A Birthright for Christians: Passages sends young adults to Israel
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A Birthright for Christians: Passages sends young adults to Israel

Passages is a Christian organization that believes introducing students to Israel will strengthen the foundation of their Christian faith and give them important leadership tools.

Young adults from a recent Passages trip to Israel. Photo provided by Passages.
Young adults from a recent Passages trip to Israel. Photo provided by Passages.

Have you heard about the organization subsidizing curated trips to Israel for college students and young adults?

While Birthright Israel has done this work for decades for young Jews, another group is doing something similar — for Christians.

Passages is a Christian organization that believes introducing students to Israel will strengthen the foundation of their Christian faith and give them important leadership tools.

The organization pays approximately two-thirds of the cost of the trip and has shepherded nearly 9,000 18-to-30-year-old students to the Jewish state since its launch in 2016. It has relationships with over 600 schools and organizations.

Passages was founded by board members who noticed that Christian tourists to Israel were primarily from an older generation and that Christian support for Israel was beginning to wane, said Serene Hudson, Passages’ vice president of advocacy. They saw an opportunity for young Christians to tour the country as a kind of spiritual rite of passage to connect the next generation to Israel, their faith and the Bible.

The organization, Hudson explained, began partnering with Christian universities and colleges, offering them a chance to recruit students from their various programs. That soon expanded to public universities and colleges, as well.

“By word of mouth, our alumni were sharing the opportunity with their friends. We had chaplains and faculty also coming on these trips, telling their colleagues, so eventually there were more people that desired to partner with us,” she said.

The program is open to all who self-identify as members of the Christian faith, Hudson said.

“We have a special Catholic track and initiative that is geared toward their experience of the Holy Land, and bring Catholic priests. We are quite ecumenical, so we have Protestant mainline, Evangelical, Catholic — we even have Assyrian/Chaldean leaders that have come with us through the Eastern Christian Leadership Initiative.”

The program, Hudson said, has three main objectives:

— To help Christians discover their roots by creating a faith connection to Israel and the land of the Bible, taking them to both Jewish and Christian sites. Hudson said the importance of the heritage that Christianity has received from Judaism and the Torah is taught.

— Experience modern-day Israel by engaging with the culture of the people who live there, including Palestinians. A range of speakers discuss the geo-political situation, culture and technology connected to the land.

— Allow the students to tell their stories when they go back to campus.

Like many group trips, Passages begins its exploration of Israel in Tel Aviv. From there, its participants travel to Nazareth, visiting the Church of the Annunciation and other sites before going to the Sea of Galilee and locations believed to be connected to the life of Jesus. The missions then travel to Jerusalem, exploring both Jewish and Christian sites, including Yad Vashem, the Temple Mount and the Western Wall.

And while students interact with Arab residents in East Jerusalem and hear from different Palestinian speakers, Hudson said those interactions are curated, explaining that there are debriefing sessions most nights to answer questions and to ensure the students recognize the rhetoric in a holistic way.

Hudson said the organization is aware of how missions with buses of Christian students might look to the Jewish community, so there is a “no proselytizing policy,” which everyone must agree to in writing before the trip. The tour also impresses upon the students the history of Christian antisemitism and what that has meant for Jewish-Christian relations.

“We try to impress upon them the need for sensitivity and to really hear the concerns from the Jewish perspective,” she said. “One of the key conversations they have is with an observant Jewish woman who talks about the Jewish perspective on evangelism. It’s a very, very challenging conversation for them because many of them are not exposed to that.”

Returning students, Hudson said, are more likely to stand up against antisemitism, including BDS, on their campuses. A number of them continue with the organization’s leadership program.

In fact, the trip to Israel is just one phase of a larger, leadership program developed by Passages that includes a focus on the roots of Christianity, the biblical redemptive narrative, Jewish-Christian relations, the modern history of Israel and trip logistics and preparation.

Phase two is the Israel trip followed by the Passages Capstone, a course that expands on the themes of the trip and allows participants to apply lessons in several short assignments after which they are welcomed into the Passages Leaders Network as alumni.

A group of Passages participants was in Pittsburgh last month visiting sites in the city, including the Tree of Life building, the site of the most violent antisemitic attack in the history of the United States.

Passages spent the last six years developing relationships with some Jewish organizations, including: Hillel on Campus, with which they have sponsored interfaith Shabbat dinner; the Israel on Campus Coalition; and the Israeli embassy, with which they are planning a second year of events at the embassy in Washington, D.C.

Jordan Eskew, 19, a University of San Diego international relations major who visited Israel with Passages in July, said she thought the trip would be an opportunity to learn more about a country — religiously and politically — that often came up in her studies.

Eskew said that she enjoyed visiting sites mentioned prominently in the Bible like the Sea of Galilee and old Jerusalem. The shuk made a particular impact on her.

“I have a Middle East concentration, so my minor is Arabic,” she said. “Just hearing the different dialects of Hebrew and Arabic in Jerusalem was really cool for me.”

The trip, she said, helped humanize news of the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians that she often hears about at school or on the news. She said it also helped her understand the effect of antisemitism in the States.

“It’s much easier for me to see the human aspect of the people taking the brunt of this hate and the humans behind the antisemitism,” she said. “You gain perspective when you gain those personal relationships and become a bit more protective.”

Vanderbilt junior Anthony Muñoz, who joined a Passages trip in August, said he found the program to be a valuable tool to battle campus antisemitism. It also made him more willing to have conversations with Jewish campus groups, something he might not have done before.

“I’ve had conversations with Jewish families and Hillel on Campus or Chabad and been able to ask them, ‘How do you all do this?’ or ‘How do these things affect you?’ I was meeting with our Hillel director when the Kayne West tweet came out and he was able to tell me, ‘This is how this affects the Jewish community as a whole,’ and ‘this is how we see that,’” he said.

Muñoz, who is continuing with the Passages leadership program said the trip helped connect him deeper to his faith and the birth of Christianity.

“It also helped learn more about Jews, how best to talk to them and approach conversation and not take a stance like, ‘You all are others of us,’ and how to approach conversations from an area of love. One of the biggest things for me and my faith is loving others. So, if I can find out how to best love another community, I want to do that 100%,” he said. PJC

David Rullo can be reached at drullo@pittsburghjewishchronicle.org.

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