For Finnish-born Ylle Makypelto, viewing Israel's holy sites from a tour bus window was just not enough. After vigorously saving his money for the past two years, the 22-year-old theology student wanted to get much more out of his current trip to Israel than the standard tourist fare.
"I really wanted to meet Jewish people and see the real Israel," Makypelto, a devout Christian who grew up in a small town on Finland's west coast, told The Jerusalem Post Tuesday. "There were no Jews in my town and meeting the people here and hearing their stories has had a profound impact on me."
Makypelto is one of some 40 Christian adults aged 18-30 from around the world participating this week in the International Christian Embassy Jerusalem's (ICEJ) Grafted Program, a 10-day pioneering tour dedicated to both experiencing and contributing to the land of Israel through volunteer activities with some of the country's most underprivileged populations.
"The goal is to bring these young adults to Israel and for them to really have the opportunity to meet the Jewish people," explained Liesel Maas, ICEJ's director of young adult programs.
"It is not just another tour," she continued, noting that although there is some sightseeing, the main thrust of the program is hands-on volunteering, including spending time with disabled adults and young people with Down Syndrome, renovation work on a children's playground in a battered woman's shelter and food distribution in a Jerusalem soup kitchen.
In addition to their practical volunteering, this year's participants have also undertaken to "adopt" an elderly, poverty-stricken Holocaust survivor living in Kiryat Shmona, pledging to help improve her situation even after their trip is over.
"The ICEJ has been adopting survivors for a few years already and we decided recently to extend the concept to our young adult programs," said Maas, adding that the current group plan to send 90-year-old Tatiana, a survivor of a Ukrainian ghetto, a monthly stipend of $300.
"Some of it will be via direct donations from group members and others will fund-raise in their communities," she said.
"[Tatiana] has had a very tough life," Maas continued. "She lost her father and an 11-month old baby during the war; she came to Israel with her other son. A few years ago she was diagnosed with cancer and now she cannot walk. We feel it is very meaningful for young Christians to offer her this kind of support."
While the group will not visit Tatiana in Kiryat Shmona - she is too frail to receive visitors - Maas said that they will spend some time over with survivors in Jerusalem via the non-profit organization Amcha before they return to their native countries on Sunday.
"We hope that after this experience our participants will see a different side of Israel than what is presented in their local media," said Maas. "We want them to become ambassadors and to encourage other young adults to support Israel."
As for Makypelto, who worked in a local factory for two years after graduating from high school just to raise money for the trip, the visit so far has fulfilled his expectations.
"To see the places where Jesus walked and to see how so many different religions live together in one land, gives me a whole new understanding of Jewish-Christian relations," he said, adding, "We just don't get that impression from our media."
"Being here is surreal," he said. "I now have a whole new perspective of Israel and the Jewish people and if I get the opportunity, I will definitely talk to others about what I have seen."