Written for Kehila News Israel, and published there on July 3, 2020
Even before 1981, the year that I became a believer in Yeshua the Messiah, Israel had always been important to me, but not a place I ever considered home. Despite my Conservative Jewish upbringing having taught me that Israel was the homeland of the Jewish people, I don’t ever remember being taught that the return of the Jews to the land was connected with biblical prophecy, or that we should consider making aliyah (immigration), even though we did have Jewish neighbors who did that.
My Bar-Mitzvah haftarah portion in 1963 was more powerful than I could have ever known at the time. It was taken from Ezekiel 36 in which YHVH, the God of Israel, speaks to the Land, and to the Jewish people, that the days would come when He would return us back to the Land, according to His covenant promise. He would bring us back as a people in unbelief – not because we deserved it, or even cared much about it, but for the sake of His holy name. Yet, even though we, as a people, had profaned God’s great name among the nations to which we were exiled, the passage goes on to promise that God would give us a new heart and a new Spirit to know the LORD and to obey Him.
In 1971, between my junior and senior university years, I visited Israel for the first time as a tourist. I was fascinated by the country, its living history (unlike Greece or Rome), seeing the old and the new intermingled on opposite sides of the roads. Oddly, though, I found that I did not like or connect to the people. How could that be? These were/are my people. I found them to be rude, aggressive, coarse – not at all the way we were brought up in the South of the USA. However, even with those feelings, something stirred deep within me which caused me to confront the fact that Israel was personally important to me as a Jew. My father and mother had visited in 1968, after the euphoric victory of the Six-Day War in June, 1967. They, too, had returned very excited, but had no interest in considering moving there.
In 1974 I returned to Israel — this time as a volunteer on a kibbutz (Yisre’el) in the aftermath of the Yom Kippur War in October, 1973. I picked grapefruit, living and working among Israelis, and also other volunteers who had come to help, mostly from English-speaking countries. Not all were Jewish. I still did not like the way the Israelis acted, but I slowly began to understand why they were different. I realized that they did not know if they would be here tomorrow. It was that kind of attitude, as portrayed in Scripture: “Let us eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we die” — an existence which is devoid of hope or faith in the living God; it is idolatry. With constant threats of war, what did it matter saying “thank-you,” “excuse me,” or exercising some patience? The young people would often engage in inappropriate behavior, probably emanating from the thought that they might not have a tomorrow – so why wait?
It wasn’t until February, 1981, that I understood the meaning of my haftarah. It suddenly became very personal once I came to know the God of my people, and I heard His voice clearly, saying, “Go to Israel.” It did not matter why I did not want to live here before, the moment that I heard the Lord say, “Go…”, it became home. I told my family that we learned in Jewish history classes at our synagogue that we believe in the living God, and that He spoke to our fathers. Well, He can still speak to us, and I heard Him say that I, with my pretty new wife, were to go live in Israel.
Ten months after we were married, both my wife and I came to faith in Jesus/Yeshua, and seven months later we moved to Israel. Neither of our families was thrilled by the idea, but we knew it was the right thing to do.
Having said that, once we arrived, we knew no one here nor did we have any supporters to uphold us. All we had was the Word of God, and the name of a couple who lived in the center of the country. After meeting them, we began to become acquainted with other believers around the country. Once we applied for aliyah we prayed to know where in Israel we were to live. Even as our father Abraham simply followed in faith what he had heard from El Shaddai, we, too, followed the Lord’s leading to the city that would become our home till this day – Beer Sheva, which Abraham and Isaac named! We rode our bicycles over three days from Netanya to Beer Sheva in February, 1982.
Living in Israel as a Jew who has come home, our lives are more authentically Jewish than had we remained in the U.S. predominantly Gentile Christian culture. As I wrote my best friend back in the States, shortly after immigrating, everything here is Jewish: the Sabbath, the holidays, the culture, and, of course, speaking Hebrew – it is all Jewish. Even the street cleaners are Jewish! Living in Israel is truly home for the Jewish people, and I am very thankful that I live among my people here, and that my non-Jewish wife feels at home here, as well.
As believers in Yeshua, we have experienced opposition since the very beginning at the absorption center. Yet, we trusted God, whom we knew wanted us to be here. We learned to pray and to bless those who disapproved of us because of our faith in “that man”. The first disapproval and persecution of Jewish believers that we see recorded in the New Testament were by Jews who were not believers in Yeshua as the Messiah and Son of God. So, we are not surprised, but feel very much at home, even if we are not considered “kosher” by those who do not yet understand. Our children and grandchildren, so far, have all been born here. They also feel that Israel is their home, even if they might need to be outside for a time. We have all visited our families in the States over the years, but it is always ‘just a visit’; it never feels like being home anymore. This is also very gratifying, that God has made Israel home for our family. We came not knowing anyone, but now we are members of the growing family of Messiah and our Father in Heaven, YHVH God of Israel.