Teens taking part in the 2009-10 Celebrate Diversity! program learned that people may practice a different religion but are not all that much different.
"I found that all people are the same, pretty much, except for their religion and their race," said Jourdan Beck, one of 13 students participating from Northern Bedford Middle School.
"We're all equal as people, and we shouldn't be separated."
In its 16th year, the Celebrate Diversity! project is a volunteer effort geared toward increasing awareness, knowledge and appreciation for various cultures, faiths and races among junior high students in the area.
More than 3,000 students have participated in the program that includes participants from Altoona Area, Hollidaysburg Area, Claysburg-Kimmel, Spring Cove and Northern Bedford school districts and students attending parochial schools in the Catholic Diocese of Altoona-Johnstown.
About 270 students in seventh and eighth grades from five public schools and the diocese participated in the program, said Judi Sue Meisner, chairman of the Celebrate Diversity! board.
"It's been a wonderful partnership," said Meisner of Hollidaysburg. "We really work hard to get the children to understand each other and respect one another and learn about other faiths and other people."
The students take part in different programs where they learn about disabilities, different races and religions.
The highlight of the year is a field trip for students and teachers to the Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C., where students "get to see what happens to a society when hatred rules. It's very important to protect our democracy," she said.
During the program in Altoona, students visited four churches in the morning and heard presentations on Judaism, Buddhism, Islam and the African-American culture in the afternoon.
"The first time [earlier Celebrate Diversity! programs], we learned about different races and disabilities. Now we know what different disabilities are," said Juliana Burke from Hollidaysburg Catholic School.
"When we go out in public, we've spoken to people who have disabilities and know how difficult it is," Juliana said. Now we're learning about different religions. The program is intended to show that everyone is different but that being different isn't a bad thing."
At Agudath Achim Congregation on 17th Street, the teens saw a Torah that had been rescued from the Holocaust during World War II. Hazzan Michael Horwitz, spiritual leader at the synagogue, said the Torah is the most sacred scroll in the Jewish faith. It contains the five Books of Moses. As with all Torahs, every word is scripted by hand and takes more than a year to complete.
Jared Baker from Northern Bedford was impressed. "I thought [the synagogue] would be a lot smaller. I didn't think there were that many [Jewish] families in the area, and I didn't know you had to wear [a yarmulke]."
One block from the synagogue is First Baptist Church, which was founded more than 150 years ago. Pastors Tyler Pepper and Phil Marshall shared the tenets of their fundamentalist faith and the ways the church reaches out to the community through programs such as the Reapers, a food pantry that supports between 20,000 and 22,000 people a year.
Cierrah Davis, an eighth-grader from Altoona Junior High School, enjoyed seeing all the churches and presentations. "It's a fun experience," she said about the program. "It will teach you more about different cultures and religions so people won't be discriminating against other people based on their culture or race or religion, but they'll know more about it."
Parishioners Estelle Pappas and Eric Casanave greeted students at Holy Trinity Greek Orthodox Church on 13th Avenue.
Casanave said Holy Trinity, founded in 1917, is the only Greek Orthodox church between Johnstown and Harrisburg. It has no full-time clergy but relies on a commuter priest, who travels from other parishes to celebrate the Divine Liturgy in the original Greek.
Currently, Father John Hutnyan makes the eight-hour round trip every Saturday from Buffalo, N.Y.
Casanave also explained the many icons depicting saints on the screen in front of the altar.
Raegan Acker from Northern Bedford said she was struck by the beauty and diversity of the church buildings.
"I never really put together what different churches would look like," she said. "I assumed all churches looked the same."
At the Cathedral of the Blessed Sacrament on Cathedral Square, Monsignor Robert Mazur said the focus in the Catholic church "is always on the altar."
Central to the faith, he said, "We Catholics believe with all our hearts that the bread and wine we bring to the altar become the body and blood of Christ."
As in European cities, the Cathedral of Blessed Sacrament is built on a hill, the highest point in the city. Construction began in 1923, but Mazur said it took the commitment of four bishops and the generosity of generations to complete. The Cathedral was dedicated in 1931, but the formal ceremony opening the completed interior for daily public worship took place in 1960.
For most of the students, it was their first time in a church other than their own.
"It was very interesting to learn about different faiths," said Aaron Kroo from Hollidaysburg Catholic School.
"There's so much out there," said Aaliyah Feight of Northern Bedford.
"It was an exposure to different religions and cultures," her classmate Kenny Shimer said. "If you're introduced to a different culture, you'll learn a lot more than you think you will."
The programs, including the field trip are free and are made possible through the donations of sponsors such as North American Communications, the Altoona Mirror, Penn State Altoona, Reliance Bank and the Greater Altoona Jewish Federation among other supporters.