Christian Service of Israel: Changing Lives Forever

July 26, 2018

10 min read

Breaking Israel News recently spoke at length with five Christians who came to Israel to be of service. They described their work here in detail and also about how living in Israel has impacted them as Christians.

No one knows exactly how many Christians live and work in Israel. Estimates range from a thousand to a few hundred thousand, depending on whether Christian-Arabs are included in the count. What was clear from interviewing just a few of them, is that so many are committed to improving the understanding between Christians and Jews.

Five Christians Who Serve Israel

French-born Nathalie Blackham came to Israel from England nine years ago with her husband, Martin, and their four teenage children. She is a broadcast journalist. The Blackhams produce a weekly TV show called Israel First. Blackham told Breaking Israel News, “Our motivation is to give an opportunity to the people in the Nations to be introduced to Jewish people living in Israel, discovering the land and the Hebrew language.

“[Viewers] have been able to bless some work done in the Land [through organizations like] Leket, Yatar, Innovation Africa and Nefesh B’Nefesh, discovering the Jewish way of thinking. Through [all this], many layers of anti-Semitism that have been woven for too long in our Christian culture can be broken.”

Lynne Hilton works with HaYovel. She told Breaking Israel News that HaYovel is “a non-profit organization that brings hundreds of volunteers yearly from all over the world, to harvest the grapes for about eight different vineyard owners in Samaria and Judea.  

“We also work hard to try and educate our volunteers of the truth about Israel, take them to the covenant places, and host many Israeli speakers to come and address the groups. Our desire is to counter the many lies that the liberal media proclaims on a daily basis about Israel, and send our volunteers back to their home country as ambassadors for this land,” she exclaimed.

“We travel back and forth from Israel to the Nations, including Canada, Australia, Latvia, South Africa, England, Italy, Sweden and Norway, every year to educate people on what is really happening here in the land. Even though our hearts are here in the land and we have thrown our lot in with the lot of Israel, we feel it is our responsibility to be ambassadors for Israel in the nations.

“Going out to the nations to educate the world about the miracles happening in Israel is a huge part of what God has called us to do. It is exciting to know that Christians all over the world are recognizing the importance of Israel!”

In the past, Andrew McKain, who calls Tucson, Arizona home, worked for the OneFamily Fund, which assists victims of terrorism. He also served as an intern with the Knesset Christian Allies Caucus. He is currently here on a student visa, completing a masters degree in Conflict Resolution at Hebrew University.

Shirley Burdick was born and raised in China and came to Israel from her home in the U.S. She recently finished a five-year volunteer position with Bridges for Peace, and she and her husband are in Israel on a tourist visa for a few more months. They have plans to parlay their Israel experience into something much bigger.

“My husband and I are starting a project to instill among Christians respect towards Judaism and Jewish identity through education and first-hand experience with the Jewish world. The education aspect will put tremendous emphasis on re-learning the Gospel message.

“We want to inspire authentic love and participation in the restoration of Israel without possible ulterior motives.”

Christian Educator Sharon Sanders is the veteran in the group. She came to Israel from the Midwestern U.S. in 1985 and has been here ever since. She told Breaking Israel News that she has now lived in Israel longer than she lived in the U.S.

Sanders and her husband, Ray, co-founded Christian Friends of Israel (CFI). According to Sanders, the couple have, “travelled to 55 nations many times over the years, spoken to thousands of people, teaching them about Israel, the Church and replacement theology.” She is now writing several books about “my years of experience here in the land, something few Christians in the world get to experience.”

Sanders explained that, “CFI has worked in more than 50 cities throughout the land, helping survivors and terrorism victims in Sderot and other places.” The organization has “supported more than 25 IDF army bases for years.” Sanders estimated that CFI was “probably the first Christian organization to reach out to the IDF.” They also run a bridal salon for needy brides in Israel “and a host of other activities that have kept us busy, blessing Israel for 30 years.”

Today, CFI is headed up by the Sanders’ daughter, and son-in-law, Stacey and Kevin Howard. Sanders herself continues to be involved in an array of projects, all devoted to serving Israel and educating Christians.

How has living in Israel challenged you as a Christian?

The Christians we interviewed shared practical challenges, including dealing with bureaucracy, fighting for visas, mastering the language and coping with the cultural differences between Israel and their home countries.

Some spoke movingly about the need to make their motivations for being in Israel understood. Blackham said that they faced a “very poor understanding of our work,” and officials who were “suspicious of our motives,” which she characterized as “understandable.”

