Christian Spin on Birthright Counters Mainstream Perceptions of Israel
By Sean Savage
One of the strongest sources of support for Israel has been found among evangelical Christians in the U.S. Yet today, evangelical Christian millennials, like the rest of their generation, are becoming less religiously observant, which Christian leaders fear may eventually erode support in their community for the Jewish state.
In order to counter this trend, Christian leaders are taking a page from the Jewish playbook by launching highly-subsidized 10-day trips to Israel for college-age adults.
According to Mat Staver, founder and chairman of Liberty Counsel – an international Christian nonprofit focusing on litigation, education and policy – one of the main motivations behind launching the Covenant Journey program was his experience working with millennials as the former dean of Liberty University Law School.
“[Millennials] oftentimes become disconnected from their faith when they enter into college. The more they are disconnected from their faith, they are also disconnected from Israel, with some even becoming anti-Israel, and in the worst-case scenario becoming anti-Semitic,” Staver told JNS.org.
Students from some 230 colleges have visited Israel with Covenant Journey since 2014. Staver said many of these students are chosen for the trip based on their leadership capabilities.
“We like them to be active in leadership at school, through clubs, organizations or different activities they have been involved in that demonstrate leadership,” he said.
The most recent 10-day trip, which began in late July, includes an itinerary recognizable to Jewish participants of the Birthright Israel program, but with a decidedly Christian flair. This includes stopping near Jesus’s childhood home in Nazareth; visiting the Caesarea Philippi site in the Golan Heights, where Peter declared Jesus to be a messiah; and walking the final steps of Jesus’s life down Jerusalem’s Via Dolorosa.
Staver said he wanted to bring young Christians to Israel “to have an immersive experience, where they could connect with the Bible and the place of our faith and our shared Judeo-Christian values.”
At the same time, he wants to put the students “into contact with modern Israel,” which includes meeting with Holocaust survivors, business and technology experts, and IDF soldiers. An authentic connection with Israelis – beyond touring biblical or historical sites – resonates with the younger generation, Staver said.
The student experience
Justin Dobrow, a recent graduate from State University of New York at Osewgo, came to Covenant Journey with a more unique background than most other participants because his father’s family is Jewish.
“I applied to Birthright, but was rejected due to the fact that I was a Christian,” he said. “A few weeks later, my friends told me about Covenant Journey … Instantly I knew I wanted to apply for a chance to experience Israel. Something about it just felt special to me.”
Dobrow, who now works for NBCUniversal in New York City, described Covenant Journey as “life-changing.”
“One thing I loved about Covenant Journey was there was a dynamic range of lectures from people who were Christian, who were Arab Muslims and who were Jews. It was incredible to learn from so many different people, and hear about the country and all of the miracles and conflicts surrounding it,” he said.
Joy Randazzo, a recent graduate of Florida’s Pensacola Christian College who visited Israel with Covenant Journey in 2015 and 2017, told JNS.org that before the trips, her understanding of Israel “was unfortunately very limited.”
“I knew from the Bible that Israel was God’s chosen nation, but other than that, I didn’t know how recent it had been that Israel became a modern country, and the opposition they faced from around the world,” she said.
Randazzo, who now works for OneBlood, Florida’s largest blood bank, said her favorite part of the trip was learning modern Israeli history and connecting with regular Israelis. She said this helped her “understand why the people take so much pride in their country, and why I should stand in support for Israel as well.”
In particular, Randazzo said her conversations with Israeli soldiers contributed to reshaping her perception of the country from what she had previously known, especially from mainstream media coverage.
“We were able to talk to two IDF soldiers, and we asked them what they would want American college students to know about Israel, and their response was to not believe everything they read in the news,” she said.
Randazzo added that “throughout the trip we heard several examples of different terrorist attacks that had taken place in Israel, but how the media spinned it to look as if Israel was the attacker and not the victim. So my perception changed in that unlike what the media may say, Israel is a nation of defense, not offense.”
Dobrow said his most memorable experience was a spontaneous stop at an IDF post near the Golan Heights.
“It was amazing to hear from [soldiers] in an impromptu exchange about their journey, and what Israel means to them and why they serve,” he said. “It had an impact on my life seeing their faithfulness to Israel. This is something that I probably would not have been able to experience if it weren’t for Covenant Journey.”
As someone who now works in the media industry, Dobrow said he strives to address some misconceptions about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
“As a recent college graduate, there are many conversations I have with other students about the conflict and how it’s easy to hear or believe something that’s being said to you via mass media or online articles,” he said. “Yet going to Israel and seeing it for yourself may change your perspective, and with speaking to people on both sides of the conflict helps to put this into perspective.”