By Gary Rosenblatt, Times of Israel

Melaney Thull, 21, grew up with positive feelings about Israel, based on stories she heard from family members who had visited. But when she arrived on campus at Princeton as a freshman two years ago and witnessed anti-Israel BDS (boycott, divestment and sanctions) demonstrations, she was shocked and upset. “I realized I had the sentiment [for Israel] but no actual political understanding.” She later took advantage of an opportunity to join a 10-day group tour to Israel and came away spiritually moved and “more able to engage in the conversation.”

Ariel Heinsius Bryant, a 23-year-old law school student in Virginia, acknowledges she was not well-versed on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict before visiting Israel for the first time last summer on a similar 10-day group tour. She came back feeling supportive of the Jewish state, and at the same time more aware that the political situation is complex. She described the learning process as “like peeling the layers of an onion.”

The trips that Thull and Bryant participated in were part of Passages, a program designed to show Christian college students in the U.S. — many from Christian campuses — the roots of their faith in the Holy Land and help them better understand the complexity of modern Israel. Modeled in part after Birthright Israel, the tours are sponsored by the Museum of the Bible Foundation in Washington, D.C., and the Philos Project, a New York-based nonprofit promoting “positive Christian engagement in the Middle East.”

Robert Nicholson, Philos’ executive director, and Passages participant Ariel Heinsius Bryant. The learning process on the 10-day Israel trip, she says, was “like peeling the layers of an onion.”

Though Passages, a Philos program, is not a “pro-Israel organization per se,” according to Philos executive director Robert Nicholson, one of its core objectives is to “defend the sovereign existence of the Jewish people.”

The project is also committed to advancing “the well-being of Christians” in the Mideast, educating Christian leaders about the region, and empowering and defending Muslims “who support liberty and justice for all peoples.”

Explained Nicholson: “We are tying in the issue of Jews in Israel to defending minorities in the Middle East.”

Passages is aimed at Christian college students with leadership potential in the ministry or in other professions where they can spread “the spiritual and moral message of Israel on campus and beyond,” according to the program’s website.

Nicholson noted that while Evangelical Christians have long been among Israel’s most ardent supporters, that deep connection may be loosening for millennials. He said that young Christians, like other Americans of their generation across the religious denominations, are less religiously observant, more resistant to views imposed on them and increasingly skeptical of American foreign policy, due to reasons that hark back to the U.S. invasion of Iraq.

“Our college students today might say they’re not sure if they support Israel, or even the U.S.,” when it comes to political decisions that appear to conflict with their moral and religious values, he said.

“Most of our young people know little about modern Israel, and part of our mission is to reach current and future leaders on why Israel matters to Christians.”

The project, which was launched in 2015, is supported by both Christian and Jewish groups. One donor is the Paul E. Singer Foundation, whose board member, Terry Kassel, explained: “The Philos Project is connecting young Christians with the Middle East in exceptionally thoughtful and creative ways. We’ve been very impressed with Robert’s leadership and the team he has built.”

More Ambivalent Today About Israel

Nicholson, 35, who describes his work as “more religious and cultural than political,” is a uniquely qualified observer of Christian and Jewish views on the Jewish state. A former U.S. Marine and law school graduate, he was one of the few Christian fellows chosen for the Tikvah Fund program for advanced study about Israel and its intellectual and religious life. Baptized Catholic in upstate New York, he majored in Hebrew at SUNY Binghamton so he could read the Bible in the original language.

Nicholson cited studies that have shown a strong correlation between religious observance and positive attitudes toward Israel. Some Christian leaders believe today’s college students are less connected to their faith, and less sympathetic to Israel. In an effort to offset that trend, Passages is one of several national programs that offer heavily subsidized Israel trips for Christian college students with leadership potential, combining visits to Christian holy sites with encounters with a wide range of Israelis — Jewish, Christian and Muslim.

“Young Christians are more ambivalent about Israel today,” observed Gary Bauer, director of CUFI Action, the legislative arm of Christians United for Israel, founded by Pastor John Hagee and described on its website as the nation’s largest pro-Israel organization. Bauer noted that “young people are more ambivalent about their faith” and about their support for Israel. He attributed this to several factors, including the distance in time from “the miracle” of Israel becoming a state in 1948, critical media coverage of Israel and the perception that Israel has become “Goliath now,” no longer David, the underdog.

Others suggest that millennials interested in social justice are drawn to the Palestinian cause. Rev. Joel Hunter, who leads a 20,000-member megachurch in Orlando, told The Jewish Week in a 2014 interview that while loyalty to Israel remains strong, more Christians are expressing empathy with Palestinians and want to “see the other side of the story.” He said they want to learn more about the “legitimate and significant sufferings of those who have been limited for the sake of security. We want to include them.”

Bauer said CUFI’s extensive program of trips to Israel for college students succeed in inspiring them. “They see how small the country is, and how good and decent the people are. They get a full picture of the miracle of Israel.”

Scott Phillips, 34, a former pastor who lived in Jerusalem for three years and is now executive director of Passages, says the program makes clear its belief that “Israel is a force for good in the region and in the world. But we want our young people to think for themselves.”

Students pay $500 for the 10-day trip. The program began last summer with 1,000 participants. This year there were 2,000, and organizers hope to bring 3,000 next summer.

