Israeli Traveler Ministry: An Intentional Missions Response to Contemporary Israeli Culture
This article is greatly condensed from a paper given March 2014, at a meeting of the Lausanne Consultation on Jewish Evangelism–North America.
The Trekking Phenomenon
“Exile is the Jewish condition, so perhaps it is no surprise that travel away from Israel has become central to the Israeli identity,” writes author Patrick Symmes.[ 1 ] Israeli trekking, or backpacking, is unique to the Israeli Jewish community. Leaving Israel each year for an estimated average time period of six months, 30,000–40,000[ 2 ] individuals travel to various regions around the world as a rite of passage before entering the universities or workforce. Many are in the formative transition from adolescence into adulthood, seeking to establish personal identity through their travels, and thus uniquely open to considering the Messianic claims of Jesus.
Says Patrick Symmes:
For Israelis, travel is therapy. “There is a sense of a mental prison living here, surrounded by enemies,” explains Yair Qedar, editor of the Tel Aviv-based travel magazine Masa Acher. . . . “Suffocation is a constant feeling . . . When the sky opens, you get out.”[ 3 ]
And that’s precisely what happened in the early 1990s after the Oslo Accords were signed. Airfares dropped as Israel’s economy boomed, and post-army trekking was all but institutionalized.
Around twice as many Israeli trekkers travel to Asia as to South and Central America combined.[ 4 ] The choice of destination is motivated by personal interest and temperament: inward-oriented trekkers prefer Asia for spirituality, while those who are outward-oriented choose either Asia or South/Central America for “nature activities.”[ 5 ] Australia and New Zealand are also popular, although they attract a more affluent type of trekker who can afford the double or triple price-tag of trekking in Asia.[ 6 ]
The collective character of Israeli trekkers is expressed in their camaraderie with other Israelis they’ve met on the road, often in highly distinct Israeli enclaves. These usually consist of a particular area within a city or town with a specific set of guest houses, restaurants, cafes, laundry services, taxi and travel companies, and internet cafes where the Israeli trekkers congregate.
An Open Window
From 2008 through 2012, I spent at least a month each year with Jews for Jesus’ Massah program traveling with the “spiritual” type of Israeli trekkers in Northern India. We met Israelis in coffee shops, guest houses, restaurants and waypoints, sharing the gospel as we went. We gave Hebrew New Testaments to those we encountered, and left them on any bookshelves that included other books in Hebrew.
During my first time in India, I was completely surprised by the Israeli response to my basic explanation of the gospel: extreme interest! More often than not, all we had to do to get an opportunity to share the gospel was to say that we were Messianic Jews from America. The response was often along the lines of, “Wow, that’s really interesting. I knew someone from school whose family was like you, but no one ever explained to me what it is and what you believe. Can you tell me?” We then would sit anywhere from twenty minutes to four hours and go through a full explanation of the gospel.
Israeli trekking promotes a mindset of openness that may not be present in Israel. Whatever the reason for this, its effect creates a unique window of time when Israelis are particularly open to considering non-conformist points of view.
Engaging with Israeli Trekkers
Israelis who have positive interactions with the gospel on their treks bring those experiences back to Israel, where they contribute to the collective Israeli sentiment about the Messianic claims of Yeshua. In order to maximize the undeniable evangelistic opportunity that is before us, I propose a fivefold approach based on the “lifecycle” of Israeli trekking (pre-trek planning, traveling, returning to Israel). This approach reflects structures that are already in place with various Jewish missions agencies and in some locales where individual Christians, pastors, or foreign missionaries have responded to a recognized opportunity of reaching the Israeli trekkers.
The development of information centers for Israelis planning their trek itineraries from Israel
The establishment of co-trekking programs for Israeli and non-Israeli believers who can share the gospel with Israelis while trekking with them
The creation of services for Israelis in recognized trekker enclaves, including the establishment of restaurants, cafes, guest houses, and other businesses
The equipping and encouragement of native Christians to think “missionally” about the Israelis who are traveling in their regions
The development of follow-up centers—so-called “trampoline sites”[ 7 ]—where Israelis who heard the gospel while trekking can continue the discussion back in Israel.
