Forty-two Hillsdale College stu­dents trav­elled to Israel as part of the annual Pas­sages trip.
Jenna Wiita | Courtesy

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.”