Christian Zionists funding Israel immigration still scares Jews
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Christian Zionists funding Israel immigration still scares Jews

As Jewish institutions fight over American evangelicals’ deep pockets, an in-depth look at a controversial yet fruitful relationship

Amanda Borschel-Dan is The Times of Israel's Jewish World and Archaeology editor.

Thousands of Christian Evangelists wave their national flag alongside the Israeli one as they march in a parade in the center of Jerusalem, marking the Jewish holiday of Sukkot or the Feast of the Tabernacles. October 14, 2014. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)
Thousands of Christian Evangelists wave their national flag alongside the Israeli one as they march in a parade in the center of Jerusalem, marking the Jewish holiday of Sukkot or the Feast of the Tabernacles. October 14, 2014. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

Who first said, “Palestine is a land without a people for a people without a land?” referring to the Jews? Hint: not Theodor Herzl.

The long-time Zionist motto was actually coined by evangelical Christian leaders who used it some five decades prior to the father of Zionism’s quest for a Jewish homeland.

Interestingly, one of Herzl’s closest confidants, a friend and partner in his crusade, was evangelical leader William Hechler. Serving as Herzl’s liaison to European courts, Hechler was Herzl’s entree to the German royal family — and international legitimacy for Zionism as a political, not theological, movement.

The two parties in this fruitful marriage of convenience were described by French Protestant historian Claude Duvernoy as the “prince and the prophet.”

Herzl describes his first meeting with Hechler in a diary entry of March 10, 1896, found in 1960’s “The Complete Diaries of Theodor Herzl,” edited by Raphael Patai. “Hechler declares my movement to be a ‘Biblical’ one, even though I proceed rationally in all points.”

Herzl and Hechler, while true friends, were also a model of the mutualistic utilitarian relationship forged between Jewish and Christian Zionists of the era.

Theodor Herzl (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
Theodor Herzl (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)

“Herzl did not take seriously Hechler’s messianic faith and considered his Christian friend to be a naive visionary but nonetheless trusted him. Hechler, for his part, considered the Zionist project to be a very welcome development, one prophesied and predicted long in advance,” writes Prof. Yaakov Ariel in his massive new book, “An Unusual Relationship: Evangelical Christians and Jews.”

While a lot has changed since Herzl — including, obviously, the foundation of the Jewish state in 1948 — Christian evangelicals are disproportionately among the highest funders for Jewish projects, particularly concerning Jewish aliya. Often their donations far exceed those raised in Diaspora Jewish communities.

As the evangelical Christian world increasingly turns its focus to Jewry’s current crisis — Ukrainian Jews —  The Times of Israel asks, who are these generous Christian Zionist donors? And why are they at the center of a recent heated catfight between leading Jewish organizations?

Why was Jesus Jewish?

“When I was a six or seven year old little boy, I started asking myself, ‘Why was Jesus Jewish, not a Winnipeger like me? Why did God choose the Jewish people? Why not Canadians?’ It wasn’t until I was 30 years old that I realized I was adopted into the family of God through what Jesus did for me; not just for a ticket to heaven, but to identify my purpose on earth,” says Dean Bye, founder and executive director of Return Ministries.

'Why was Jesus born Jewish?' Return Ministries' founder Dean Bye. (courtesy)
‘Why was Jesus born Jewish?’ Return Ministries’ founder Dean Bye. (courtesy)

For over 25 years Bye has split his time between North America and Israel, attempting, on the one hand, to help Christians better understand Jews by overcoming their ingrained traditional Christian teachings, and on the other, to use Christian support to settle Jews in the State of Israel.

Like many modern Christian evangelicals, Bye became involved in aliya in the 1990s with efforts to bring FSU Jews to Israel after the fall of communism. “The Lord beckons to the gentiles to bring the sons and daughters of Abraham home,” he explains.

Taking time from his packed Israel itinerary for a telephone call from a hotel room in Tel Aviv, Bye explains some of the motivations behind his work. “We can bless, honor and love from the debt of gratitude for what the Jewish people have done for us,” says Bye.

Bye has spread his message to thousands of Christians who have spent time at a Christian “training base” his ministries run near Toronto. There, the devout come from all over the world to learn Jewish theology and understand how to relate to Jews.

