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The Pas­sages trip in 2019 posing in Jerusalem. Courtesy | Josiah Leinbach

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.”