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Kathryn Bas­sette, Heidi Yacoubian, and Michelle Bailey on the Sea of Galilee during the Pas­sages trip in 2019. Courtesy | Heidi Yacoubian

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Pas­sages will still make the trip, its capacity has been reduced to only 40 stu­dents total and it has tem­porarily rescinded all part­ner­ships — like its con­tract with Hillsdale — because of this reduction in numbers, Director of Strategic Part­ner­ships at Pas­sages Luke Bray said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.”