For the first time in four years, Hillsdale will not be partnering with Passages Israel to take students to the Holy Land this Christmas, due to COVID-19.
Passages Israel, sponsored by the Philos Project and the Bible Foundation, subsidizes trips to Israel for college students. It began a partnership with Hillsdale in 2016 as it increased its outreach to Christian students.
Though Passages will still make the trip, its capacity has been reduced to only 40 students total and it has temporarily rescinded all partnerships — like its contract with Hillsdale — because of this reduction in numbers, Director of Strategic Partnerships at Passages Luke Bray said in an email.
Don Westblade, assistant professor of religion and a member of the trip planning committee, said Hillsdale students will not be able to apply through Hillsdale College this year but can still apply directly through Passages Israel. Unfortunately, he added, it is unlikely that any Hillsdale student will get selected since the capacity is so reduced this year.
The loss of this year’s trip will be felt among the student body, Westblade said.
“The reality of the place is important to the theology of everything that happened there. If we just studied it as though it were all disembodied narratives, we wouldn’t really be Christianity is an incarnational faith,” Westblade said. “You need to see the actual thing to realize, ‘Jesus was flesh and blood and he walked around on dusty streets and these are actual buildings that he walked in and out of.’ That adds an aspect of understanding that is indispensable to grasping theology. Otherwise, it becomes gnostic.”
Students who do apply for the trip directly through Passages will have to comply with safety protocols established by the organization, including wearing masks in all public spaces, daily COVID-19 testing, contact tracing and health screening, and social distancing among Israelis and other tour groups. The organization also requires that travelers self-quarantine for two weeks prior to the two-week trip.
Any traveler who had deferred his trip from last winter or summer can request a full refund, though according to Westblade, no Hillsdale students are currently in this position.
Westblade said seniors who planned to apply for Passages this Christmas break can apply to go to Israel in June, as long as they are still students in a graduate program.
Despite the disappointment this year, Westblade said that come Christmas break 2021, Hillsdale College will regain its group slot for about 40 students.
Senior Heidi Yacoubian travelled with Passages Israel last year. She said she had a particularly special connection with Israel, as her grandfather fled to Old City Jeruselem to escape the Armenian genocide in 1914. She said it was informative to “see where a lot of the things I believe in come from.”
Yacoubian said it’s unfortunate that students will not be able to experience the Holy Land this year, especially Christians.
“Probably the highlights for me were just going to a place that, when you grew up reading the Bible, you read about it all your life,” Yacoubian said. “Just being in a physical place, I’m getting to experience that and learn so much history from the trip.”