Located just outside of Toronto, the Return Ministries training camp's programs promote Jewish-Christian understanding for Christians all over the world. (courtesy)
Located just outside of Toronto, the Return Ministries training camp’s programs promote Jewish-Christian understanding for Christians all over the world. (courtesy)

“We help them gain trust and take away fears and overcome some of our tragic history together,” he says. On the curriculum — how to eat and speak with Orthodox Jews.

“The training camp takes down those things that can separate, to enable meaningful life-long relationships to glorify God’s name,” he says.

Bye believes his initiative is hardly unique.

“Christians are finding themselves in synagogues around the world wanting to understand Jews… Israelis think they have no friends, but there’s an emergence of a growing percentage of those that would call themselves Christian Zionists,” says Bye.

‘Torah-true’ Christians

In Jewish parlance, evangelicals are the Christian equivalent of “Torah-true Jews” and consider the promises made in the Hebrew Bible as the binding word of God.

“Believing that the covenant God established with Abraham is still valid, even if temporarily suspended, they view the Jews as heirs and continuers of the children of Israel and as the object of biblical prophecies about a restored kingdom of David,” writes Ariel.

Pastor John Hagee links arms with Rabbi Shlomo Riskin in a 2010 solidarity march. (courtesy)
Pastor John Hagee links arms with Rabbi Shlomo Riskin in a 2010 solidarity march. (courtesy)

One of the most well-known evangelical Christian Zionists today is Pastor John Hagee, who heads a huge multi-media empire, the John Hagee Ministries (JHM). In 2006 Hagee also co-founded the what is currently the largest American pro-Israel organization, Christians United for Israel (CUFI).

Between CUFI and JHM, Hagee is a major donor to numerous Israeli welfare initiatives (totaling some $80 million over the years), with annual donations of up to $1.5 million Nefesh B’Nefesh and the Jewish Agency for Israel to support aliya.

‘Christian Zionists believe the Bible calls for Christians to stand with Israel and donate to Jewish and Israeli causes’

Hagee is an important figure in contemporary Christian Zionist support in part due to his famous spiritual awakening while at the Western Wall in 1957. Running counter to the then-acceptable Protestant Replacement theology — that Christians had superseded the Jews’ historical role as the Chosen People — Hagee teaches that support for Jews is a biblical imperative.

“There are many biblical passages, such as Genesis 12:3 [“And I will bless them that bless thee, and curse him that curseth thee: and in thee shall all families of the earth be blessed”], that Christian Zionists believe mandate Christian support for Israel. Likewise there are many passages that speak of the importance of helping the needy, the sick and the orphaned,” says Ari Morgenstern, spokesman for Pastor John Hagee.

“Taken together, Christian Zionists believe the Bible calls for Christians to stand with Israel and donate to Jewish and Israeli causes including hospitals, youth centers, humanitarian projects, and also efforts to support aliya,” says Morgenstern.

Pastor on a Christians United for Israel solidarity mission stand near an Iron Dome cell during this summer's Operation Protective Edge. (courtesy)
Pastor on a Christians United for Israel solidarity mission stand near an Iron Dome cell during this summer’s Operation Protective Edge. (courtesy)

This seemingly runs counter to the Christian Zionists’ belief that Jesus Christ is the Messiah, and only his true followers are to be “saved.”

“Evangelical Christians, who ardently believe that only those who have accepted Jesus as their savior are redeemed, have constructed an understanding of the Jews as a people in covenant with God who are about to resume their ancient position as God’s first nation,” writes Ariel.

Therefore, as part of the covenant prophecied in the Bible, the Jews should “return” to their promised land, Israel.

Responsible Americans, and good Christians

Ariel writes that American evangelical pro-Israel sentiment rose drastically after the “miraculous” victory in the Six Day War. “The War of 1967 enhanced the evangelical faith that the Jews were indeed preparing the ground for the events of the end times.”

The modern activist iteration of Christian Zionist support surged, however, during the Cold War.

“Much of the resurgence of evangelical interest in Israel took place during the cold war era, and evangelicals combined their opposition to the Soviet Union and communism with their support of Israel,” writes Ariel.

“In supporting Israel they were thus both responsible Americans and good Christians,” he writes.

