Hillsdale’s annual Passages Israel trip resumes this winter after being canceled last year due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Students are invited to apply to visit Israel from Dec. 27 to Jan. 6. The trip has room for only 21 Hillsdale students, rather than the usual 40. Each student must have a passport and a COVID-19 vaccination record to join the trip.
Assistant Professor of Religion Don Westblade, one of the trip’s organizers, said he’s already had students ask him what they need to do to qualify.
“One of the main things we’re looking for is past investment of your life in interest in things in the Middle East,” Westblade said. “So we’re more prone to send somebody who’s studied Middle Eastern history or taken Hebrew or done the Old Testament class or something that shows, ‘I’m really interested in this and I’m not just doing this because I would like a cheap trip.’”
This year’s group will be the sixth the college has taken with Passages Israel. Passages’ mission focuses on bringing “Christian students on life-changing trips to the Holy Land,” according to its website, passagesisrael.org. The itinerary will include lectures from local experts, various representatives of different religious faiths, speakers from the legislature of Israel, and more.
Students will pay $880 out of pocket, and $200 will be returned to them after they complete the pre- and post-trip assignments. Students must arrange their own transportation to the airport where the group will meet and fly to Israel.
Currently, there is no application or deadline, but updated information will be posted in the Student Activities Office newsletter as it is made available.
Professor of History Paul Rahe was one of the organizers for the first Passages trip Hillsdale took.
“The provost called me up. I was one of maybe two faculty members who’d ever been to Israel, and he persuaded me and Don Westblade to sort of pull the thing together,” Rahe said. “I sent an email blast out — ‘chance of a lifetime,’ real hard sales pitch.
Associate Vice President for Curriculum and Professor of English David Whalen, the provost at the time, told Rahe he didn’t expect more than 10 students to apply. Rahe and Westblade received 250 applications.
Rahe said he suspected that after being home for three weeks after Christmas, students would jump at the chance to get away from home before returning to school. Since students are so busy in the summer working, he said, it’s more difficult for them to take 10 days off then.
“My thought was, ‘I bet they’ll jump at this,’ because for our students, this is the perfect time,” Rahe said. “The guy who ran it called me and said, ‘Are you going to be able to fill a bus?’ I said we have 250 applications. He said, ‘Oh, take another bus!’”
Eighty students traveled to Israel that first year, and two faculty or staff members have joined the group each year.
Josiah Leinbach ’20 attended the trip in December 2019 and was impressed by the wisdom faculty had to share on the trip.
“The whole experience was absolutely unmatched,” he said. “You had Dr. Kalthoff and Dr. Bart both giving great devotional insight at the various sites where we went, as well as historical background. Our tour guide was absolutely phenomenal and able to give a whole lot of great light and context across the whole time period.”
Leinbach’s advice for students preparing for the trip is simple: Read the Bible a lot, particularly the Old Testament.
“Really familiarize yourself with the text of the Old Testament narrative, understand the prophets, try and really grapple with those things,” Leinbach said. “Not only will it make so much of the New Testament make sense, but it will also give you a greater appreciation for where you are.”
Associate Professor of English Patricia Bart said she finds the visit to the Garden of Gethsemane the most memorable.
“You spend 45 minutes not saying anything,” Bart said. “You don’t know if it’s the exact place, but it is an olive garden, and it’s right on that hill, so Jesus was there within roughly that vicinity. And you’re actually seeing something like what it would have looked like.”
Bart advised students to make their application essays thoughtful and substantive. GPAs, leadership roles, and involvement on campus will also be taken into consideration.
She also encourages studying some Hebrew before leaving on the trip.
“I strongly urge people to at least dabble in modern Hebrew,” Bart said. “Students can contact me, and I’ll give them all these materials I have and use.”
Bart said she enjoys experiencing the trip with both students she’s had in class and those she’s never met before.
“That’s my first thing that I’ve shared with them. We come back and then they take my classes, so that’s a really nice synergy,” Bart said. “It really speaks to the way in which Hillsdale is a Christian College. We’re very open to each other. Nobody’s forcing anything on anybody, and yet we’re free to be who we are.”