When Canadian native Wayne Hilsden moved to Israel in 1983 to help establish a fledgling congregation in Jerusalem, little did he know that he would wind up staying for three decades, or that King of Kings Community Jerusalem would turn into a multi-faceted ministry that has helped give birth to six churches, a Bible college, a thriving prayer initiative and various outreaches.
However, most precious to the former professor at Eastern Pentecostal Bible College are the carefully built relationships that enable him to share the message that Jesus (Yeshua in Hebrew) is the Messiah awaited by Israelis.
“There’s a greater measure of openness about one’s faith,” says the senior pastor of King of Kings. “When we came to Israel, the average Jew didn’t believe it was possible to become a believer. Even those who came to Christ believed they were the only Jews in existence who had done that.”
From a smattering of 15 messianic congregations around Israel when he arrived, Hilsden estimates there are 150 today. These churches have more than 15,000 Jews who consider themselves followers of Yeshua.
Those numbers may seem minuscule in a nation of more than 8 million. But leaders who focus on providing humanitarian aid, social assistance and spreading the good news in a nation largely resistant to Christ say what God is doing in Israel rivals the exodus from Egypt.
The miracles are occurring “right before our eyes,” says Gary Cristofaro, director of development for Ezra International. Since 1995 the U.S.-based ministry has aided the return of more than 43,000 low-income Jews to their ancestral homeland. A similar number are waiting for help securing documents, passports and assorted immigration papers.
“God is gathering His people from the four corners of the earth,” says Cristofaro, a former Assemblies of God pastor. “The miracles are greater than when He brought them out of Egypt. Understanding this can make a difference in people’s faith. The things we worry about are pretty tame compared to this. It’s a very exciting time. A lot of people’s hearts will fail, but if more understand where they are in His economy, it will make a difference.”
Ezra International’s founder, Mel Hoelzle, points to God’s promise in Jeremiah 16:16 to develop a network of fishermen and hunters to help with the return of Jews to Israel.
The former business leader discovered such networks in Eastern European churches and others after the fall of communism. In a vision, God told Hoelzle He brought down the Iron Curtain, but another wall (poverty) was holding His people from returning home.
“That’s why we work with poor people,” Hoelzle says. “It was unbelievable how in Russia, Siberia and Ukraine, we had people coming up to tell us about dreams and visions that He would call them to help Jewish people. And now they had the opportunity to work with an organization like ours.”
Among other present-day miracles is improving Christian-Jewish relations, fractured by anti-Semitism in the church for 2,000 years.
The thaw has been aided by such long-standing efforts as the International Christian Embassy Jerusalem, established in 1980 after 13 nations closed embassies to protest the Knesset’s declaration of Jerusalem as Israel’s undivided capital.
More recently, an 8-year-old ministry that provides portable shelters to Jews, Palestinians and other residents during rocket attacks is also opening doors of understanding.
Rabbi Shmuel Bowman says Operation Lifeshield has attracted support from diverse quarters. When Jews and Christians come together for a unified purpose, the program saves lives while bringing down long-standing walls, Bowman says.
“The Jewish Federation in Birmingham, Alabama, now has a Christian on staff whose job is to connect to Christian communities and talk to them about Israel and why bridge building is important,” says the Torah scribe, who lives just south of Jerusalem. “If people can get together and talk about things we care passionately about, that opens doors to conversations and relationships.”
“Ministry to Israel” is a broad term, encompassing everything from church planting and humanitarian aid to helping soldiers without extended family and protecting people vulnerable to attacks—especially those in southern Israel shelled by a hail of rockets this year from Hamas forces in Gaza.
In a nation prospering amid intense opposition from surrounding Middle Eastern neighbors, it may be hard to see Israel as a land of need. Indeed, during his multiple visits each year, Hoelzle finds a place vastly different from the snippets that appear via network news reports.
“Israel does a good job of protecting their people,” he says. “I feel safer there than I do on the streets of Los Angeles or Chicago.”
Yet, many are left behind in the country’s economic development, particularly Palestinians, Russians and Ethiopian immigrants. The latter two groups are part of the ongoing “aliyah” return aided by groups such as Ezra International.
The Messianic Jewish Alliance estimates 1.7 million, or approximately 20 percent, of Israel’s residents live below the poverty line. Jonathan Bernis, president and CEO of Jewish Voice Ministries International, says those numbers reflect groups still struggling to adapt to an advanced, high-tech-style economy.
In addition to lacking job skills, people such as elderly Russians and Ethiopians also run into language barriers. While many Israelis speak English, a failure to master the Hebrew language places immigrants outside the mainstream, Bernis says.
Yet, such needs are also creating an opportunity for messianic churches and Christian ministries that have gained credibility in many sectors of society.
“There’s still a disdain for Jewish believers among the ultra-Orthodox and a majority in political leadership,” says Bernis, who started Hear O Israel Ministries in 1984 before later merging it with Jewish Voice.
“But I think the messianic Jewish movement has gained a constituency. It has done a good job of providing clothing on behalf of the Christian community.”
Some of the numbers are impressive. During the past 20 years, Vision for Israel & The Joseph Storehouse has assisted more than 750,000 people and 193,500 students, the latter through its Pack to School project providing school supplies to needy children.
Statistics pale in significance, however, when co-founder Barry Segal has touching encounters like his meeting with 64 Holocaust survivors in mid-August. Barry and his wife, Batya, sang to them and provided financial vouchers in advance for the Jewish holidays (Rosh Hashanah, Sept. 24-26, and Yom Kippur, Oct. 3-4).
This tender moment came right before the ministry distributed 8,500 backpacks and other assistance to children. Soon after, 500 members in Vision for Israel’s Lone Soldiers program received hiking bags stuffed with personal supplies.
In early September, Segal’s staff also gave out thousands of dollars worth of medical kits in backpacks to first responders who deal with the fallout of attacks from Hamas and other terrorist groups.
The latter has been even more challenging lately, as more than 2,000 Gazans and Israelis died in two months of fighting with Hamas before a shaky ceasefire went into effect in late summer. In addition to destruction, Segal says the collateral damage has included victims suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder.
Segal shares about projects and topics such as food, culture and the Bible on his weekly Roots & Reflections TV program, which airs in Israel and globally on Daystar. The program’s positive message about Israel and its people helps counteract the anti-Semitism that has resurfaced this year around the globe.
“We are not stuffing the good news down people’s throats,” says Segal, who grew up in the United States and discovered Yeshua as a young musician in the Midwest. “We’re introducing people to the Bible and its great author through a relationship with Yeshua, the Messiah.
“We are not trying to convert Jews to another religion but bring them back to repentance and a love for the faith of their patriarchs. Abraham, Isaac and Jacob all looked forward to this covenant relationship.”