Former International Christian Embassy international director Michael Utterback assists a disabled Russian Jew from a bus onto a plane for the flight to Israel. It is a literal fulfillment of Isaiah 49:22-23, which speaks of God using gentiles to bring the sons and daughters of Israel home 'in their arms' in 1992. (courtesy)
Former International Christian Embassy international director Michael Utterback assists a disabled Russian Jew from a bus onto a plane for the flight to Israel. It is a literal fulfillment of Isaiah 49:22-23, which speaks of God using gentiles to bring the sons and daughters of Israel home ‘in their arms’ in 1992. (courtesy)

With continued efforts to bring Jews from former Soviet Union countries to Israel, this “good American Christian” attitude has, if anything, only intensified with the recent push to bring desperate Ukrainian Jews to the Holy Land.

In many cases the evangelical ministries have formed loose alliances and, utilizing each other’s strengths and on-the-ground manpower, work together toward their common goals. David Parsons from the Jerusalem-based International Christian Embassy describes joint efforts in facilitating aliya from former Soviet Union countries.

“In the FSU, the area is so vast that the Jewish Agency cannot reach it all,” he says. So some Christians volunteer to go onsite, and in their dedication even learn to speak Russian. Parsons gives a hypothetical example of a Russian aliya route: “Bridges for Peace might get them on a train from Siberia to Moscow, but a bus to a ship in Odessa may be paid for by another ministry. And then the flight to Israel, by still another.”

After more than a year of armed conflict, there is a heightened sense among evangelical Christian Zionists of the perilous conditions in Russia and Ukraine. Some, using almost prophetic parlance, talk of unprecedented anti-Semitism and the Christian mission in rescuing Jews from disaster and sending them back “home” to Israel.

A 2012 group of Ukrainian Jewish olim arriving at Ben-Gurion on a flight sponsored by the International Christian Embassy in cooperation with the Jewish Agency. (courtesy)
A 2012 group of Ukrainian Jewish immigrants arriving at Ben-Gurion on a flight sponsored by the International Christian Embassy in cooperation with the Jewish Agency. (courtesy)

“I often reflect that God could have chosen any time in history for us to be born. He chose this time. He has a purpose for each of us. Not since the Second World War have we seen the levels of anti-Semitism that are exhibited today. Jewish people are at risk in many locales. In such a terrible time as this, I believe God is calling His Church to help the Jewish people come home in fulfillment of Bible prophecy. What a privilege to assist Him in His plan to bring the Jewish people home to Israel,” writes Rebecca J. Brimmer, the International President and CEO of Bridges for Peace.

‘In such a terrible time as this, I believe God is calling His Church to help the Jewish people come home in fulfillment of Bible prophecy. What a privilege to assist Him in His plan to bring the Jewish people home to Israel’

According to Bridges for Peace‘s website, since the beginning of the Ukraine conflict it has helped bring 1,756 Jews to Israel. Founded in 1976, the organization has branches all over the world. On the website, the devout have the opportunity to donate multiples of $400 to rescue Ukrainian immigrants.

Parsons says that in his organization, the International Christian Embassy, most donations are along the lines of $50-$100 from regular Joes who “believe in the return of the Jewish people and support Israel and want to help.”

Since the start of its operations, the International Christian Embassy has helped over 115,000 Jews make aliya, mostly from FSU countries. In the past year alone, it has brought almost 2,300 Jews to Israel and has raised over $500,000 to help some 1,000 Ukrainian Jews home, says Parsons.

But the Christian Zionist organization that by far donates the most funds to aliya and other emergency relief efforts aiding needy Jews all over the world is led by none other than an ordained Orthodox rabbi.

The International Fellowship of Christians and Jews (IFCJ) and aliya

Back in 2002 Christian Zionists were among the first to donate to the fledgling Nefesh B’Nefesh (NBN) initiative. Tasked by prime minister Ariel Sharon with bringing North American Jews to Israel, NBN co-founder Tony Gelbert threw a broad donor net and was introduced to the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews (IFCJ) led by Orthodox Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein. The Fellowship gave Nefesh B’Nefesh $2 million in seed funds.

The macher who played matchmaker between NBN and Eckstein’s Fellowship? Current Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

“We originally said [the IFCJ] should give $1 million, and the Jewish community should come up with the other $1 million. Bibi came to my board and asked [it] for the entire $2 million. I agreed,” Eckstein said in a 2002 Haaretz article ahead of NBN’s launch.

Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein pose for a picture near the Knesset, the Israeli parliament in Jerusalem on May 13, 2014. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein near the Knesset in Jerusalem on May 13, 2014. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Although it may not have been clear at the time, this funding of aliya marked a turning point for Eckstein’s Fellowship, which until then had largely concentrated its endeavors on Christian tourism of Israel and social aid programs.

