‘Passages’ brings pro-Israel Christian college students to Washington

The program included a visit to the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum and wrapped up with a gathering in front of the U.S. Capitol

For the 300 Christian college students who gathered in Washington, D.C., the conference over the weekend was something of a rite of passage — a three-day crash course in modern-day Israeli history, society and culture at a fraught moment for the Jewish state.

The gathering was organized by Passages, a group that runs trips to Israel for Christian college and high school students, often referred to as “Christian Birthright.” And they seemed ready to embark on a learning process about Israel and all its complexities, according to Mykenzie Johnson, a former Passages employee who is active in their alumni program and was part of the D.C. event.

She relayed to eJewishPhilanthropy some of the sentiments she heard from the college students: “I used to default that ignorance is bliss, but now I feel that as a Christian it is my responsibility to be educated about Israel,” said one. “We want to go to a Hillel Shabbat dinner,” said a second. Added a third, “We want to pray with Jewish students.” 

The conference, held in multiple locations around the city, was held in place of winter trips to Israel that were canceled due to the country’s ongoing war with Hamas. 

Scott Phillips, the CEO of Passages, said that because the group has postponed Israel trips until the summer, the weekend was “an opportunity for us to bring Israel to them.” 

“It was a chance to give the Passages mission in three days,” Phillips told eJP, adding that the mission is “discovering the roots of Christian faith, which exists in Israel, connecting to that and connecting them to modern Israel and what’s happening right now in Israel.” 

The program included visits to the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum and the Museum of the Bible. It culminated on Sunday with a gathering in front of the U.S. Capitol, with participants wearing shirts that read: “Christians Stand With Israel.” They held signs with pictures of Israeli hostages and prayed for the safe return of the 136 people still being held captive in Gaza.

Panels included a briefing on the war in Gaza, as well as direct accounts from Israeli speakers “to really understand what their life is like right now,” Phillips told eJP. 

Johnson, who graduated from the University of Florida in 2020 and was active in Passages while on campus — including traveling to Israel with the group in 2018 — told eJP that before staffing the D.C. conference, she was concerned how students who did not get the firsthand experience of going to Israel would view the Jewish state — especially in the current climate, where antisemitism and anti-Zionist groups are on the rise on college campuses nationwide. “My first question was how are they primed for this weekend? We’re fielding questions on a topic that they really have very little exposure to,” Johnson said. 

“Passages offers a great pre-trip course before the Israel trip, and I knew these students hadn’t had that so that was something different to me,” she continued. “But I ended up being so impressed and moved by the debrief time I had with my group of 23 students. Each shared their reflections of the weekend without ever having the exposure of physically traveling to Israel.” 

The conference took place at a critical moment for the Christian community as it relates to Israel. Polling shows that evangelical Christians between the ages of 18 and 29 are less supportive of Israel than their elders. According to a recent University of North Carolina at Pembroke study, there was significant slippage among younger evangelicals’ support for Israel between 2018 and 2021. 

Phillips called the decreased support for Israel among young evangelicals “alarming.” But he noted that views are far more pro-Israel among Passages participants, pointing to a survey conducted by Lifeway, the media division of the Southern Baptist Convention, on young evangelical attitudes on the current Hamas-Israel war. 

“We polled a diverse sample of our alumni and found that, because of Passages, the views are much more favorable to Israel,” Phillips told eJP. Compared to about one-third of the general Christian public ages 18-29 who say they are following the war closely (at least weekly), 92% of Passages alumni say the same. 

Nearly all — 96% — of Passages alumni reported believing that Oct. 7 atrocities occurred, compared to 64% of young Christians in the Lifeway poll. Ninety-eight percent of Passages alumni said Israel has the right to defend itself, compared to 87% of the general respondents, and 40% called on the U.S. to do more to support Israel, compared to 29% of the other Christians surveyed. 

Phillips added that among Christians aged 18-29, “most don’t know what to think. They are very neutral about Israel. They don’t hear about it in churches most of the time, and they don’t have a framework of what to think about Israel.” 

One of the most moving parts of the program came when Rivka Kidron, co-founder of Passages and former adviser for Diaspora and Christian affairs to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, shared her experience helping Israeli families of hostages garner publicity. 

Kidron said she felt her effort to help was just a “drop in the bucket.” But the father of one of the hostages said to her in return, “Yes, it’s a drop in the bucket. But someone else will put in another drop, and soon enough, it will turn into a tsunami that will bring our people home again,” Kidron recalled, going on to encourage the Christian students in the room to do what they can — even if it’s small. 

Robert Nicholson, co-founder of Passages, said in the same panel interview, “The Israel-Hamas war has given us as Christians tremendous moral clarity. I’ve never been more convinced of the righteous necessity of standing with Israel and the Jewish people than I am right now. And I would hope the broader Christian community in the United States sees it this way too.” ??