Fire-and-brimstone and the rousing words of a Billy Graham, Oral Roberts or, these days, Joel Osteen are usually what comes to mind when someone mentions Christian evangelists.
The idea that many of their followers are people who truly love Israel and desire to make it a better place for people of all faiths would probably come as a bit of a surprise.
But for many local evangelists that’s the gospel truth.
Through The Friends of Israel Gospel Ministry (FOI), the Bellmawr, N.J.-based headquarters of an organization founded in Philadelphia in 1938, they’ve learned that getting closer to Israel brings them closer to God.
Not only that, but through volunteer tours, which help out at places like Kaplan Medical Center in Rehovot, they put their personal stamp on Israel’s welfare.
“These are people who are actually going to Israel to work on the ground which, to me, is an unbelievably beautiful thing,” said Rabbi Joshua Gruenberg of Congregation Beth El in Yardley. “In this age we’re in with so much strife, to highlight a world where we’re working together to better a medical center that treats people of all religions, that to me is a positive message we want out in the community.”
That’s especially true when there seems to be no ulterior motive or proselytizing.
“There’s a sensitivity within the evangelist world to be supportive of Israel, not antagonistic,” agreed Rabbi Jonathan Rosenbaum, president emeritus and professor emeritus of Jewish studies at Gratz College, who’s a visiting scholar at the University of Pennsylvania. “They feel Jews have a historic right to return to the land of Israel.
“So I don’t think there’s a downside. These are genuinely sincere people who’ve reached out to the Jewish community. … There’s respect across the lines, so I don’t see a negative as long as they’re not proselytizing.”
According to FOI, the interest in Israel is much more basic.
“The core issue to help understand the rise of the evangelical movement within broader aspects of Christianity is that it’s a return to Bible study,” explained Bill Sutter, FOI’s executive director from 2001 to 2012 and a current board member. “Out of Bible study and studying the scriptures, tens of millions of Christians came to a strong understanding that Israel is God’s chosen country and the Jewish people are God’s chosen people.
“That’s foundational to what we’re all about. We believe we are recipients as Christians of the blessings the Jewish people have brought to the world. That view is not shared by many and not that well taught in the Protestant world or the world of Roman Catholicism.”
Among evangelicals, though, it’s a focal point, which is why FOI offers various tours to the Holy Land, where Christian sites like the Mount of Olives, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, the Garden Tomb and the Via Dolorosa are must-sees.
Besides that, there are volunteer projects like Hesed and ORIGINS, which enable them to better appreciate the people who live there.
“Touring is great, but we wanted to do more than tour,” said Bruce Scott, FOI’s director of program ministries, who’ll be taking an ORIGINS group of some 20 young adults to Kaplan in July. “We want them to think of Israel as a living museum — see the people and get to know them.
“The name ORIGINS had double meaning. Not only are we bringing young adults back to the land where their faith originated, [but] it’s an acronym — our resolve in giving Israel never-ending support.
While ORIGINS is for the younger generation, Hesed (lovingkindness) has provided a similar opportunity for those middle-aged to senior.
Like ORIGINS, participants pay their own way — ranging from $3,000 to $5,000 depending upon the accommodations — for the chance to spend two weeks working in the kitchen or cleaning the hospital grounds.
“I went on a tour in 2011 with the church and basically fell in love with the people, the country and the history,” recalled Claude Jewett, a 71-year-old Baptist from Midland, Texas, who’s volunteered on six Hesed trips. “The only thing I knew before was what I’d read in the Bible.
“But knowing you’re in the land of God’s chosen people, it’s pretty awesome. What drew me back was when a woman asked why we were volunteering. I said, ‘because I love the same God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob you do, and I love its people.’ She started to cry and said, ‘I thought the whole world hated us.’ It had an effect on me.”
It also impacted Bill Sutter’s wife, Annette, who takes an annual Hesed trip.
“One of my greatest experiences has been getting to develop these friendships at Kaplan Medical Center,” she said. “It fosters a terrific understanding of the Israeli people and their culture.
“It’s such a delight to work with such people, and when I come in there for the first time the warm, cozy welcome I get is so heartwarming.”
The numbers are difficult to verify, but Bill Sutter estimated there are 50 to 70 million evangelicals living in the U.S.
“It’s definitely something that’s grown over my lifetime,” said Sutter, who indicated that FOI’s monthly magazine, Israel My Glory, reaches 250,000. “Some are more knowledgeable when it comes to Israel and understanding the Bible, related to Israel and the Jewish people, than others.
“That’s where the core support for Israel is — in the evangelical world.”
Contact: [email protected]; 215-832-0729