This summer, hundreds of young men and women will flock to Israel on “birthright” tours, learning about their religion and the country’s history, after having been kept out for the past two years due to strict COVID-19 restrictions.
However, the religion they will be learning about is Christianity, and the tour is not through the Jewish Taglit-Birthright program but through a Christian organization known as Passages, which brands itself as the “Christian Birthright.”
More than 620 Christian students from 23 universities are projected to visit Israel by the end of this summer, and more than 450 have already come for a nine-day tour aimed at developing participants’ knowledge of the country, biblical history and leadership skills, Passages said.
The company’s first CEO, Scott Phillips, said he felt motivated to join Passages after living in Israel and seeing young Jews from around the world visiting the country.
“My wife and I would look around, and we would see young Jews coming to Israel through Birthright, then we’d look around at the Christians coming to Israel and it was mostly older travelers,” he told The Times of Israel last week. “We’d look around and say, ‘Where are the young people, where are the Christians?’”
American Christians, particularly evangelicals, are major supporters of the State of Israel, bringing funding and their significant political clout to the Jewish state. Since the Six Day War in 1967, many evangelical organizations have become increasingly influential through their financial support for Israel and Jewish immigration to Israel, or aliyah, which is often motivated by a belief that promoting Jewish resettlement of Israel helps fulfill biblical prophecy.
However, that support is not necessarily guaranteed. Recent polls have shown that many younger evangelicals are less likely to support Israel than they once were. The number of evangelical Christians aged 18-29 that support Israel dropped by 35 percent over a three-year period, according to a 2021 survey, which set off alarm bells in both the US and Israel.
Phillips said he wants the nine-day tour to serve as “a means to an end and not the end in of itself” for its participants.
Before their trip, students are expected to take a pre-trip course and, if they want a portion of their fee back, to partake in a “leaders’ course” within the 45 days following the end of the trip.
In addition to its tours, Passages brought students to AIPAC’s Policy Conference in Washington, DC, in 2020 — one of the premier pro-Israel events in the United States each year — and recently created an alumni engagement program for its former participants to network with one another.
Phillips joined Passages in 2016 with Rivka Kidron, a former adviser to ex-prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and Robert Nicholson, the president of a nonprofit that promotes Christian engagement in the Middle East.
A typical Passages itinerary includes a blend of historical and modern attractions. Tourists visit the sites of Jerusalem’s Old City, but also go to Israel’s borders in the north and south, as well as the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial museum.
This is the first summer that the organization has been able to bring tour groups since the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic.
At the outset of the pandemic, Passages had to send 200 students back to the US after Israel shut down its borders to foreign tourists. The company planned for each season despite the travel restrictions, and like many other tour groups, experienced an upsurge of participants this summer.
“We are thrilled to be able to resume our trips to the Holy Land,” said Phillips. “The trip is truly a life-changing experience.”