“Then she said, ‘Behold, your sister-in-law has gone back to her people and her gods; return after your sister-in-law.’ But Ruth said, ‘Do not urge me to leave you or turn back from following you; for where you go, I will go, and where you lodge, I will lodge. Your people shall be my people, and your God, my God.’ ” (Ruth 1:16)
Twenty years after the Holocaust, a group of German Christians arrived in Israel seeking to live their lives alongside the Jews with the intention of helping to usher in the redemption. Fifty-two years later, Kibbutz Beth-El has become an integral part of the city of Zichron Yaakov, the lives and fate of its members intermingled with the nation of Israel.
There are approximately 800 people – adults and children – living on the kibbutz. Emma and Elsa Berger, the founders of the movement, led the first group of German Protestants to their new home in the Holy Land in 1963. Emma, who passed away in 1984, was quoted as saying, “We feel that we are all of the seed of Abraham, and an invisible hand has led us to Israel.”
For many years, the surrounding community of Israelis suspected the group of German Christians of being missionaries with a hidden agenda to convert the Jews. There were even incidents and legal attempts to stop the community from taking root. Time and familiarity brought down the walls of distrust as the kibbutz began to employ local residents. Today, Kibbutz Beth-El is the largest private employer in the city and are fully accepted by their Jewish neighbors, now that their intentions have passed the test of time.
Stefan Link, one of the original members who arrived from Germany, explained their connection to Israel to Breaking Israel News. “We went to Hebron and visited the grave of Ruth. She said, ‘Where you go I will go, and where you stay I will stay. Your people will be my people and your God my God.’ This very much spoke to our hearts. That is how we feel about Israel. It is an act of kindness that God gave us this, to be with Israel. And especially at times like this we must stand with Israel.”
Since 1963, Emma Berger emphasized to the members that the Messiah would be in Israel and that anyone wanting to have a part in it needed to be here. They are strong in their Christian faith and have no intention of converting Jews, but they also have no intention of leaving us.
Their belief is powerful in its simplicity, espousing a literal reading of the Old and New Testaments, without interpretations or commentary. There are no churches or Christian religious symbols, no crosses, and they observe Saturday as their day of worship and rest. Stefan described it simply, saying, “When two people with pure hearts meet, there is God, in the holy space that is between them.”
With almost prophetic vision, in 1977 the members of Bet El taught themselves engineering and began to build air-filtration systems for use in protection against poison gas attacks. Their initiative was at least partly due to a belief that the War of Gog and Magog that precedes the Messiah will involve chemical warfare. During the Gulf War in 1991, Iraqi despot Saddam Hussein threatened to use chemical weapons and nerve gas in the missiles he fired at Israel. Suddenly, their filtration systems were very much in demand and their new industry was born.
It is incredibly poignant that a German group is building systems to protect Israel from genocidal attacks. Those with a spiritual perspective will see the tikkun (fixing) in this. At first, their efforts in this area seemed foolish to others, a complex solution to a science fiction scenario. But now, their NBC (nuclear, biological and chemical) system is the only one made in Israel to protect the Jewish State against a very real threat from enemies who do not hesitate to arm their missiles with nerve gas.
Believing in a modest, almost austere, lifestyle, the kibbutz members do not own televisions and eschew nightclubs and other modern urban distractions. The kibbutz ideology of communal living and non-ownership has become a part of their theology, based on their understanding of the New Testament. There are sister communities in Binyamina, Magen-Shaul, the Golan Heights and Haifa and another 700 members in Germany, Hungary, Romania, Canada and Africa who are prohibited from coming to Israel due to restrictions by the Israeli Ministry of the Interior.
The members in Israel have permanent resident status and their children serve in the Israel Defense Forces in non-combat roles. A positive force in the Israeli economy, the community has established seven factories that employ more than 700 Israelis. Their many fields provide the raw material for a home-style bakery, and a factory that produces jams and jellies.
Of course, it would have been simpler to stay in Germany and live in this manner, as do the Amish in America, especially since spreading their faith is not part of their agenda. But for them, it was essential to come to Israel since they believe that God chose the land of Israel for the Jewish people, and that the Messiah will come only if all Jews are living here. As Germans and as Christians, they feel the need to repair some of the damage done in the past in order to move forward towards the messianic age.
Link looks back on the years with a quiet joy in their spiritual accomplishments in Israel. “We are 52 years in Zichron. If I look back to ‘63, we came because we saw that it is a great gift for us to be with the Jews. We came here without any plans or expectations. We knew that whoever blesses this nation gets blessed. And we feel that we have been blessed.”