Although in a 2002 Haaretz article Eckstein said that the objective “for me is to trigger further aliya in hopes the American Jewish community will sponsor it in the future,” he hasn’t left the aliya business since.

Eckstein is the founder, spokesperson and spirit behind IFCJ, an organization whose mandate is to zero out the $140 million-$150 million it raises on Jewish-related projects each year, every year. He is so central to the organization, that many of his 1.4 million Christian donors actually write their checks to him.

‘With trust in the Lord, people are giving us money for needs that are there now and urgent… Forget about a rainy day, God will provide’

He says most of his fleet of donors are giving sacrificially at an average of $75. “We’ve never had a million, and only a handful of a half a million gifts.” His donors are people “who are giving up Starbucks coffee,” or tithing 10% of their monthly social security checks, or “kids giving up Christmas presents.”

“With trust in the Lord, people are giving us money for needs that are there now and urgent… Our board has the feeling — and God has honored it ever since the Fellowship has started — that we need to get it out the door. Forget about a rainy day, God will provide,” he says in a lengthy conversation with The Times of Israel

“We are not a foundation; we have a goal in mind: To give Christians who seek to support Israel a vehicle to do it. And secondly, through that have the Jewish community reach out and meet them halfway and break down the walls of mistrust that Jews and Jewish institutions have with evangelicals,” says Eckstein, who made aliya from Chicago in 2002.

A recent Haaretz article has placed Eckstein — who sits on the Jewish Agency’s board — in a head-butting battle with JAFI over its alleged lack of recognition of the Christian nature of the Fellowship’s funds.

According to Eckstein, the Fellowship has donated some $170 million to JAFI to date. Although JAFI has received an annual $11 million earmarked to aliya, Eckstein recently reduced that gift to $4 million.

“They take the money for granted and will not build a relationship with us, or Christians, as a part of this Jewish Agency,” he tells The Times of Israel while on a rare Israel sojourn between trips to Ukraine.

Jewish Agency head Natan Sharansky and Fellowship founder Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein at March 25, 2010 Passover seder with 200 new immigrants from Ethiopia at the Jewish Agency Absorption Center in Mevasseret Zion. (courtesy)
Jewish Agency head Natan Sharansky and Fellowship founder Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein at a March 25, 2010, Passover seder with 200 new immigrants from Ethiopia at the Jewish Agency Absorption Center in Mevasseret Zion. (courtesy)

The kernel of the current media kerfuffle with the Jewish Agency, he says, is based on JAFI’s inability to adhere to his “four A’s” of philanthropy: awareness, acknowledgment, appreciation, and attitude change.

(Off the record, a major player in the Christian Zionist world says while he empathizes with Eckstein’s need to show his donors where their money is going, “My question is, why does he operate in Israel under the name ‘Keren Yedidut’? The name doesn’t even have Christian in it.”)

‘We have grown to become huge, bigger than all the organizations that rejected us’

Eckstein says this is not the first time JAFI has been unwilling to publicize the Christian nature of the Fellowship’s donations. He says that former JAFI chairman Avram Burg “didn’t want a backlash from Jews and once refused to take a photo with me presenting him with a $3 million-$4 million check.”

But no longer. Eckstein’s Fellowship, he says, is breaking out on its own, and Eckstein has hired former JAFI head of aliya Eli Cohen in an attempt to create a NBN-esque aliya endeavor focusing on Ukrainian Jews. Eckstein tells The Times of Israel that the first charter from Ukraine will land on December 22 with 200 people.

“We’re pretty much the only ones with money… We have grown to become huge, bigger than all the organizations that rejected us,” says Eckstein.

“We have a monopoly on reaching out to the pro-Israel Christians and getting money from them,” he says.

Jewish establishment ambivalence in working with evangelicals

Eckstein founded the Fellowship 32 years ago, he says, as a “hasbara effort” to build relations between Jews and evangelicals.

Initially he was attacked by a “liberal Jewish establishment” (including the Jewish federations and Hadassah) wary of Christians’ motives.

Evangelical Christians from around the world sing and recite prayers as they attend the 2013 Jerusalem Chairman's Conference hosted by the Israel Allies Foundation, at the International Convention Center in Jerusalem, on September 22, 2013. Around 3,000 Evangelical Christians from around the world attended the event, expressing their support for the Jewish state. (Flash 90)
Evangelical Christians from around the world sing and recite prayers as they attend the 2013 Jerusalem Chairman’s Conference hosted by the Israel Allies Foundation, at the International Convention Center in Jerusalem, on September 22, 2013. Around 3,000 Evangelical Christians from around the world attended the event, expressing their support for the Jewish state. (Flash90)

Hagee’s spokesman Ari Morgenstern also acknowledges an early ambivalence faced by CUFI.

