Story by Margot Bass
Photos by Josh Larson
In the center of Nazareth, in the Northern District of Israel, a group of 10 men and women, including four Calvary Chapel pastors, stood reverently in the Synagogue-Church, the traditional site of Nazareth’s ancient synagogue. Their tour guide, Andre, reminded them of the words that Jesus spoke there as the Jewish teachers in His hometown handed Him the sacred scroll of the prophet Isaiah to read: “The Spirit of the LORD is upon Me, because He has anointed Me to preach the gospel to the poor … to heal the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed.” Luke 4:18
Tour leader Frank Ippolito, senior pastor of Calvary Chapel Vineland, NJ, shared about that moment in late January: “When Andre teaches it, it’s really special.” Andre, an Arab Christian from Nazareth, is an Israeli citizen who holds a degree in Biblical Archeology from the University of Haifa. Frank humorously recalled, “I don’t know if all tour groups are able to get in there. In fact, we had to make arrangements, and this old Arab fellow met us, unlocked the door, let us in, and locked it behind us.”
Senior Pastor Charlie Restivo of Calvary Chapel Westchester, NY, exclaimed, “It gave me chills just to be in the place where Jesus confirmed His ministry, to imagine Him debating the religious rulers. You can see the side of the hill where they wanted to throw Him off the cliff. I knew conclusively that Jesus had been there.”
For the LORD has chosen Zion; He has desired it for His dwelling place. Psalm 132:13
Frank led the winter pastor familiarization tour to Israel—one of the first groups to travel to Israel following the two-year, COVID-19 shutdowns. Warmly welcomed by Israelis ready to embrace tourists again, they didn’t face the usual long lines and crowds at businesses and popular sites. “When we got to the synagogue in Capernaum, we were the only ones on location. Normally, it is wall-to-wall and shoulder-to-shoulder,” marveled Scott Hathorn, senior pastor of CC Ithaca, NY.
Learning to Lead
These tours focus on training pastors to confidently lead their own fellowships on a trip through Israel. Frank Ippolito served as the lead experienced pastor for the others, all on their first trip. The six-night, seven-day trip offers extra “behind-the-scenes” information along with normal tour experiences. Frank expounded on leading by example. “When we go to a site, I explain, ‘When you’re at this spot, you might consider teaching this Scripture, or say something like this.’ I’ll break into a 10- to 15-minute devotional about that site.” He gave the pastors themselves opportunities to teach at different locations. They are given extra time to take in what they’ve just seen and heard, and to meditate at the sites.
“The main advantage of a pastor experiencing Israel before he brings a tour group is that he gets time to process the very real emotions he’ll experience. Your first time in Israel is so overwhelming,” said Frank. The tour offers extra perks, including opportunities to inspect hotels and meet with guest speakers—missionaries, ministry leaders, or Bible college directors who live in Israel. “A lot of churches want to build into their own tours some kind of ministry or invite a speaker,” Frank added. At least two of the pastors on the tour are already planning to take their churches to Israel next year, or join with other fellowships.
I was glad when they said to me, “Let us go into the house of the LORD.” Our feet have been standing within your gates, O Jerusalem! … Pray for the peace of Jerusalem: “May they prosper who love you.” Psalm 122:1-2, 6
A highlight for all was the chance to enjoy lunch with an Arab Christian family in Bethlehem. “Most speak English well enough that we can ask questions and they can answer them over a home-cooked, Middle-Eastern meal,” Frank explained. “They’re believers, trying to survive in Palestinian territory, without being political about it.” Pastor Charlie added, “Hearing their perspective, especially as Christians who genuinely love the Lord, really opened my eyes.”
Bringing it Home
Charlie observed the difference that traveling to Israel has made in his teaching. “Now, teaching through the Word, the pictures in my mind change the way I deliver the messages,” he said. “I have these visuals that were not there before. I’ve seen all those places on the computer, but now I can smell it, feel it. I can never forget walking down the road that Jesus took coming to Jerusalem on Palm Sunday. It was so steep—I can still feel the pain in my knees.” What surprised Charlie most about Israel was the close proximity among historical sites. “You get this picture of miles and miles, and it really wasn’t like that at all. Jesus could get around quickly. That is what really opened up the entire Bible for me.”
Pastor Scott admitted that over the years, like many, he and his wife had put off making a trip to Israel for many reasons. “We basically said, ‘It’s not that big a deal.’ Well, we were wrong.” He was asked to share at the Garden of Gethsemane. “It was a precious moment. Frank didn’t know that it was a sacred spot in my own heart. The Lord laid His life down there; He had our salvation on His mind. All of that was on His shoulders. The leaders wisely told us to take some time for personal Bible study, to sit, walk, and think individually.” Now back home, he reflected, “This trip is the gift that keeps on giving. Having seen it, when I read the Bible, I visualize it. It keeps the Bible alive, more connected.”
Frank revealed that our love for Jesus and the Word of God is magnified when we experience these places personally. “You can’t help it. You know the stories, and now they’re right there in front of you, and you’re mesmerized by it. My all-time favorite trip highlight is seeing the look on people’s faces when they see Israel for the first time.”
Open to Tourism
After nearly two years of harsh lockdown measures due to COVID-19 travel restrictions, touring in Israel has re-opened, without vaccines or masks. Pastor Joe Focht of CC Philadelphia encourages pastors to consider leading teams to the Holy Land again. He feels it is important for believers to experience the biblical sites firsthand, bringing the Bible to living color.
Continue the pastors’ tour through Israel in the pictures below:
CC Pastors Recommend
• Inspired Travel •
A leader in biblically based travel to the Holy Land for over 40 years, Inspired Travel services 1,255 churches and many Calvary Chapels. Working with the highly acclaimed Sar-El tours in the Promised Land, Inspired Travel supports over 100 Israeli families and many local ministry initiatives in Israel. Recommended by many longtime Calvary Chapel pastors, the staff manages every aspect of the tour and is well-experienced in planning. For more information, visit: inspiredtravel.com
• Mayfair Travel •
Stephen’s Gate Tours, the church tour division of Mayfair Travel, operated the Pastors’ Tour in this article and every year since 2015. The next Pastors’ Israel Tour is January 16-24, 2023; visit Pastors’ Israel Tour 2023 for details. Stephen’s Gate is owned by Johanna & Steve Green, a former bi-vocational CC pastor. Highly recommended by CC pastors, they customize tours of Israel, Jordan, Turkey, Greece, Italy, etc. for churches, schools, and Christian organizations. For more information about Stephen’s Gate Tours, visit: stephensgatetours.com
All verses above are quoted from the New King James Version unless otherwise noted.
© 2022 Calvary Chapel Magazine (CCM). All rights reserved. Articles or photographs may not be reproduced without the written permission of CCM. All Scripture quotations, unless otherwise indicated, are taken from the New King James Version. Copyright © 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc.® Used by permission.