are not very different. Benedict’s is a source of hope in the midst of the violence and crime that surrounds it. Israel is a beacon of hope at the center of the terror and chaos that encircles it.