It certainly wasn’t your standard Thursday night out on the town in Teaneck. A few weeks ago, I found myself celebrating aliyah with an eclectic group of Orthodox Jews and Christians at ETC. Steakhouse. The dinner was sponsored by Return Ministries, a Christian Zionist organization that provides financial support to Jews who are making aliyah. Tony and Lisa Foti, the lovely Christian hosts of the event, realized that many of the families they were supporting were making aliyah this August from the broader Teaneck area and invited them all—including my in-laws, Lenny and Michele Fuld—to a celebratory kosher dinner. My mother-in-law was out of town, and I happened to be passing through, so I was my father-in-law’s plus-one. Who could resist great gnocchi and a chance to better understand the Christians who seem more passionate about aliyah than most Jews?
For a long time, my understanding of Christianity was limited. Like most other graduates of yeshiva day school, my knowledge of Christians was limited to gory history chapters on the Crusades and the Inquisition. The not-so-subtle takeaway, understandably, was, “God bless the Christians and keep them far, far away from us!”
But clearly, times have changed. Today, as many American Jews tragically turn away from Israel, Christian Evangelicals stand steadfastly behind the Jewish State. As President Trump made clear in his usual blunt style, he did not move the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem to make the Jews happy. “That [was] for the evangelicals.”
Despite decades of consistent Evangelical support for Israel, many Jews remain highly skeptical. Over and over again, I’ve heard the same concerns: “They only want to help us make aliyah because they believe the Jews have to go home so that Jesus can come back!” “They may act like they care about you, but they believe Jews are not saved and are going to hell!”
Even assuming all these points are correct (and they aren’t), I personally find Dennis Prager’s response to be compelling. A few months ago, Prager said, “It doesn’t bother me if you believe that I’m not saved. As I tell people, I only care about how you treat me, not where you think I’m going when I die. And the people who treat me best as a Jew are Christians!” It’s true that Christians believe we are wrong for not believing in Jesus. But we shouldn’t forget that we believe they have made significant theological errors. If they are not insulted by my belief that they are wrong, why should I be insulted that they believe the same thing about me?
But the truth is that many of the wonderful Christians I’ve met over the years aren’t thinking about Armageddon or whether Jews are going to heaven or hell. It’s true that some are motivated by God’s promise to Abraham—“And I will bless those who bless you” (Genesis 12:3)—for they truly believe that God will bring blessing to their lives if they support the Jewish people. But for many Christians, the motivation is incredibly noble. When they read the Bible (which they do often!), they see that the people of Israel appear on almost every page. It is obvious to them that the Jewish people are God’s chosen nation, and that God’s desire is for the nations of the world to help His chosen people return to their land.
“So said Hashem, “Behold I will raise My hand to the nations, and to the peoples will I raise My standard, and they shall bring your sons in their bosoms, and your daughters shall be carried upon their shoulders” (Isaiah 49:22). “And strangers shall stand and pasture your sheep, and children of other nations shall be your plowmen and your vinedressers” (Isaiah 61:5). “The children of other nations shall build up your walls and their kings shall minister to you” (Isaiah 60:8).
For many Christians, like those at Return Ministries, these are not merely inspiring verses about the distant messianic future. They believe (as I do), that these verses are a call to Christians to act—that it is their duty to help the Jewish people return home and build up the holy land. Well aware of the evils perpetuated by Christians for almost two millennia, they are driven to fix the brokenness of the past. As they write on their website, “We need to learn from one another so the wrongs of the past are not repeated and so that we can both fulfill the prophetic Scriptures that speak of Jew and Gentile working together.”
“But still,” you might ask, “aren’t they really just interested in converting us?” This, without question, is the most important question Jews must always ask when working together with Christians. Though Orthodox Jews have little to fear from Christian proselytizing (when was the last time you heard of an Orthodox Jew who converted to Christianity?), Christian proselytizing of non-Orthodox Jews is a serious concern and an absolute red line for the Jewish people. I don’t have a problem with Christians who pray for Jews to convert to Christianity (we also pray for the whole world to see the truth as we do), but Christians must forswear all active proselytizing of Jews if there is any hope for a relationship with our community. Proselytizing in Israel is a serious concern, and it must be clearly condemned. After 1,900 years of persecution which laid the groundwork for the Holocaust, the Christian world owes us this basic respect.
At the same time, we must remember that Christians are extraordinarily diverse, just like us (there are over 2 billion Christians in the world and over 45,000 (!) Christian denominations). Yes, there are plenty of Christians who proselytize Jews, and we must keep our distance from them. But there are millions of Christians who love Israel and the Jewish people and who do so without strings attached. As Return Ministries makes clear on its website, “[We are] not a proselytizing missionary institution and do not teach Jew or Gentile to impose what they believe on another … [We] teach and model an unconditional loving Christianity that serves the Jewish people in Israel and the Diaspora…” In my opinion, when Christians like this reach out to us in friendship, we can and must respond in kind.
The dinner was beautiful, filled with laughter and fascinating conversation. Our hosts brought several Christian volunteers to the dinner, who were eager to meet the young religious couples about to make aliyah, a tangible fulfillment of the biblical prophecies that have inspired both Jews and Christians for generations. As the evening came to a close, I couldn’t help but think of Yishayahu’s powerful words, a prophecy that seems to be drawing closer and closer each day: “And it shall be at the end of the days, that the mountain of Hashem’s house shall be firmly established at the top of the mountains … and all the nations shall stream to it. And many peoples shall go, and they shall say, ‘Come, let us go up to Hashem’s mount, to the house of the God of Jacob, and let Him teach us of His ways, and we will go in His paths,’ for out of Zion shall the Torah come forth, and the word of Hashem from Jerusalem” (Isaiah 2:2-3).
Rabbi Elie Mischel is director of Education at Israel365.