Traveling with a religious purpose


Julia Goldberg, Staff Writer

Though religion is often practiced in the comfort of one’s temple, church, or mosque, it can just as well be practiced thousands of miles away from home.
During her travels to Spain this summer, Nina Gaither (11) left her host family for three full days to hike along the Camino de Santiago. Her journey was just a portion of a 1,000 year old Catholic pilgrimage trail, which begins in Israel and ends at the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela, home to the ancient relic of Saint James.
When Gaither finally arrived at the relic, she followed the centuries old tradition of hugging the statue. “You could see the parts that had been worn away by all the previous pilgrims, and that felt really special,” she said.
As much as she enjoyed reaching the statue, Gaither enjoyed the trip itself and the camaraderie she felt along the way, she said. “You walk with so many people,” she said. “I think you see how religion acts as a community builder. You’re all there together; you all go to mass together.”
And indeed, the pilgrimage is not an uncommon journey; in fact, Gaither’s entire host family had walked the Camino de Santiago multiple times for religious reasons. “My host mother did it when she was pregnant, and a lot of people do it because they’re sick and need blessing,” she said.
Gaither personally viewed the trip as a chance to connect with her faith privately, an opportunity she valued as the most devout member of her family, she said. Though Gaither and her immediate family all identify as Catholic, they typically do not attend church other than for Christmas and Easter, she said.
“I think over the summer I really did understand what it’s like to believe in a God and have someone to talk to,” she said. “It became more of a personal thing than an institutional thing.”
Unlike Gaither, Jake Federman (11), who has traveled to Israel twice, found a key aspect of the trip to be the friends and family who surrounded him.
Federman’s first trip to Israel was with his old school, The Leffell School, and served as both a bonding opportunity and as a culmination of his learning up until that point, he said. It provided his class with the chance to put their Hebrew skills to the test, as well as to finally visit landmarks they’d been studying, such as Jerusalem and the Western Wall.
One of Federman’s fondest memories was just hours into the trip, he said. “As we were coming into Jerusalem, our teacher started giving us all blindfolds, so we knew something was up,” he said. His teacher then led the grade to a lookout point, from which all of Jerusalem can be seen. “I almost cried, it was so beautiful,” Federman said. “It was just eye opening to see this place that I’d been studying for so long.”
Federman believes that the trip strengthened his connection to Judaism because it solidified the connections he was making in school through prayer, Hebrew classes, and Torah studies, he said.
Federman enjoyed the trip so much that he wanted to share the experience with his immediate family, he said. “I came back from Israel in eighth grade, and I basically said, ‘Mom, Dad, Sam: you guys have to go. It’s amazing.’”
On his second trip, two years later, Federman encountered many of the same experiences, and enjoyed them again because of the company his family provided, he said. “I just think of how special it was to see the city and connect with it, and not just through photos or articles. It was surreal,” Federman said.
Also of his own volition, Daniel Lee (12) decided to travel to Ensenada, California, with his cousins and 40 other members of his cousins’ Presbyterian church, the Mosaic Church, on a missions trip. Upon arrival, Lee helped to set up medical centers at two local schools and assisted the doctors, who were providing checkups to anyone who wanted one. According to Lee, some of the people who stopped by their centers had not spoken to a doctor in 50 years due to a serious lack of resources.
“It was eye-opening to see what was down there,” Lee said. Specifically, Lee recalls an encounter with one girl who was small—a little too small for her age, he said. “She had a heart murmur, which meant that there was something else rather than just the thump thump of her heart,” he said. “With the equipment and technology that we have here, it’d be really easy to diagnose, but over there, all they had was some medicine and stethoscopes.”
Lee and the other members of the church were not able to pinpoint the girl’s exact medical issue, he said. They were able to provide her with medicine, but anything further would have been out of their reach.
After seeing the lack of resources firsthand, Lee felt grateful for his opportunities in New York and lucky to have been raised in the church, he said. “I was bound to be introduced to the church because my parents are strong Christians, but it was by my own decision to stay in the church and develop my faith more,” he said.
To develop her own faith, two years ago, Sareena Parikh (10) traveled up to Palitana, a mountain in Gujat, India, that sits more than 7,000 feet above sea level. Accompanied by her mother, father, and younger sister, Parikh climbed thousands of steps to reach the summit, a holy pilgrimage destination for Jains. Wildlife surrounded the trail, and Parikh even encountered a wild boar, she said.
Their journey to the top began at 4:30 AM and took over two hours, she said. “It’s interesting, because you don’t even think about how long it’s taking you to get up there,” Parikh said. “It’s once you look back down that you’re like, ‘wow, I just climbed all of that.’”
At the summit, the visitors all pray, but prior to that, the most devout members of Jainism speak to them. “They’re the most religious people there,” Parikh said. “They don’t use the stuff we use on a daily basis, and they’re obligated to move from space to space so that they don’t get attached to anything or anyone.”
On the day Parikh was there, the Jains discussed the use of technology in the modern world and how it detracts from daily life. “I already knew what the phone does to you, but hearing it from someone who lives much more simply from the way you do is an interesting perspective,” she said.
Even after the trip, Parikh continued to consider the role her phone plays in her daily life, and has since made a conscious effort to reduce her screen time. Even though technology is practically unavoidable at school, she tries not to use her phone if there is no real need for it, she said.
Though Parikh enjoyed the trip and had a great sense of pride after completing the journey, she would definitely return, she said. “Doing it when you’re younger and when you’re older, you get a different experience,” she said. “It was just fun for me; I got to climb these stairs and think ‘wow, the view looks so pretty from up here.’ I didn’t have as much knowledge about Jainism as I do now, so going back with a new perspective, I think I’d feel different after I left.”
Not only would the experience be more impactful, but Parikh would be able to hold onto her memories of the pilgrimage for longer, she said.