One of Ryan Mills’ most powerful memories of his recent trip to Israel was the moment he gazed over a barrier wall at the Israel-Gaza border and saw what seemed like a Hamas lookout post.
“It was kind of eerie,” Mills said about traveling so close to the heart of the long-simmering conflict less than two weeks after Israeli soldiers killed dozens of Gazan protesters. “[Someone] inside the tower was probably looking at me and I’m looking at them.”
Mills, 20, was one of nearly 5,000 young Christians who have visited Israel over the past three years on a trip called “Passages” funded mainly by conservative Jewish and evangelical donors connected to Hobby Lobby, the craft store chain founded by a politically active evangelical couple. Passages is their version of Birthright Israel, created to connect youth to their faith by exposing them to the country. The trip acknowledges the complexities posed by Israel’s occupation of territory Palestinians claim as their homeland, but in general, it tells a positive story about the Jewish state.
Evangelical activists and donors say they are concerned about a September 2017 survey conducted by LifeWay Research which showed that more than 40% of evangelicals 18 to 34 years old said they had “no strong views about the State of Israel.” For comparison, 33 percent of those 50 to 64 said they have no strong views on the Jewish state and only 22% of those 65 and older said likewise.
Their elders see a connection to Israel as an important part of Christian identity. Indeed, the older generation, which has enjoyed increased power and influence under the Trump administration, ranks support for Israel as one of their most important values. Several Christian leaders were instrumental in getting the American embassy moved from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem — a move that thrilled Trump’s evangelical base.
The Passages program aims to ensure that Christians stay passionate supporters of the Jewish state. The 10-day trip, which is attended mainly by Protestants but has a growing number of Catholic participants, achieved its objective with Isabella Alfonso, 20, a University of Florida student who went to Israel with Passages in 2017 after she learned that it is an “amazing opportunity for Christians.” Passages first recruited primarily from religious schools, but has expanded to secular institutions including the University of Florida and University of Minnesota, where it finds participants through Christian groups, student leaders and former trip takers on campus.
Alfonso decided to apply through her school, was accepted and paid a $500 fee, which covered the cost of airfare to Israel, lodging and meals during the trip.
“We hear the word [Israel] so much in the Bible but don’t think to visit or think of it as a real tangible place,” said Alfonso, who identifies as Catholic.
She said she was first struck by how modern the country is after having so many images in her mind of ancient biblical cities.
A visit to Netiv HaAsara on the northern border of Gaza made a real impact on her, she said. Residents walked the Passages participants through bomb shelters and showed them “broken down old missiles” that were found in fields outside the town.
“That’s when it all became real,” Alfonso said. “I’m living in America in a bubble.”
Alfonso said she attended an AIPAC conference after returning to the U.S. and became more supportive of fighting terrorism in the Middle East, though she remains more optimistic about a path for peace.
Robert Nicholson, who leads the Philos Project, one of the pro-Israel Christian groups that founded Passages, said one of the goals of the trip was not to push one political viewpoint or another but rather to fight the “atomization of American Christendom.”
“Most have never grappled with historical events that underlie the religion. If you’re an American Christian of any ilk I think it’s important to keep the next generation engaged in heritage,” Nicholson told the Forward.
Grant Anderson, 21, said the high point of the trip for him was The Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, Anderson said: “Walking in there, you could really picture the gravity of it all.”
Nicholson added that they try to provide a diversity of viewpoints through their speakers and tour guides, including hearing from Maronite Christians and Palestinian journalist Rami Nazzal, who speaks about the experiences of Muslims living in the West Bank.
Anderson said he appreciated Nazzal’s perspective on a recent Passages trip but said he would have liked to have been exposed to more viewpoints.
“I would like to hear more of the Palestinian side,” Anderson said, adding that while they visited an Israel settlement near Gaza they “only got one side of the debate there.” The student added that they also never entered the West Bank, though they walked through the old city in Jerusalem and visited some of the holiest sites for Christians.
Since returning home Anderson said he has started to follow different Reddit forums where people debate from both an Israeli and Palestinian perspective.
Katherine Person, 24, said she never thought much about Israel while growing up in the suburbs outside of Washington D.C.
“I wasn’t fully aware of the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians, [they weren’t] common household names,” said Person, adding when she first the country three years ago through the trip she was surprised “just how complex the conflict is, how many sides to the coin there was.”
Peterson said she, too, had images of an ancient world.
“I was expecting land flowing with milk and honey, archaic historical sites. I was shocked to see how modern Israel was.”
She has since volunteered to help lead four other tours and wants to encourage others come to their own conclusions about the country.
Mills said he became interested in visiting Israel after his Jewish stepfather spoke about his experiences traveling there and after Mills, a history major at the University of Florida, took a class on the Holocaust.
While he strongly supports Israeli security and is skeptical a two-state solution can be reached with Hamas still in power, he was also sympathetic to Palestinian concerns over conditions in the West Bank, where he heard a speaker talk about their lack of basic services and properly functioning cellular network.
“I do support Israel greatly, but am I 100 percent proud — absolutely not,” he said, adding that he became more aware of other conflicts surrounding the small country.
Mills said he felt an “incredibly loud silence” while he visited the Golan Heights and looked toward Damascus, which was less than 100 miles in the distance.
“To think that’s going on right there right now –- the humanitarian crisis.”
Alfonso became involved in recruiting people for the latest trip in May, when she went for a second time as a student leader.
“We had 115 people sign up. That’s unheard of, honestly,” she said, adding they had to narrow the group down to about 40 people.
“I think that it’s going to become more of a thing. I think it’s growing so fast.”