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An old city for a new generation: Why we need Israel more than ever

Razzouk Tattoo is so small you may miss it if you walk past too quickly. In the heart of Jerusalem’s Old City, it is flanked to the south by Zion Gate and to the north by Damascus Gate. For 27 centuries—since the 1300s—Wassim’s family has been tattooing the stories of pilgrims who come to the Holy Land to discover their faith roots and to find healing and hope, often after great loss.

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Sit with Wassim and he will tell you stories of many sojourners who talked of family and hope and longing as they waited to be branded with imagery of a cross or other symbol that marked them forever: God’s own.    

Every year, more than 3.5 million visitors descend upon the City of David. Two thousand of those come through our Passages program, which allows Christian students to discover their faith roots and encounter modern-day Israel. This past year, of course, has brought much fewer as the world has waded through the murky waters of Covid-19.

But after a year of closed borders, Jerusalem cracked its door open once again—a move that would allow many to experience healing after a year of devastating loss. One of these individuals was Alexander, an Attorney Advisor through the United States Department of Justice Honors Program, who is also from the Winnebago Tribe of Nebraska.

Alexander’s world was changed as he entered the large wooden doors of Razzouk Tattoo and asked Wassim to tattoo “our dearest son” (a term of endearment by his father) in his father’s handwriting. Nearly one year ago to the day, his father passed away, leaving an aching hole once filled with love and dreams. As tears flowed down his face, Alexander shared with Wassim the story of his father. He shared that Jerusalem was his father’s favorite place for Alexander to visit.

With each prick and each memory shared, he began to heal.

This, Alexander would say, was an “altar moment.” These are the moments that define us and shape our future. Beyond Jerusalem, the land of Israel is filled with pilgrims having altar moments as they reflect on their spiritual heritage and as they learn and experience a land central to the political and religious landscape of our world today.

Israel is brimming with opportunities to press into issues of conflict resolution and reconciliation, of persecution and interfaith dialogue, of the importance of land, and of the role of privilege and marginalization.

But Israel is also the only place in the world where followers of Jesus can walk where He walked, can touch what He touched, and can see what He saw. No distance course in the world can compare with this. It is the only place on earth where pilgrims can traverse the paths of the patriarchs, kings, prophets, and the early disciples. These lead to altar moments where we can reflect on all God has done, and gather a renewed vision for where He is leading us.

An old place for a “new” generation

And never in recent history have we needed Israel more—both its past and its present. The recent State of the Bible report by American Bible Society revealed that Generation Z youth are increasingly Bible Disengaged (47 percent), with only 9 percent falling into the category of Scripture Engaged. This compares with 14 percent of Generation Z and 23 percent of Millennials. Additionally, a Barna Group/ University of North Carolina at Pembrok survey revealed that support for Israel has dropped from 75 percent to 33 percent since 2018 among evangelicals ages 18-29.

In a world clamoring for their attention and pushing many to question their beliefs, many Gen Z emerging leaders are engaging in apologetics and experience on a level others of us have only skimmed the surface of. Gen Z is marked by connectedness and facts—and many are willing to go to nearly any length to discover the truth and where that truth fits in with their belief system.

In a world of so much noise, many long for altar moments—and many, like Alexander—are finding them halfway across the world in an ancient city with biblical roots. Israel is a place where history comes to life and ancient words take on new meaning. It’s a place where pilgrims can dip their feet in the Sea of Galilee and people-watch at the Jaffa Gate. It’s a place where miracles happened, and still happen.

And it is a place where questions of faith find their answers as God stirs in the hearts of those visiting in ways they wouldn’t hear elsewhere.

A new place for an “old” generation

Since 2016, over 8,000 students have made a pilgrimage to Israel through Passages. Every year, 2,000 college-age students discover the roots of their faith in the birthplace of their faith. The ancient book in their hands comes to life as they experience firsthand what King David experienced. Or Solomon. Or Paul. Or Jesus.

More though, they encounter a thriving city where Israelis and Palestinians long to live together in harmony, where lives intersect and peace longs to run free. Israel is a microcosm of the world—a place where the horrors of war and violence and poverty intersect with peace and connectivity and wealth. For visiting followers of Christ, the shock of old and new, ancient and modern, lead to altar moments where God’s historic acts meet His ongoing work of peace and reconciliation.

This emerging generation may be young in years, but they are also old in wisdom. They long for truth and a deeper understanding of our world and their place in it. They are thoughtful and inquisitive. They long for equality and equity. But even as many struggle to see how the Bible speaks to these needs, those who visit Israel discover that the Bible in fact DOES speak to these needs. They see historical proof, and they see God at work in modern-day conflict. It’s a powerful combination not found elsewhere.

A (re)newed emotion for a new future

Something else happens to pilgrims in Israel. They are surprised, as C.S. Lewis would say, “by joy.” Few walk away without a powerful story of God drawing them to His altar. Few walk away without tears that tell the story of God’s healing work, both in history, and today. This is Alexander’s story. And it could be yours as well.

As a new generation matures into all God has made them to be, God is waiting for them at the altar in Israel. And perhaps that altar will even be found in an ancient tattoo parlor in the heart of the Old City of Jerusalem.

Scott Phillips is executive director of Passages, a nonprofit organization offering Christian college students a fresh and innovative approach to experiencing the Holy Land.

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