by Simon Stout | November 14 2018
Thirteen years ago, loaded with two suitcases and a backpack, I boarded a plane and trekked from my birthplace in the United States to the homeland of my people, Israel. Within the next year, I was married and had officially immigrated to the Land. Since then, I’ve gained an entire apartment full of treasured belongings and a home filled with the playful laughter of my Israeli children.
Being a native English speaker with a thick American accent has its downfalls in Israel – taxi drivers always want to charge you extra money, for example. But it also has its perks. I write and edit newsletters of organizations that are doing spectacular work to serve their local communities, so I’ve often had the pleasure of communicating with the outside world about all the amazing happenings in and around the country.
Answering that question is a near impossibility – almost as hard as if one were to ask, “What or who is a Jew?” While Jewish believers in Jesus in Israel agree on the central tenets of our faith, we are extremely diverse in our family backgrounds, native tongues, theological interpretation of Scriptures, and how we live them out.
The modern State of Israel is relatively young and mostly populated by first, second, and third generation immigrant families – each from another country, speaking different languages, and holding a different set of traditions. While Hebrew is Israel’s national language, nearly 25 percent of the population speak Russian and 20 percent Arabic. Messianic congregational services are held in Hebrew, Russian, English, Amharic, French, Spanish, etc.
Trying to pinpoint an exact number of Jewish believers in Yeshua poses even more of a challenge. The last professional study was conducted in 1999 by Kai Kjaer-Hansen and Bodil F. Skjott. They found that there were nearly 5,000 believers (both Jewish and non-Jewish) attending Messianic congregations in the Land. While that number has certainly grown in the last two decades, it would be hard to describe that growth as a revival of massive proportions. In the “International Religious Freedom Report for 2017: Israel, Golan Heights, West Bank, and Gaza,” it says, “There is also a community of approximately 20,000 Messianic Jews, as reported by the Messianic Jewish community.”1 These estimated numbers are largely due to the fact that Messianic congregations are often attended by both Jewish and Gentile believers. In fear of retribution from anti-missionaries, congregations don’t post an exact number of members.
While most Israelis might now be able to tell you that they’ve met a Messianic Jew, most children from Messianic homes are still probably the only one in his or her school. These statistics show that Messianic Jews still make up only a fraction of a percent of the population, but it is apparent that Messianic Judaism has made huge gains in the awareness of the Israeli public.
The way Messianic Jews in Israel live out their Judaism is also quite varied. Most Messianic Jewish Israelis could not be called Torah observant, but a small number are, and they adhere to the rabbinical interpretation of Scripture. It would be difficult for many of us to distinguish the difference between these believers and the people in the Orthodox Jewish community. Their style of dress and their outward worship is compatible with that of the orthodoxy. Some will even attend a synagogue rather than a Messianic congregation.
On the flip side, some Messianic Jewish Israelis have completely distanced themselves from the Jewish religion. It would be hard to tell the difference between their weekly Shabbat services and that of a Christian church in any other part of the western world – except perhaps for the fact that the service is in Hebrew. However, the large majority of congregations and believers in the Land fall somewhere in the middle – celebrating the Jewish holidays in a way that recognizes Yeshua, using some traditional Jewish liturgy in worship services, and perhaps even keeping kosher. In spite of their differences, all Messianic Jews in Israel consider Yeshua the Messiah and are trying to express this unique belief in their everyday lives.
The status of Messianic Judaism in Israel is still under debate. Instead of being labeled Jewish or Christian, we have often been branded as a cult. As a result of this social stigmatism, often we are not considered worthy of being hired for a position or trustworthy enough to rent property. Many Messianic Jews are still not granted the right to make aliyah (immigrate) to Israel under the Right of Return, as the court generally sees Jewish believers as having converted to Christianity. Some small number of Messianic Jews still do immigrate every year but must jump through hoops to hide any evidence that they might be believers. This is especially true if they have ever openly shared their faith, as “missionary” is still considered a curse word in the Hebrew language. Despite all of these setbacks, Messianic Jews are free to practice their faith in Israel, and are starting to get a better reputation due to popular online videos in Hebrew and social projects that serve the community.
What can be said of Messianic Jews in Israel? We are a small, but growing and diverse community of believers in Yeshua (Jesus), outcast for, but living out our faith in a world that fails to see us as either Jewish or Christian. All of us share the same goal: to love, serve, and work to bring the good news of salvation through Yeshua to our people Israel.
1. 2017 Report on International Religious Freedom: Israel, Golan Heights, West Bank, and Gaza