Passages is one of a number of programs operated by the Philos Project, which offers a range of Israel tours, including those designed for journalists and strategic leaders. It also publishes a thought journal and has an activist arm, raising awareness and funds for Christians facing persecution in the Middle East.

‘Israel’s Story Is Your Story’

In an interview at his midtown office, Nicholson said “it’s important for Jews who care about Israel to see Christians become more Christian,” and for Christians to learn how Israel protects the rights of its religious minorities. For example, the Passages students are told how, after the Six-Day War of 1967, Israel chose to preserve mosques and Arab culture, in contrast to the Jordanians who, upon taking control of Jerusalem in 1948, prohibited Jews from praying at the Western Wall and used ancient Jewish tombstones to pave streets.

“We tell our students, ‘this place, Israel, matters to you; Israel’s story is your story.’”

“We tell our students, ‘this place, Israel, matters to you; Israel’s story is your story.’”
While there are numerous Christian tours to Israel, many of them are so focused on visits to churches and holy sites that participants encounter modern Israeli life only peripherally. Passages offers the present as well as the past, bringing in a wide range of speakers, from government officials and IDF officers to observant Christians, Arabs and Jews.

Rivka Kidron, a former adviser to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, is a founding board member of Passages and helps plan the itinerary for the Israel trip. “We invest a lot in content,” said Kidron, who is based in Tel Aviv. “Some of the students have never met Jewish people. They don’t know what to expect. Some think Israel is a war zone or that they’ll see camels everywhere. They’re surprised it’s a modern country.” She said the most popular event is Friday night dinner at homes in Jerusalem.

For Heinsius Bryant, the Virginia law school student, one highlight was a visit to Sderot, the Jewish community close to the Gaza border that has often been the target of Hamas rockets. She was moved by seeing underground bomb shelters with play areas for the children. “As an American, I found it hard to understand the residents’ ties to the land. I wondered why they don’t just pack up and leave. But I came to understand their sincere passion for the land.”

She was also impressed that Passages offered speakers like the Palestinian who spoke of checkpoints and the difficulties of daily life.

In an eloquent email, Tyler MacQueen, a 20-year-old junior at Ashland University in Ohio, wrote that initially he was afraid to visit Israel, thinking of it as part of a “war-torn” region “swimming in carnage and despair.” But he was drawn by the low cost of the trip — and the opportunity to visit Christian sites in a land “soaked in the spirit of God.” He came away impressed by the “miracle” of Israel, where Jews who have “overcome so many obstacles” throughout history have their own state. He recalled a mother telling him that she chose to live in a community near the Gaza border because she saw herself as “a soldier without a gun,” doing her bit to defend her land and her country.

MacQueen, a political science major interested in a career in politics, has been to the annual AIPAC conference in Washington and has worked on a resolution for the campus senate to condemn the BDS movement.

He, Thull and Heinsius Bryant were back in Israel this summer — a year after their first trip — this time as Passage Fellows, the recipients of a free trip as counselors for new participants in the Passages program. To become a fellow, post-trip students must take a six-week online course with both biblical and modern-day Israel tracks. They read from the Old and New Testaments to deepen their understanding of Christianity’s Jewish roots, and watched a video series on Israel advocacy created by Jerusalem U, an educational program to inspire support for Israel.

‘A Good Place’

All three fellows interviewed asserted that their understanding and appreciation of Israel increased dramatically as a result of visiting Israel twice.

“The first trip was more about my own spiritual experience, and it blessed my Christian faith,” said Thull. “The second trip was more about my facilitating the experience for others, and it helped me see the complexity” of Israeli life. “I felt I grew so much, and it solidified for me that Israel is a good place I can get behind with more political understanding.”

Aware of Birthright Israel’s struggles to engage participants after their Israel trips, Passages has built-in pre-trip orientation and post-trip program requirements. Students back from Israel must choose at least three Passages Now program options, which include a book club, blogging about their experience, writing for other outlets, an essay contest, photo and video contests and engaging fellow students by speaking at an event or joining (or starting) an Israel awareness club on campus.

Assessing the impact of the Israel trip through evaluations, Phillips, the executive director of Passages, said that prior to being in Israel, students think of it as a war zone and wonder why Israelis can’t make peace with the Palestinians. Only one out of five expresses a willingness to speak out for Israel.

“They’re unsure, neutral,” Phillips said. “But when they come back, their willingness to speak out for Israel more than doubles,” and their understanding of the Israel-Palestinian conflict has greatly increased.

Nicholson is pleased with the progress Philos has made in only two years. “We’re helping young people navigate a complicated region, pointing out that Jews and Christians have shared values, shared texts, a shared world view,” he said. “We’re building friendships among Christians, Jews and other minorities, and we hope to see it expand.”

Bauer of CUFI worries that “an increasingly secular America will be more problematic for Israel, and for maintaining the U.S.-Israel alliance. We need a revival among Christians and Jews,” he concluded, calling for a return to church and synagogue attendance figures of half a century ago.

Not likely to happen among the great majority of American Jews, who get nervous from such talk. But if they are passionate about Israel, they may come to recognize and appreciate that deep religious faith among Christians corresponds to deep commitment to the Jewish state.