While young Jews making pilgrimage to Israel in order to reconnect with their religion’s roots has become a commonplace phenomenon, a new trend has emerged which is anything but: young Christians are traveling to the Holy Land in larger numbers than ever – for the very same purpose.
Patterned after Birthright, a not-for-profit educational organization that sponsors ten-day trips to Israel for young Jews, Covenant Journey began bringing groups to Israel in 2014. Every year five groups of 45 Christian students aged 18-25 join the program. According to Mathew Staver, the organization’s devout Christian founder, their generation faces specific spiritual challenges. That’s where Israel comes in.
Following an eye-opening 2007 trip with his wife, Staver realized that he had found a unique solution to questions of faith. “Like every typical Christian, I wanted to see where Jesus walked,” he said of his trip. But very quickly, “The dots started to connect. My wife and I realized that we are not just tourists. We are being drawn to Israel, we are being drawn to something greater. God was drawing us back for a greater purpose: to help Israel.”
He saw that there was a need for young Christians, who often distance themselves from their religion in their college years, to have this experience. Bringing students to Israel gives them a chance to see and feel their own history, a tactile experience Staver feels will help them be better Christians.
“As they disconnect from their faith they disconnect from Israel and can even become anti-Semitic,” he explained.
The trip to Israel, he continued, revives and invigorates the students’ Biblical connection.
“It impacts their Christian faith,” he said. “Oftentimes Christians only look at the New Testament. This trip emphasizes the [Hebrew Bible] roots of Christianity. They realize these are real people, real places, it brings the Bible to life for them.”
Staver believes that lack of love for Israel is quickly becoming an “existential crisis” for Christianity at large.
“I think that what we find is the Church denominations that don’t side with Israel are exhibiting a symptom of weakening of their faith,” Staver said. He quoted the Biblical reward for those who stand with the nation of Israel, a verse that many of the program’s participants cite as their motivation.
I will bless those who bless you And curse him that curses you; And all the families of the earth Shall bless themselves by you. Genesis 12:3
For Staver, blessing Israel is not just a friendly gesture, but it is a proven method of survival.
“History has clearly shown this to be true,” Staver said. “Nations that go against Israel tend to disappear.”
At first glance, the Covenant Journey trip appears to be like so many other Christian tour groups, taking participants from the Golan in the north to the Negev in the south and focusing on the sites with special significance to Christians. They visit Capernaum, the Mount of Beatitudes, the town of Magdalena, Caesarea Philippi, and are baptized in the Jordan River. The trip culminates in Jerusalem where they visit the Garden Tomb and walk the Via Dolorosa.
But the participants are also introduced to sites with a uniquely Jewish aspect, like Masada and Yad Vashem, two sites which offer somber reminders of how volatile interfaith relations can become and why it is so important to maintain Israel as a protector of the Jewish People.
In addition, the students meet Israeli political leaders, Holocaust survivors, and IDF soldiers who help them understand the reality in a region frequently misrepresented in the media. Staver told Breaking Israel News that these meetings have a major impact on the participants.
“The personal touch is essential,” Staver said. “We want participants to really experience modern Israel, and the only way is to meet real people.”
Staver says that though Jewish-Christian relations have not always been positive, he has witnessed a change in this in the few short years of the program. He is optimistic this trend will continue.
“The connection between Jews and Christians is strengthening. More and more Christians want to stand with Israel,” he said. “There is growing atmosphere of gratitude and appreciation from the Jewish world. In both Israel and America I have seen this connection be received with arms wide open.”
The Covenant Journey is a step towards strengthening these relations even more. Essentially, it creates Christian advocates for Israel, both spiritually and actively.
“It brings to life the geopolitical issue,” Staver explained. “They go back to campus knowing far more about the reality than the BDS (Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions) people. They see that Israelis are trying to live in peace. They visit the Holocaust museum and speak to a Holocaust survivor.
“Suddenly, it is not theoretical and they get very passionate about it.”
He pointed to an outstanding example of the program’s success in Jennifer Sullivan, the youngest member of the Florida House of Representatives. Sullivan came to Israel on Covenant Journey in 2016. This year, she was a key player in passing anti-BDS legislation in her state.
Sullivan is not the only participant deeply affected by her Israel trip. The most common reaction Staver hears at the end of the nine-day trip is that it was “life-changing.”
“We routinely hear from all of our participants that Israel is so much more than they could ever imagine. They all emphasize that this was the most impactful experience they have ever had in their lives.”