African-American Christian leaders get a look at the Israel they didn't know

"I think the conflict overshadows a whole lot of good things happening," participant Dr. Derrick Rhodes tells 'Post.'

A group of 10 African-American Christian leaders who spent a week here recently as part of Project Interchange came away with new understanding of Israel's depth and complexity. A common complaint from the international Jewish community is the inaccurate representation of Israel in the media. Project Interchange challenges perceptions by bringing leaders of the international community here to show them all shades Israel's colorful political, religious and cultural spectra. The 10 leaders, who began their trip last Monday, visited Christian holy sites, of course, but travelled the length of the country to see various facets of local society; they heard from Palestinians and visited the security fence, while also experienced Yad Vashem and spoke to IDF soldiers. Only two members of the group had been here before, and both on specifically Christian trips. Many of the group told The Jerusalem Post that before coming they either saw Israel only as a country filled with Christian holy sites or as a country full of conflict. "What struck me immediately was how beautiful the beaches in Tel Aviv were," Rev. Joseph Nathaniel Cousin said, "Before I came, when I thought of Israel I did not think of beautiful beaches." Participant Dr. Derrick Rhodes told the Post, "I had a lot of pre-conceived notions because of things I saw on TV and heard on the radio." But by the end of the trip his view had changed. "I think the conflict overshadows a whole lot of good things happening...there are so many different religions represented here and I just saw harmony," Rhodes said. A feeling shared by many in this group was that the whole trip had brought them closer to the issues, and that they now felt that they were active players within the dynamics of the wider community. "I think that one thing to highlight was being able to talk with real people." Rev. Yvette D. Massey said, "Hearing different viewpoints made the whole thing more human." Project Interchange, a program of the American Jewish Committee, prides itself on creating seminars that are balanced. One of the leaders of the trip, Rabbi Gary Greenebaum, described the trip as "peeling the onion with Israel and the Israel-Palestinian conflict by trying to present them with a balanced view point...We give them enough knowledge for them to start seeing beyond the headlines." Along with this growth in knowledge came a desire to share and spread the knowledge. The participants agreed that they would go home as ambassadors for Israel and hoped to be able to bring members of their communities back to show them everything they had experienced. So far, Project Interchange has brought over 4,500 movers and shakers to Israel to participate in seminars, among them leaders in such fields as politics, health care, security and journalism. The seminars have been running since 1982.