Over winter break, 42 Hillsdale College students embarked on an annual trip to Israel, touring many biblical and historical sites and museums in the region.
The Philos Project, which is a Christian program, began hosting the trip four years ago. The program allows sophomores, juniors, and seniors an opportunity to “visit the Christian sites and learn about that corner of the contemporary Middle East,” according to Professor of History Paul Rahe, who went as the male chaperone.
“Passages to Israel is a Christian program, modelled on a Jewish program called Birthright, which sends Jewish college students to Israel,” Rahe said in an email. “We are a Christian school, and we encourage students to study the Bible.”
Rahe said the application process began at the beginning of the fall semester. There were 90 applicants, from which they chose “three or four sophomores and a more or less equal number of juniors and seniors,” according to Rahe. When there were empty seats on the bus, six more students were selected. Rahe said the applicants had to have specific qualities and interests.
“We winnowed the list down, looking at grades, evidence of leadership, evidence of an interest in the Bible, evidence of an interest in the Middle East, and evidence of a persisting interest in going on the trip,” he said.
Rahe said the trip has not varied much from year to year. Students are able to visit Golan Heights, Jewish settlements on the West back, a kibbutz, which is an Israeli collective settlement, on the edge of the Gaza Strip, the Sea of Galilee, and most of the Christian sites nearby, including Nazareth and Capernaum. They also tour Jerusalem, the Mount of Olives, the Garden of Gethsemane, the Wailing Wall, and many churches, one of which is situated on top of the traditional site of the tomb where Christ was buried.
“This year, we did get to the Israel Museum, which contains all sorts of artifacts pertinent to the interpretation of the Bible,” Rahe said, “And we visited the Shrine of the Book, where the Dead Sea Scrolls are on display.”
Senior Emma McCormick went as a “Hillsdale fellow” — a student who is to help guide new students on the trip as well as manage the students’ time. McCormick had gone on the Israel trip two years earlier to “see the land where Jesus walked,” and she applied this year as a fellow because she “fell in love with the country.”
“It was an opportunity to catch things I missed and reinforce what I had already learned while sharing the experience with new friends,” McCormick said in an email. “I also wanted to be there to help others be ready for and enjoy the trip. I was excited to see everyone else experience Israel for the first time.”
For junior Jenna Wiita, the trip to Israel was an opportunity to experience a different culture and explore her interest in the Middle East and the Bible.
“This was an opportunity to not only experience a unique culture but to learn it fairly thoroughly,” Wiita said in an email. “I wanted to better understand the conflicts occurring in the Middle East, in part because I feel they are the key to understanding a lot of other aspects of international politics.”
Wiita said she learned a lot on the trip about the culture, the history, the current state, and the people. Among her favorite moments was a visit to an archaeological site: the town of Magdala, where they have excavated sites like a synagogue and a bath house. Wiita said their tour guide tried to help the students imagine the synagogue as it looked 2000 years ago with Jesus entering, teaching, and talking with the rabbis as it is told in the Bible.
“It made me realize the beauty and absolute absurdity of the incarnation,” Wiita said. “He chose to translate himself into a human being so that we might better understand him. He taught in tiny fishing towns on the shores of the Galilee, and he traversed the long distances between them, over mountains and hills and rocks. He ate a lot of fish and smiled at children and probably got rocks stuck in his sandals. All these things became so much more real to me in Magdala.”
Wiita said she loved what she experienced and learned of the story of Christianity, from David’s Jerusalem to the members of the church in West Bank today.
“I have always wanted to visit Israel, see the Holy Lands, and walk where Jesus walked,” Wiita said. “I knew it would allow me to read my Bible and think about my faith in a new way. This trip was truly a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.”