1. Information Centers
Developing pre-trek information centers in Israel is perhaps most important for engaging with second-generation Israeli Jewish believers in order to provide accountability for them on their trips, and to encourage them to maintain a positive witness to their fellow trekkers. Since trekking is a salient experience in developing “Israeli-ness”, the trekking experience should not be discouraged for Messianic Israelis, but training should be made available in order to help them resist the temptation of drugs and hedonism, and to equip them to share their faith during their trek.
2. Co-Trekking Programs
Co-trekking outreach programs have been demonstrated by the efforts of various Jewish missions agencies to be an effective means for engaging Israeli trekkers with the gospel. In order to be effective, it is necessary to choose the right destination at the correct time of year, and to select a team based on demographics that will enable success.
In 2009, Jews for Jesus sent an exploratory team to Laos when it turned out that most Israelis were actually in Thailand. Laos is a popular destination for Israelis, but we were off by a few weeks! On the other hand, in 2012, we sent a missionary couple to Manali, India (a well-known Israeli enclave) for the months of June and July, and they were able to connect with hundreds of Israelis.
India and, to a lesser extent, Nepal, are places where Israeli trekkers specifically go looking for spirituality outside the bounds of traditional Judaism. Teams made up of non-Hebrew speakers can have deep spiritual conversations with these “spiritual seekers.” On the other hand, Thailand and South and Central America are not places that Israelis trek in order to do spiritual exploration, and as such, teams made up of Hebrew speakers will have greater ease inserting themselves into these Israeli traveler communities that are more cohesive and less open to outsiders and non-Hebrew speakers.
3. Services for Israeli Trekkers
As Israeli enclaves are identified, we are presented with the opportunity to establish a foothold of influence by creating various kinds of businesses and services that meet the needs of Israeli trekkers. Dylan’s Coffee House[ 8 ] is one such example. Founded in partnership between an American Jewish believer and an Indian Christian, Dylan’s sits in the heart of Manali, India, and is a destination for Israeli trekkers unto itself. The owner of Dylan’s is open about his faith, and invites missions teams to come and use his space for evangelism, music, and open mic nights. Another example is a guesthouse in Latin America which provides hospitality to Israeli trekkers in a friendly environment that allows them to feel safe.[ 9 ] Reach Initiative’s International Outreach Center is yet another example, providing Messianic worship venues that Israelis can attend in Northern India. By leveraging existing patterns of Israeli travel, these services take full advantage of the institutionalized travel routes, and can focus on engaging with Israelis instead of trying to create new destinations.
Starting a service in these countries is time consuming but can be relatively inexpensive compared to the costs in America or Israel. One service that I’ve found requires almost zero financial investment is the establishment of volunteer opportunities for Israeli trekkers to help at local orphanages. Many Israelis who are confronted with the harsh realities of the third world during their treks feel compelled to help in some way, but don’t know where to begin. By creating relationships with local orphanages and providing them with volunteers, we’ve been able to create valuable partnerships between the local community and the Israelis who are seeking to help out. Creating such opportunities naturally leads to spiritual conversations.
4. Native Christian Ministry
In most of the locations that Israelis choose to trek, there is a community of indigenous Christians. These local Christians have great opportunities to interact with Israelis, but they need training and encouragement. Providing Jewish evangelism seminars and workshops can greatly assist the local churches in reaching out to these Israeli trekkers. One Indian Christian hairdresser in Kasol uses the line, “You came to India to study meditation and to smoke a chillum,[ 10 ] but I believe in the God of Israel!” She has deep conversations with many Israelis who are fascinated by her Christian beliefs and her positive attitude toward Israeli travelers.
