I’ve just returned from Israel, and plan to post a couple more blogs in my Three Motherlands series shortly. But first here’s a report on the purpose for my trip.
What’s it like to live in Israel as a follower of Messiah Yeshua in the year 2015?
I spent an unforgettable day, along with the other members of the UMJC Executive Committee and their spouses, hearing the leadership couples of ten congregations here in Israel answer that question. As we sat together on a grassy slope looking out to the Sea of Galilee, they told us about the things that concerned them most as Messianic Jewish leaders. We had a similar discussion with another group at the guest house of Yad Hashmonah in the hills overlooking the highway to Jerusalem. Our goal in both meetings was simply to better understand our Messianic Jewish brothers and sisters in Israel, and I believe we accomplished that. Here, in random order, are some of the big issues that they reported to us.
• Aliyah. Israeli leaders want to see many more Messianic Jews from abroad return to the land of Israel.
• Generational transition. As in the USA, Messianic Jewish leaders in Israel are seeking to pass the mantle to younger leaders in the coming years. My impression is that the Messianic community in Israel is better positioned for this transition than its US counterpart. There’s a higher proportion of younger members, and lots of Israeli leaders have already been actively mentoring these younger members in leadership.
• Relevance to young people. Not all young people, however, are called to lead a congregation. The Israeli leaders agreed in wanting their younger members to get educated and to contribute to Israeli society, rather than to remain within the religious bubble. They felt that many of their young members have made a good name for themselves in military service, education, and professional work. At the same time leaders were concerned that younger people could get lost in this quest to be part of Israeli society. One leader spoke of the “tsunami” of unbelief and immorality in the surrounding culture, which has swept away some younger members of the community. It’s tough to find the balance of an engaged, culturally impacting life that remains strongly rooted in Messiah and his community.
• Relevance to the average Israeli. This concern is related to the one above: how to penetrate today’s Israeli society without being corrupted by it. (I’m not implying that Israel is more corrupt than other countries; it’s above average in many ways but, sadly, is swept up by today’s rampant materialism, unbelief, and immorality.) Yeshua is always relevant, but the ways we communicate and express our faith in him aren’t. The typical Israeli struggles with a high cost of living (see next point) and relatively low pay, with getting his or her kids educated, staying connected with the extended family, and recuperating on Shabbat from a high-pressure week. How does faith in Yeshua and involvement in the Messianic community help the average Israeli get on top of these demands?
• Cost of housing. This issue came up a few times, both in our leadership meetings and during the rest of my visit to Israel. In fact, it was mentioned a lot more often than the Iran nuclear crisis. I don’t minimize the Iranian situation at all, but finding a place to live, especially for younger people just starting out in life, registers more clearly on the average Israeli’s radar.
• Financial needs of the congregation itself. The Israeli congregations do more than just hold services once a week, as important as weekly services are. They’re also involved in children’s education, in service projects, and in aid to their own members, as well as others in need. With the high cost of living in Israel, this creates a real challenge.
• Jewish identity/Israeli identity. One of our Israeli colleagues suggested that “culture” would be a better term here than “identity,” and I agree. It was a common theme among Israelis that they don’t really embrace traditional Jewish religious culture. We heard a few times that they don’t have to “prove they’re Jewish” by practicing Jewish tradition, because they live in Israel, serve in the IDF, pay taxes, etc. We weren’t there to argue, but we did challenge the whole “prove you’re Jewish” framing of traditional practice. In addition, Israeli MJs share the view of lots of Israelis that the religious don’t serve in the IDF, don’t work in jobs that pay taxes, etc, but their communities have lots of sway in Israeli policy. And finally, these are the groups that tend to make life difficult for Yeshua-believers in Israel. I believe that Messiah Yeshua wants to heal this enmity and revive Jewish practice in the best way among his followers in Israel, but I think we all felt that we understood the viewpoint of lots of Israeli believers better as a result of these meetings.
We on the UMJC Exec appreciated the honesty and warmth of our Israeli counterparts. We learned a lot during our time together, and we also got inspired and encouraged by their stories and testimonies. We have different emphases and even different religious cultures in our communities, and Israeli congregations tend to be much younger in average age than their USA counterparts. But we were surprised at how much common ground we found between us. We were also encouraged by the growth and impact of the Messianic Jewish community in Israel. Intense opposition remains, of course, and our Israeli counterparts are a model for boldly and firmly pressing on for Yeshua. At the same time they’ve gained favor with wide sectors of Israeli society and in a lot of cases are a model for engagement with the surrounding culture while holding firm for Yeshua.
It was an amazing week with our Messianic Jewish counterparts in Israel, talking, praying, eating together, and just getting to know each other. We’re already talking about ways to build our friendship and cooperation in the days ahead. Now, when we lead our community in prayer for the Messianic Jewish remnant in Israel, we have a much clearer picture of who we’re talking about.