This Wednesday, 40 local high school students will embark on the experience of a lifetime, an experience that trip organizers hope will resonate far beyond their own lives.
The students - an interfaith group of Christians, Jews and Muslims - will spend 10 days in Israel learning about history and each other, and return as ambassadors of tolerance, said the project's creator, Gene Epstein.
"I want these kids to realize how important it is to care about other people no matter what their religion is," said Epstein, who founded the Common Ground Mission in 2006 with the help of the Jewish National Fund.
"We need to change the playing field," added the volunteer organization's current chairman, Edgar House, "and in order to do that, we need to start with the young people."
The idea for Common Ground had been ruminating in the Newtown resident's head since he was knighted for his charitable work by the Knights of Malta in 1992. A Christian order with ties to the First Crusade, the Knights looked beyond his religion, Judaism, in bestowing the honor - a fact Epstein appreciated.
"All religions teach you to be benevolent and help other people," he said. "[But] this is not a religious trip. This trip transcends all religion. That's the importance of the program. . . . They're going out there on a mission to find common ground."
Gov. Rendell is the honorary chairman of Common Ground Mission.
The students will visit Israel's iconic sites such as the Old City, Masada and the Dead Sea, but the trip is more about education and conflict resolution than it is about photo opportunities.
"Out of the 40 people going, I hope to become friends with all of them," said Justin Erickson, a senior at Pennridge High School in East Rockhill. "I hope to learn to be a little more accepting of people that are different than myself, and spread that to other people as well."
More than 100 students applied for the trip, a process that included essays, teacher recommendations and interviews. To foster fellowship, the multi-cultural group met once in October to get acquainted and again in December to review details.
"It seemed really cool to meet all of these different people who maybe have some of the same interests as me, but also are really different," said Lena Harper, a junior at Agnes Irwin School in Rosemont.
Others factored in cost and the uniqueness of the opportunity.
"I love to travel, and when I found out this was free, I had to go," said Tom Lynskey, a sophomore at Council Rock South in Northampton. "Not many people get to say they've gone to Israel."
To make the $2,500-per-person trip gratis to its participants, Epstein donated generously and called in a few favors among friends. He is confident that it has been money well spent.
"If they make this a success, this will become a national program," said Epstein, who expects to have 1,000 students in the program within two years. "I'd hope these kids gain a better appreciation and understanding of other people's beliefs. . . .
"Once we're able to document the impact it's had on them, we'll have an easier way to get major donors across the country involved."
There are safety issues in traveling to a historically volatile area. Once the students arrive in Tel Aviv, they will be helped by IsraelExperts, an Israeli tour operator that will take care of logistics and accompany the students.
Preparation for the trip has included inevitable tasks such as filling out paperwork and running through a packing list. But for some students, mental readiness is tantamount to renewing an expired passport.
"Since I'm Muslim, I'm getting a lot of skeptical comments from family friends," said Ananas Mustafa, a sophomore at Lower Merion High School. "They've been telling me that this is going to be a very emotional trip. . . .
"I've been trying really hard to educate myself and learn more about the conflict between Palestine and Israel from a non-biased point of view, because nothing gets done if you have a biased perspective."
Helping to document the students' evolving perspectives, Lynskey, along with Council Rock North junior Jeremy Steeger, will film parts of the journey.
They want to interview students before the trip to record expectations, and again afterward to capture the effect. They plan to screen the 10- to 20-minute finished product at area schools, and upload it onto YouTube.
Students also have been asked to keep a daily journal of their experiences and reflections. Once back, Epstein plans to pay to have all the journals bound into one collection, and provide copies to the students and schools.
Though the travelers concede that arrangements have been hectic at times, and that soothing parental jitters has been arduous, most are ready to commence their mission.
"I'm not nervous. I'm just more anxious," Erickson said. "I could leave this second if you asked me to."
To learn more about Common Ground Mission, visit
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