It hard to believe that two weeks ago, Israel was on the brink of war. With the Palestinian Islamic Jihad firing nearly 500 missiles from Gaza into Israel within a 48-hour period, even Tel Aviv was put on alert and certain train routes were canceled. My mind immediately raced to a Christian group I was going to host for Shabbat in Jerusalem Israel – Pastor Leroy Armstrong of Proclaiming the Word Ministries.
Ohr Torah Stone’s Center for Jewish-Christian Understanding and Cooperation (CJCUC) in partnership with Christians United For Israel (CUFI) hosted Pastor Armstrong on a Pastors Familiarization Trip to Israel in February 2013. The trip was truly transformational for him and ignited his passion for Israel. Last November, Pastor Armstrong contacted me to host his group in 2019 for Shabbat. He worked diligently for 11 months to put together his ministry’s trip to Israel. Now, in the middle of his visit, missiles are raining down and a decision has to be made – head back home or stay.
It is easy to forget how the threat of war can bring a country to a standstill. Following the kidnapping and murder of three Israeli teenagers – Naftali Frenkel, Gilad Shaer, and Eyal Yifrah – by members of Hamas members in the summer of 2014, the Israel Defenses Forces conducted Operation Brother’s Keeper to arrest terrorists. In response, Hamas fired rockets into Israel and a seven-week conflict broke out. Soon after, car-ramming and knife attacks occurred. I remember for a three-day period, cafes and shops at Mamilla Mall were completely empty even of Israeli visitors.
For Israelis, the occasional war and terrorist attack usually don’t affect our daily lives. We have somehow collectively managed to not allow these heinous acts to paralyze our resilience and celebrate life. It should be noted that what is normal for us does not automatically translate to other countries. Those who are responsible for bringing groups feel an extra sense of concern to ensure the safety of their participants. It is understandable that many chose to reschedule their trip to Israel.
Five years ago, many tour groups canceled their trips to Israel. The ripple effects were felt immediately. Hotels were vacant. Tour agency representatives, guides and bus drivers were without work. Holy sites and local businesses that cater to tourism were empty. At least 200,000 people are employed by tourism and cancellations at this grand of a scale affect both Israeli Jews and Israeli Arabs. It usually takes one year for the tourism industry to recoup from this loss.
Fast forward to two weeks ago, I expected everyone to run to Ben Gurion Airport. Instead, tour groups rerouted their itineraries to areas of the country out of reach from missile attacks from Gaza. The lines at Christian Holy Sites in the North were at an all-time high. In fact, my good friend, Tisha Michelle decided in less than 20 hours to put together a prayer service at Nof Ginosar, next to the Sea of Galilee, for the Peace of Israel. Tisha asked if I could come and pray Psalms 121 and 91, psalms that are recited in times of crisis by the Jewish people. I gladly accepted the invitation. It was incredible to see the throngs of people who were embarking and disembarking from their boat to join the service. It was an opportunity to say “thank you” for staying in Israel.
This year, Israel stands to make over $6 billion in incoming tourism and beat last year’s record of 4.1 million people visiting her. At the end of October, British billionaire Richard Branson arrived in Israel to launch and inaugurate Virgin airline’ new route from London Heathrow to Ben Gurion Airport. As he stepped off the plane, with flight attendants waving Israeli and British flags by his side, he kneeled and kissed Israeli ground. Three weeks ago, El Al began direct flights from Chicago to Israel, and last week, they announced direct flights from Australia to Israel beginning in 2020. Before the weekend, Bolivia renewed its diplomatic ties with Israel and President Reuven Rivlin met with Prince Ghazi bin Mohammed in London, where they discussed collaboration on tourism initiatives. Greece is increasing its holiday cruises to Israel. It is expected that over 150,000 Chinese tourists will be visiting Israel this year, a 67% jump from last year. All this to say, it is incredible that Israel is becoming a destination for many to visit.
Fifty-five percent of visitors to Israel are Christian. They come to Israel to walk the paths of their past and enhance their walk with God. Some frame their visit as an active and tangible way to demonstrate their support for the country and the Jewish people. We, as Jews, must never forget that in times of crisis, it was Christians who continued to visit Israel and declare to us “you’re not alone.” Any tourism momentum is credited to our friends.
Pastor Armstrong’s group, of course, decided to remain in Israel. Despite the missile attacks, they felt safer in Israel than at home. They believed what the psalmist wrote:
I shall say of the Lord [that He is] my shelter and my fortress, my God in Whom I trust…His truth is an encompassing shield. You will not fear the fright of night, the arrow that flies by day…A thousand will be stationed at your side, and ten thousand at your right hand; but it will not approach you.
Our Shabbat evening together was one of great fellowship. We knew the miracle in front of us – Jews and Christians sanctifying time together in Jerusalem. The next morning, we met at The Great Synagogue to see the Torah procession from the Ark to the raised platform where Genesis 18:1 – 22:24 would be publicly read.
They heard the first portion where God appears to Abraham after his circumcision and interrupts Him to address the needs of strangers. In Jewish tradition, we learn from this episode hospitality is greater than receiving the Divine Presence. The former Chief Rabbi of England, Jonathan Sacks, asks “How can this be so? It seems disrespectful at best, heretical at worst, to put the needs of human beings before attending on the presence of God.” His answer is truly profound –
Abraham, father of monotheism, knew the paradoxical truth that to live the life of faith is to see the trace of God in the face of the stranger. It is easy to receive the Divine Presence when God appears as God. What is difficult is to sense the Divine Presence when it comes disguised as three anonymous passers-by. That was Abraham’s greatness. He knew that serving God and offering hospitality to strangers were not two things but one.
While many of us, do not have the financial means to offer hospitality to the millions who visit Israel, this does not mean we cannot offer words that can demonstrate our appreciation and see the image of God in them by saying “thank you for coming. It means a lot that you are here.” What a tremendous Kiddush Hashem (sanctification of God’s name) that would be and fulfill our duty to imitate the ways of our Forefather Abraham.
David Nekrutman is the Executive Director for Ohr Torah Stone’s Center for Jewish-Christian Understanding and Cooperation and the co-host of Morning Drive Bible