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$12 million grant from Bernie and Billi Marcus to “Passages” program to promote harmony
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$12 million grant from Bernie and Billi Marcus to “Passages” program to promote harmony

Passages, a Christian group that organizes Birthright-style trips for college students, will expand significantly in the coming years to send thousands of high school students to Israel, following a $12 million grant from the Marcus Foundation, the CEO of the organization told eJewish Philanthropy.

In the next four years, Passages plans to send upwards of 4,000 high school students to Israel with the dual goals of strengthening their Christian faith and educating them about Jews and Israel before they go off to college, CEO Scott Phillips told eJP.

Passages, which launched in 2016, has sent thousands of Christian college students to Israel on Birthright-style trips, where they both learn about the country’s modern history and visit biblical sites.

Phillips said that while the organization is still dedicated to running these college trips, it was a “very natural expansion” to include high school students.

“College is one of the best times. The students are out on their own and they’re still being formed in college. It’s a pivotal time,” Phillips said. But offering these trips to high school students, who are still living at home and going to church with their parents, provides an opportunity to reach them before they have a potential crisis of faith in college, he said.

“This can help set them up to be successful, to hopefully not put their faith on the shelf when they go to college,” according to Phillips.

The Israel trips also offer an opportunity to prepare the high schoolers to interact with Jewish students in college and to be advocates on “college campuses [that] can be hostile to Israel and to the Jewish community,” he said. “A lot of these students have never met someone Jewish their entire life, especially those who are studying in Christian high schools.”

Bernie Marcus, chair of the Marcus Foundation and the co-founder of Home Depot, said that it was critical to focus on younger people, to get to them before they reach college.

“It has become abundantly clear that we need to focus our energy on high school students and teens. Getting them ready and connecting them to Israel has never been more important, because we want them to be prepared for what they will face on college campuses,” Marcus said in a statement. “We have invested in RootOne for many years and feel that partnering with Passages for Christian high schoolers is essential.”

Evangelical Christians are considered a key source of support for Israel in the United States. Particularly since the 1967 Six-Day War, the community has been a major political force in shoring up America’s alliance with the Jewish state. While that continues to be the case today, recent surveys have shown potential changes in support for Israel among younger generations of evangelicals.

Passages will begin its high school trips this summer but it will be in a limited capacity as the organization works out the kinks, Phillips said. It will run trips in the winter, spring, and summer when students are most likely to be on vacation.

The trips will have similar itineraries to the ones that Passages provides for college students, but with a few adaptations to make it more engaging for high schoolers, Phillips said.

“This year is just a pilot. We’ll have about 300 students, just to get us launched,” he said. “But then next year, we’ll have a massive scale-up, with 1,500 high school students.”

According to Phillips, the $12 million grant from the Marcus Foundation will cover the costs of sending 4,000 students to Israel over the next four years. “But the plan is to continue beyond four years and, of course, to grow it,” he said.

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