American pastor James Ridgway was honored late last month for bringing some 300,000 tourists to Israel since 1974 through his nonprofit organization, Educational Opportunities, which was also marking its 35th anniversary. The January 28 event at the Olive Tree Hotel in Jerusalem was attended by about 120 people. Ridgway first visited Israel in 1959 as an Interfaith Fellow at the Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, Ohio. His visit made such an impact on his life that he felt called upon to bring other people here, he said. In 1961, Ridgway brought in his first group of tourists from his church. In 1974 Ridgway founded Educational Opportunities, a nonprofit organization, to bring people to Israel from various Christian denominations. "I interested other ministries and pastors in bringing their groups," Ridgway said, noting that there is a spirituality that can only be experienced by being in the Holy Land. In particular, Ridgway wanted people serving as ministers to have a chance to see the land they read and preach about, he said. "It is my passion and my desire to make sure that every young clergy person, when they're still young, [has the opportunity] to come here and experience Israel," he added. Educational Opportunities handles the financial administration of the trip, such as hotel bookings, so religious leaders can focus more on the spiritual details, he said. Pilgrims also tour with Educational Opportunities, which has brought over 300,000 tourists here since its founding. Last week about 400 to 500 tourists visited Israel through Educational Opportunities, a fraction of the 15,000 people coming here through the group in the first quarter of the year alone. The peak year for Educational Opportunities was 1998 with 20,000 to 25,000 tourists, Ridgway said. Educational Opportunities continued to bring tourists during the intifada and the Second Lebanon War, Ridgway said, though the numbers did dip during 2003 and 2004. Generally, Americans believed that the area was dangerous because of the political situation, Ridgway said. Sometimes relatives of pilgrims coming to Israel did not want their loved ones to make the trip, fearing for their safety. Educational Opportunities, while taking proper security precautions, always urged pilgrims to make the trip and states on its Web site that they are safer in Israel than the US. "I'm safer here than I am in my home town," he said. Ridgway did not anticipate tourists coming through his organization would be less inclined to visit Israel now, despite the instability in the South. His clients, he said, are motivated to come for a religious experience, to visit the holy sites, and do not want to put it off. "It's one thing to read about something. But to touch something, to smell it, to involve all the senses creates a new interest in the Bible," Ridgway said. The sites become "a living word, no longer just paper." Ridgway hopes that in the future Educational Opportunities will reach out to the entire Christian community in the United States, so that every church can have this experience. The tours feature both Jewish and Arab guides. Ibrahim Matar directs the contemporary studies program for Educational Opportunities, a program in which pilgrims learn about both the Palestinian perspective and the Israeli perspective of the conflict. Matar arranges for all of the pilgrims to visit a Jewish settlement and a Palestinian refugee camp. Matar said the tours "build a bridge for peace." Rula Shubeita, a tour guide for 12 years, said it is a priority for the pilgrims to pray and follow in the footsteps of Jesus. "They relate to these holy sites. All of their lives they studied about Jesus, Jerusalem, Nazareth. It's a great experience for them. It's once in a lifetime," Shubeita said. Ridgway said he believes Arabs and Jews will live in peace one day. "I hope I will live to see that day," he said.