Hilton found it challenging to show “the Jewish people that we are heartbroken over the years and years of Christian persecution, and assuring them that we only want to be here to support and bless them, especially in light of the fact that so much of the world stands against Israel.”

McKain “went through an initial period of acculturation that was challenging at times, though deeply rewarding. I was the only Christian in an Orthodox environment, and I had a lot to learn” about Orthodox Jewish practice.

“But more than the cultural/religious specifics, the hardest thing for me was getting accustomed to being a ‘non-Jew’, the dynamics of being ‘outgroup.’ I had come to Israel to volunteer, show my love and solidarity, and really get to know what it is to be Israeli. I wanted to be one with Jewish people, so any time I bumped up against that boundary marker, I felt a little pain.

“Eventually, I think I pushed that boundary in relationship as much as one can without converting. I spent many Shabbatot (Sabbaths) and chagim (Jewish festivals) with Orthodox families and for several years, the only people in my world were Jews.  

“After that initial acculturation period, I went from being ‘outgroup,’ to this in-between place, where I was in, but not in, and that suited me well. Any suspicion my co-workers had that I was only there to proselytize had long faded. That in-group/out-group dynamic was a challenge, because I desired a high degree of integration into Israeli (Orthodox) life. For someone who doesn’t have that desire, it might not be an issue at all.  

“I do think most Christians who love Israel come here with an idea of what their relationship is to this place and its people. That self-image, though, won’t always be mirrored back to them by Israelis. Learning how Israelis view Christians is an important, and sometimes awkward, part of the acculturation process.”

By contrast, overall, Burdick found living in Israel as a Christian to not be very challenging. “We can be who we are and believe in what we believe. All of our Jewish friends, both secular and Orthodox, take good care of us. My husband and I attend a modern Orthodox synagogue regularly, and we feel very loved by the community.

“The challenges come from being foreign and not Jewish, which means not fluent in the language, not knowing the system, and difficulties in obtaining long term visas even though there is a good cause for us to stay longer.”

Sanders commented on helping other Christian volunteers get acculturated to life in Israel. She identified a challenge in “working with Christians who are not used to the spiritual warfare that goes on here, and that life is extremely hard. The dynamics of living here bring a lot to the surface, and helping them to adjust is a full-time job.”

We are not here to try and change them, but to support them in the role that God placed them in. They are His very special treasure.

She also emphasized the unique challenge of the difficulty in reaching “enough Israelis to let them know that there are millions of Christians like us out there. They just do not really know it. My dream is to speak to a large Israeli community here one day, to share my heart of why we came, and what we would like to do with the rest of our lives for them,” she shared.

How has living in Israel impacted you?

Challenges exist. But there are also benefits to be acquired. Nine years in Israel taught Blackham “to be a fighter and not give up, knowing the importance of the work, fighting anti-Semitism by showing the good of Israel and her people.” She also mentioned being enriched by knowing “more of the country, the challenges, the beauty of it, the uniqueness of the Land and the culture. I am a better person as I am discovering and integrating the wisdom given to our forefathers.”

Hilton focused on how, “The Bible has truly come alive for me as we travel all over the heartland of Israel and show our volunteers the rich history of this land, as well as the truth in light of current world events. There is so much I didn’t know.”

The opening chapter of the Bible. (Credit: Graphic Stock)

She emphasized her newfound awareness, “that we have so much to be grateful to the Jewish people for. They have kept the holy Scriptures alive and continued to love God despite terrible persecution. I am overwhelmed that so many have accepted us and trust us that we are not here to try and change them, but to support them in the role that God placed them in. They are His very special treasure, and also that this land is the only place in the world where God has placed His Name.”

Hilton gave a special nod to, “the pioneer ‘settlers’ in particular [who] are my special heroes; their courage to live in the heartland despite many hardships has inspired me like none other.”

McKain told Breaking Israel News that, “Living and working in Israel has expanded my capacity for empathy. Simply being in a culture and place that is not ‘mine’ was good for me. That kind of experience has a way of dislodging you from the center of your own universe.  

“I think my specific experience with victims of terrorism – spending time with people who were suffering – expanded my capacity to listen to and care for people. It also changed the way I view and relate to Israel. Like most people abroad, even as I supported Israel, I still saw it primarily through a political, theological and ideological lens.