“When Christians United for Israel was first founded [in 2006] there were many in the Jewish community that were cautious, even suspicious, of Christian Zionism,” says Morgenstern.

For his part, Eckstein says he was accused of “working with the enemy.”

To liberal Jewry, ‘evangelicals were the enemy trying to destroy Jewish civil rights and liberties in America’

To liberal Jewry, “evangelicals were the enemy trying to destroy Jewish civil rights and liberties in America,” says Eckstein, citing “red flag” issues such as abortion, school prayer, and homosexuality.

In his authoritative work “An Unusual Relationship,” Prof. Ariel supports Eckstein’s view. “Liberal Jews have, at times, felt uncomfortable with the close relationship and cooperation that has developed between conservative Christians and Jews. Such Christians, they have asserted, promote values that go against the spirit of an open, progressive society.”

But the overriding concern among many Jews and Jewish institutions is undoubtedly that Christian Zionists, while putting on a good show, are really just interested in converting the Jews.

Dr. Misha Galperin, president and CEO of the Jewish Agency International Development, agrees, saying part of the reason more Jewish institutions haven’t reached out to the massive pool of pro-Israel Christians “always has to do with the suspicion of potential proselytizing.”

Thousands of Christian Evangelists wave their national flags and march in a Jerusalem parade marking the Feast of the Tabernacles, October 14, 2014. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Thousands of Christian Evangelists wave their national flags and march in a Jerusalem parade marking the Feast of the Tabernacles, October 14, 2014. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

But after innumerable historical examples of Crusades, forced conversions and pogroms, can this fear ever really be overcome?

A clinical psychologist with training and a practice in individual psychological adjustments, Galperin shares his educated guess.

“I couldn’t tell you what could work for Jews as a people or a religious grouping, but I think on an individual basis, I deeply believe that the best way to overcome prejudice and bias is by interacting with people from those other groups and working on same and similar causes with them together. In those cases, you can do it… In places like the US, for the better and informed and enlightened of the two groups, that bias is diminishing,” says Galperin.

‘I deeply believe that the best way to overcome prejudice and bias is by interacting with people from those other groups and working on same and similar causes with them together’

Yet many Jewish leaders approached for this article were unwilling to go on record for fear of endangering a fruitful financial relationship.

“I just know there are people who don’t trust the evangelicals in terms of their motives. They think they’re on the ground in Israel to convert Jews, undermine the legitimacy of the Jewish State. I don’t buy it,” says one Jewish leader who works closely with evangelicals.

“I’d rather deal with the evangelicals who love Israel despite our disagreements. In my opinion, Israel needs all the friends it can take,” he says.

When Return Ministries founder Bye is asked if he is ever accused of proselytizing, he laughs and says he always tells concerned Jews, “You don’t circumcise me and I won’t baptize you.”

Hagee spokesman Morgenstern feels CUFI and the ministry’s efforts — and funds — are now universally well-received by mainstream Jewry.

“Over the past few years the Jewish community has seen that Christian support for Israel is just that – nothing less, nothing more,” says Morgenstern.

“At this point, opposition to Christian support for Israel has frankly become a fringe position,” says Morgenstern.

The Christian Friends of the Jewish Agency

The Times of Israel has learned that the Jewish Agency is poised to launch the Christian Friends of the Jewish Agency, a coalition consisting of leading pastors and lay leadership “who are supporters of the Zionist idea willing to help and support it,” says Galperin.

Dr. Misha Galperin, The Jewish Agency for Israel's president and CEO of International Development. (courtesy)
Dr. Misha Galperin, The Jewish Agency for Israel’s president and CEO of International Development. (courtesy)

Recently, during this summer’s Operation Protective Edge, the Jewish Agency sent out mailings to Christians. In response JAFI saw donations of as high as $7,000-$10,000 and decided to continue a formal engagement program with Christian Zionists.

Galperin says the Christian Friends of the Jewish Agency will not include groups like Jews for Jesus, who are explicitly looking to convert Jews to Christianity, but will seek to explicitly enlarge JAFI’s donor base and to engage Christian leadership.

