As of March 2011, an average Israeli Messianic believer in Jesus is … Yes, who is he? Trying to answer based on impressions from Israeli media coverage of recent years might make you think of a native Israeli, who is proud to have served in Israel Defense Force, possibly even in a combat unit. On the one hand, he or she wears no special religious clothes, studies or has a regular job, and pays their taxes. On the other hand, they may be a part of a family or raising one which gathers every Friday night around a traditional Shabbat table and celebrates other Biblical holidays of Israel, more or less following the age-old tradition. In other words, this average believer is Israeli in every respect.
As with many other images of Israel that the media is trying to sell us, this one too leaves much to be desired. Of course, it is not totally detached from reality. Today we do have in our midst native Israelis – about 10% (ten percent). And since another 10-15% is expatriates (these percentages are estimates, since no accurate data is available), you realize that this typical representative is an immigrant. Moreover – his mother tongue is most likely Russian, since it is the former Soviet Union that at least half of all Israeli Messianics come from – at least. How come?
Israel’s history has been closely connected with the “land of the north”, as Jeremiah called it (16:14), from the outset: the very first Zionist immigrants at the end of the 19-th century and beginning of the 20-th, were Russian Jews fleeing pogroms. The last Russian-speaking wave came in the beginning of 1990-ies, and since then Israel has received from the former USSR over a million people – nearly one fifth of its current Jewish population. The old joke says: “You’ve been in the Land for so long, and still don’t speak any Russian!”
The Soviet regime generally had little place for freedom of religion, to say the least. Thus, deprived of any religious and spiritual heritage, Jews from the former Soviet republics naturally were – and still remain – the group that is most open for the Gospel message among Israelis today. Some came to the faith in their country of exodus after the fall of the “iron curtain”, usually through the Orthodox Church, or Baptists, Pentecostals and Charismatics; others made their way into the church already in Israel.
As compared to immigrants from other nations, Russians have been quite successful in meeting the challenge of integration into their new country. This is evidenced by significant “Russian presence” in virtually all areas of Israeli life, from the Knesset (the Parliament) to the sports teams and coaches, and can be attributed to flexibility, strong work ethics and free higher education – one of the few benefits of Communism that they were able to bring along. However, they have also changed Israel culturally: today Russian newspapers, bookshops, grocery stores and signs can be found in every city, and Russian radio and TV are available even in every kibbutz. But this change is a mixed blessing: while it allows preserving and enjoying the native culture, it also somewhat de-motivates from going deeper into the Israeli one.
And the same can be seen on a much smaller scale in the Israeli Messianic community. On the one hand, many Russians today are members of Hebrew-speaking congregations, who are to a greater or lesser degree returning to their Biblical Jewish heritage. Many are pastors and leaders, and some are active even on the national level and work shoulder to shoulder with others. On the other hand, there are also leaders and congregations that are leaning towards creating a theological and cultural ghetto, in which cultural awareness and advice of the “others” are not really welcome.
A ghetto mentality is dangerous for many reasons, but the one that troubles me most is the next generation. Faith did not begin with us and is not to end with us. To pass it on to our children who surely speak Hebrew better than us we have to learn their language, in every sense of the word. Will it take some humility and effort? Of course, but I firmly believe that this “game is worth the candles”. So thank you in advance for your heartfelt prayers.