“Now, when I think of Israel, I think of the people I know and the experiences I’ve shared with them. It’s a subtle shift in how I relate – from the head to the heart. It’s no longer that scrappy nation beset by enemies, the Promised Land, the only democracy in the Middle East, the nation reborn after 2,000 years, Am Segulah (God’s treasured nation).  

“Instead, it is Batia and Jackie Weinberg who invited me to Hadera for the week of Passover after knowing me for all of five minutes. It is my friend Tzippy Bloomberg who lost her mom and was paralyzed from the waist down in a shooting attack, and now competes internationally in para-alpine skiing. And it is Marc and Chantal Belzberg who invited me into this beautiful family of terrorism victims they’ve led for the past 15 years.  

“I entered a world I did not know much about, and the world I entered knew little about me, except that I came from people who were not friendly to them. I had to learn, learn and learn some more.”

“Getting to know real Israelis and the reality of life here has demythologized Israel, but in a way that has deepened my affection for it and made real relationships possible.  When we romanticize or idealize Israel and the Jewish people, we objectify them in a way that’s usually subtly self-serving. Don’t get me wrong, Israel is still all of those other things too, but embodied in the lives of real flesh and blood people I know and love.”

“On a completely different note, being in Israel and discussing Tanakh (the Hebrew Bible), usually the parashat ha’shavua (weekly Torah portion) at the Shabbat table exposed me to a whole new manner of study. The intertextuality, use of Hebrew, midrashim (classical rabbinic commentary), the 70 faces (70 modes of expounding the Torah) – were all an invitation to go much deeper into Scripture.

“There are many other concepts and practices that have impacted me, for example,  the value of liturgy or the way daily acts of obedience can transform our minds and our character.”

From living in Israel for five years, Burdick noted that she “got to see a side of God that I never knew before. I didn’t know that God was so faithful and had such amazing plans. Hashem told Israel that, ‘you are my witness’ and that is certainly true. I believe a certain side of God can only be experienced through knowing Jews, and we are forever grateful for being able to live in Israel and know Jewish people. God is foremost the God of the Jews.

“God has put a very heavy burden on the Jewish people, and we Christians must help to lighten that burden – and how far away we are from that!

“Jewish people have been carrying that burden faithfully despite great suffering and persecution. I have never seen such great faith. I have never seen anyone waiting for the Moshiach (Messiah) and yearning for the Temple like Jews. All suffering and yearning and faith become an integral aspect of Jewish identity, which makes Kabbalat Shabbat services (Friday night prayers welcoming the Sabbath), Shabbat dinners, holidays, life events in the land so rich, and only Jewish people are capable of creating that richness.”

Sanders also focused on her relationships with Israelis when she said, “The greatest honor is having worked with Israelis of every type, age, and background, on a personal basis for years. I sat at their feet and learned. They sat with me, amazed that I was there and we built lifelong relationships that will last forever.

“I entered a world I did not know much about, and the world I entered knew little about me, except that I came from people who were not friendly to them. I had to learn, learn and learn some more.”

Burdick is going back to the U.S. in at the end of September to help inspire Chinese Christians in some of the ways she has been personally inspired. This “small story that kind of describes how Israel changed me. I was in Romania two weeks ago, and as I watched the sun going down from my hotel window Friday afternoon, I suddenly had a deep desire to light the Shabbat candles,” she reminisced.

“My husband and I do not do Jewish rituals, out of respect to the distinction God has set between Jews and Gentiles and respect to Jews, but at that moment in Romania, in my hotel room, I suddenly felt that I should, because no one was there to usher in Shabbat. I ended up opening up my
siddur (Jewish prayer book) and read from it.

“Although I maintain my Gentile identity, things I have observed from Jewish people, especially from our Orthodox friends, have seeped into my very being. These are things, like the concept of setting apart, mindfulness toward the special times that are set apart by God, rituals for those special times, like reading Eicha (Lamentations) for Tisha b’Av (day of profound mourning in the Hebrew calendar) and life events, appreciation for preparation, remembrance and the siddur,” Burdick added.

Sanders, who hopes to spend the rest of her years in Israel, concluded with these words, “Only the brave, courageous and adventurous, directed by the Almighty, can survive any time here. You must have a deep love for being here.

“Every time we traveled to another nation on behalf of Israel, when we landed at Ben Gurion [Israel’s international airport], and touched down on the tarmac, our feet hit the pavement and an energy we could not explain flowed through our veins. We hit the ground running, to fulfill our calling here.”

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