Galperin says Eckstein deserves enormous credit for reaching out to evangelical Christians.

“He swam against the tide for many years, faced all sorts of criticisms and doubts about whether these efforts are connected with their desire to proselytize. He persevered and was unabashedly Jewish about it. Sure, he may have been appealing to the Christian notion about returning to Zion, quoting Christian scripture, but he did so as an Orthodox rabbi,” says Galperin.

‘At this point, opposition to Christian support for Israel has frankly become a fringe position’

In response to recent tensions in the JAFI-Fellowship relationship, however, Galperin says, “We anticipate that we’re not going to be getting the kinds of support we have in the past and need to find money elsewhere.” He adds that JAFI still obviously welcomes the Fellowship funds.

Galperin says the new initiative is “not at all a response to the Eckstein relationship, adding that for the past four and a half years JAFI has been looking for ways to increase funding “from all sources.”  Set to launch in 2015, the Christian Friends initiative has been in the works full speed for the past year and a half.

“In the US there is the phenomenon of 17-19 million evangelicals who are particularly verbal about their Zionism,” says Galperin, and JAFI is exploring all possibilities.

What do immigrants themselves think?

Most of the funds donated by Christians for aliya go toward “emergency” situations, such as France’s surge of anti-Semitism, or for underdeveloped or crisis countries — now Ukraine and Russia.

According to the Jewish Agency, as of the end of October 2014, aliya from Ukraine constitutes 49% of all aliya from the FSU this year. A total of 4,465 immigrants arrived in Israel between January and October of 2014, which is an increase of 178% over the same period in 2013 (1,607).

In other words, the number of Ukrainian immigrants has nearly tripled this year compared to the same period last year.

A recent Central Bureau of Statistics survey shows that only an average of 42% of immigrants from FSU from 1990-2007 self-identify as Jewish

The Russian figures are less startling. From January through October of this year, 3,934 immigrants arrived from Russia, compared to 3,695 during the same period in 2013 — a 6% increase. The total FSU immigration from January through October is 9,099, compared to 6,112 during the same period in 2013 — a 49% increase.

What is interesting — and hard to pin down — is the percentage of these immigrants who are halachically Jewish, Jewish according to the Law of Return, or even self-identify as Jews.

According to Israel’s leading demographer, Hebrew University Prof. (emeritus) Sergio DellaPergola, in 2013 there were 23,800 immigrants from FSU countries, of which 16,000 were Jewish and 7,800 “others.” In 2012, there were 22,000 immigrants, with 14,700 Jews and 7,300 “others.”

“In simple words,” answers DellaPergola, “two-thirds and one-third.”

A recent Central Bureau of Statistics survey shows that only an average of 42% of immigrants from FSU from 1990-2007 self-identify as Jewish.

DellaPergola says, “To avoid any confusion, this is an attitudinal survey. The question is: which of the various identificational options do you feel as your strongest? (Likewise do you love more dad or mom?) It does not relate to the definition of Jewishness by the Law of Return, which is legal.”

An average of 42% is a strikingly far lower — and more troubling — number than the already low proportion (two-thirds) of immigrants considered Jewish who made aliya through the Law of Return.

 Jewish teenagers from embattled areas of Ukraine enjoy a Jewish Agency summer camp experience in Israel. (photo credit: Emanuel Shechter)
Jewish teenagers from embattled areas of Ukraine enjoy a Jewish Agency summer camp experience in Israel. (photo credit: Emanuel Shechter)

Deep in the Negev, a group of teenage immigrants from Russia taking part in the Jewish Agency’s Selah program are sitting in the old school mess hall at Kibbutz Shoval. A remnant of the youth aliya movement of yore, Selah, an acronym for “Students Before Parents,” is a program for 17-18 year old recent high school graduates to come to Israel for a year, and hopefully more.

The group of 20-odd teens from Russia are welcome fresh faces in the increasingly elderly kibbutz, founded in 1946 in a daring operation by young immigrants fleeing certain disaster in Europe.

I ask the teens to consider the question of how they feel about Christians funding their aliya.

The group of new immigrants is even newer to the Hebrew language. A young woman takes the lead and translates the question for her friends. After they talk among themselves, the self-appointed spokesperson answers.

“Most of us haven’t decided whether we want to be Christian or Jewish yet. All of us would have to convert, and some of us think we will when we join the army because we hear it’s easier. So, no, taking money from Christians doesn’t bother us at all.”

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