Another example of an indigenous population empowered to share the gospel with Israeli travelers is the HIT and Chiburim networks in New Zealand, composed of Christians who host Israeli trekkers in their homes. Although there are only around 2000 Israelis who trek in New Zealand each year, these networks have had tremendous impact and have been featured in news articles back in Israel.[ 11 ] The expansion of such trekker hosting networks could greatly benefit ministry to Israelis across Australia, as well as in Europe and North America.
5. Follow-Up Centers
Although there isn’t much research around the topic, I know from personal encounters that many Israelis experience intense reverse culture shock upon return to Israel. As young Israelis attempt to construct a mental framework in which to understand the significance of their trek within the greater context of their lives, it is easy for them to see their experiences in a way that disassociates them from their lives back in Israel. Creating effective follow-up ministry for trekkers who have returned to Israel has been an incredible challenge for co-trekking outreach programs, as many Israelis who express openness while trekking have no framework for pursuing that openness once they are back in Israel.
By developing follow-up centers back in Israel, the Messianic community can enable young Israelis to continue the spiritual exploration they started during their trek. Eli Birnbaum, director of Jews for Jesus’ young adult ministry in Israel and the current leader of our Massah program, has attempted to address this challenge. In February of 2014, Eli hosted an India art gallery at the Moishe Rosen Center in Florentine, Tel Aviv, in order to connect with Israelis that our Massah team had met in India over the last several years. There were 176 Israelis who showed up, including 120 unbelievers. The event was positively reviewed by hodu.co.il, a web portal for Israeli trekkers in India.[ 12 ] You can watch an online video of this “India Night” at j4j.co/xtra173, along with an English translation of the media coverage.
Israeli traveler ministry represents tremendous evangelistic opportunity, with the possibility of creating culture shift in Israel by engaging with Israelis when they are perhaps most open to considering the gospel. Israeli traveler ministry—specifically the Massah program—was responsible for altering the course of my own life and launching me into full-time ministry with Jews for Jesus. In August 2008, the Massah team that my wife and I were leading (as volunteers) arrived back in Delhi on our way home to America. It was in the Delhi international airport that we were interviewed by the Jews for Jesus council—using up the remaining minutes on our Indian SIM cards—and were accepted onto missionary staff. Out of our team of eighteen volunteers, fourteen of us would continue in ministry in one form or another, drastically changing the trajectory of our lives because our hearts were captured by what God was doing. I hope this article has captured your heart—or at least your imagination!
[ 1 ]Patrick Symmes, “The Book,” www.outsideonline.com/adventure-travel/south-america/argentina/The-Book.html. The “book” refers to the handwritten, constantly updated travel guides that many guest houses in South America keep on their bookshelves.
[ 2 ]According to the Israeli Student Travel Association, cited at www.forbes.com/sites/davidyin/2013/12/19/out-of-israel-into-the-world/
[ 3 ]Symmes, “The Book.”
[ 4 ]Oded Mevorach, “The Long Trip after the Military Service: Characteristics of the Travelers, the Effects of the Trip, and its Meaning.” Ph.D. dissertation, Department of Psychology, Hebrew University of Jerusalem, 1997 [Hebrew].
[ 5 ]Chaim Noy and Erik Cohen, eds., Israeli Backpackers: From Tourism to Rite of Passage (New York: State University of New York Press, 2005), 26.
[ 6 ]See Forbes article in n. 2..
[ 7 ]Noy and Cohen, 19.
[ 8 ]http://www.dylanscoffee.com/
[ 9 ]Contact Havurah for the website.
[ 10 ]An Indian kind of pipe.
[ 11 ]www.newswise.com/articles/go-for-the-good-deal-and-get-a-dose-of-spirituality
[ 12 ]“New Exhibition: India in the Eyes of the Travelers,” at bit.ly/1fwLOs6
Aaron Trank is minister-at-large and director of recruiting at the San Francisco headquarters of Jews for Jesus. He was working as a software engineer in the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory before he was called into ministry. He and his wife, Rachelle, have three children, Rina, Rafi and Rocco.