When John Fitzsimons traveled to Israel this spring, he spent a week away from his students at Bishop Montgomery High School in Torrance, but as the Catholic teacher said, "They did announcements over the intercom every morning about where I was and what I was doing that day."
Fitzsimons was one of seven Catholic teachers to spend 10 days in Israel in March as part of the Holy Land Democracy Project (HDLP), a first-year outreach program to Catholic high schools, sponsored by The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles, the Jewish Community Foundation and the Archdiocese of Los Angeles. On June 22, the project will be celebrated at the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels.
The estimated $75,000-funded project had teachers tour several historic sites like Jerusalem's Old City and Masada, followed up by six hours of teacher training and a five-hour course for students designed to combat nonexistent or negative perceptions of Israel among Catholics. This training was especially aimed at Latino students, as surveys show a higher likelihood of anti-Semitism among first-generation and foreign-born Latinos.
"We could teach non-Jewish children to have what we believe would be an accurate understanding of Israel," said HDLP Chair Dr. Dan Lieber, a Santa Monica oncologist who funded the $5,000 in prize money for the project's Catholic student essay contest about the Jewish state, with winners receiving Israel bonds at the June 22 event.
The Federation project makes students specifically aware of Israel as an open, American-style democracy.
"This was primarily not about Jewish-Catholic relations, but about Israel," said Lieber, adding that the March trip for teachers was key because, "We weren't embarrassed to have people go over and see for themselves. I don't think Saudi Arabia would be doing that."
The teachers came from Catholic high schools in outlying, largely non-Jewish areas of Los Angeles, including all-girls schools such as Pomona Catholic, St. Mathias in Downey and Ramona Convent in Alhambra. The teachers this spring used a 15-minute tie-in video as part of the Federation-created curriculum.
"It supplements almost everything I teach," Fitzsimons said of his classes in church history and religion.
St. Mathias history teacher Michelle Butorac said most of her students "couldn't locate Israel on a map" before she spent 10 days talking about her trip, which helped personalize the Middle East's far-away, hard-to-grasp events.
"It makes it come alive for them," she said. "That's what they'll remember years later."
The project builds on other ongoing Jewish-Catholic outreach: Mt. St. Mary's College in Brentwood hosted the ADL's June 15-18 "Bearing Witness" training program for Catholic teachers. For 12 years, the AJC's Los Angeles chapter has been running a Catholic/Jewish Educational Enrichment Program with priests and rabbis making joint visits to Jewish day schools and Catholic high schools.
Having teachers visit Israel changed student reactions.
"It had a lot more credibility and it was much more real to them because I had been there; kids don't know what to believe and here's a teacher they know," said Fitzsimons, who had one student win the Federation contest's top prize with an essay about Israeli democracy.
Ramona Convent social studies teacher Mike Sifter said that during the Federation's structured regimen of lectures along with kibbutz, Knessett and Yad Vashem visits, he and Fitzsimons broke away with a Palestinian tour guide.
"He drove us up to the Temple Mount," Sifter said. "Our guide was spouting off his viewpoint which did not jive with what I knew. The general gist of the [Federation] program are universal ideas that we're already teaching our kids."
"I still think the problem of anti-Semitism among minority groups is still a problem in America. Their kids tend to the most rabidly pro-Palestinian," Sifter said. "The kids hate Arafat, though. They don't believe that Arafat is fair and this came up several times in discussion."
Lieber said anti-Semitism should be combated with early prevention.
"Those kids, when they grow up, they're going to take their information from sources which we feel are biased," he noted.
The Federation plans to expand the project from five Catholic schools this year to 10 next year. Sifter said that one Israel perception problem is that, outside of class visits by a rabbi, teenagers in outlying Los Angeles County cities do not encounter Jews as regularly as kids could on the Westside or in the San Fernando Valley.
Sifter said, "When the rabbi comes [to visit the class], they say, 'You're the first Jewish person I've ever met.'"