On a recent sunny afternoon at St. George & St. Shenouda Coptic Orthodox Church, priests wearing black hats and robes sat beside city police and West Point cadets in gray uniforms.
They shared a mix of American and Middle-Eastern dishes - salad, pasta, farick, koshary and falafel - as they discussed an earlier lecture on the Coptic faith.
For three days, the 30 cadets would replace their regular barrack beds for the carpeted floor of a local mosque, their professors for area ethnic and religious leaders and daily chow for more worldly dishes with unfamiliar names.
The cadets traveled last week to the ethnically diverse, second-largest city in the New Jersey as a cultural and religious immersion for the academy's course called Winning the Peace.
Maj. Rebecca Patterson, who teaches the class, said war these days is a lot more than shooting a gun.
"If you don't understand the social, religious background you're facing, you're not nearly as effective," she said.
"I think the military gets it, we need to be more culturally aware, and I think we're getting there. We're just a big organization."
Most of West Point's 4,400 cadets will likely deploy after graduation to Iraq or Afghanistan. And in those conflicts, Patterson said the Army's future leaders will need to focus on both security and community needs, at times becoming impromptu small-town mayors or needing to work with other agencies to repair utilities. . .
Yet, the consensus from both cadets and the people they met was a yearning for greater understanding. And some from both the Muslim community and West Point said they needed something like the trip to improve their image with each other and the public.
Ibrahim Hooper, spokesman of the Washington-based Council on American-Islamic Relations, said post-war planning in Iraq was severely mismanaged and resulted in today's bloodletting.
"Given the ongoing violence in the nation and the region, these kind of efforts can be seen as a drop in the bucket," Hooper said about the course. "But that doesn't mean that they aren't worthy efforts." (MORE)