When Richard and Carolyn Hyde of Heart of G-d Ministries made Aliyah to Israel in 2003, each was granted citizenship and issued an Israeli passport. Later, when the time arrived for the couple to renew their documents, the Israeli Ministry of Interior (MOI) routinely issued a ten-year passport to Richard, who is Christian, but declined to renew Carolyn’s, a Jewish follower of Yeshua. Since that time, with varying levels of intensity, the MOI has continued to challenge Carolyn’s right to Israeli citizenship based on her beliefs.
When Ray and Sharon Sanders married in 1973, they had no idea they would someday abandon their comfortable lives in Illinois to begin a worldwide ministry in Israel intent on blessing Jews. Christian Friends of Israel (CFI) came into being at Latrun, Israel in December of 1985, twelve years after they married. From that beginning, with the Sanders working out of their small apartment in Mevaseret Zion, CFI now has offices on six continents, having not only beneficially impacted the lives of thousands of terror victims and Holocaust survivors in Israel, but also having changed the way that Christians everywhere think of the Jewish people and their homeland.
“CFI received a sobering prophetic word in the beginning of the ministry,” Sharon told KNI. “I, particularly, had to fight it because of my background. I sang my first song in church at age three. At 17, I was chosen to tour Europe with an orchestra, concert and chorus. So my flesh wanted to go wherever there was an opportunity to perform. Ray is the opposite and did not have to fight that same, fleshly pull. I mention this because it may be important to others who may struggle with the same thing.
“We were worshipping on Shabbat at the Baptist House in Jerusalem the year after we arrived in Israel. Three French ladies in attendance that morning asked us to talk with them, saying, ‘We have a word for you.’
“Our experience at that time was that every prophetic word we had heard had come to pass so, of course, we were eager to listen. Their word was, ‘Christian Friends of Israel will not explode into the heights, it will work in the depths.’”
The Sanders thought at length about what the ladies had said and what their words had meant. “It happened as they had prophesied,” Sharon said, “we did work in the depths, within the private lives of people who don’t normally open their arms wide in welcome when a Christian knocks on their door. But they opened their arms to us. All of CFI’s efforts have been relationship-based from the beginning, all over Israel in 55 cities.”
Among an ambitious list of goals, CFI encourages Christians to understand the Jewish roots of their faith, deplores anti-Semitism, promotes intercession on Israel’s behalf, provides support for Israelis in need and assists Jews in making Aliyah, but perhaps the organization’s crowning achievement is that, after thirty-two years of striving in the land, they have truly become what they originally chose to call themselves, Christian friends of Israel.
Early in Ray and Sharon’s ministry, they met Yaacov Youlus, an Orthodox Rabbi in Jerusalem. He had knocked on the door of their ministry’s second office, two small rooms at the Anglican School in Jerusalem, after reading the sign on their door.
“Christian Friends of Israel?” Youlus asked. “I didn’t know we had any.”
There is perhaps no more cherished theme among men than renewal, the hope that someday, whether by triumph of the human spirit, or Holy Spirit, each of us might rise above his or her failings and become a better person. A New Spirit, a motion picture recently released in Israel based on the life of Israeli sabra and Messianic evangelist, Jacob Damkani, dramatizes a remarkable example of that process; how Damkani, once lost, found himself and his life’s work upon discovering the Jewish Messiah.
But like most everything in Israel, even redemption can spark controversy. A recent review of A New Spirit appearing in Israel’s Channel Seven’s online news charged that the film presents “the point of view of traditional Christianity that Judaism is an ignorant, violent and uncompassionate religion filled with lust for power while Christianity is a religion of love and compassion.”
If one were unfamiliar with religious conflict in Israel it might be difficult to understand how a reviewer might conclude that A New Spirit is about either Christianity or Orthodox Judaism. The film’s depictions of events are not generalizations about belief systems but dramatizations of Damkani’s personal journey.
A New Spirit’s universally appealing theme of supernatural salvation—the reason one might innocently guess that almost everyone would like it—is, in and of itself, neither secular nor religious. It is what Joseph Campbell, author of the classic, The Hero with a Thousand Faces, describes as the monomyth…
“A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man.”
A New Spirit is Campbell’s hero’s story. Damkani’s common day was his former life as a confused, directionless young man and sometimes gangster. His region of supernatural wonder and the fabulous forces he encountered were the Tanach and the glory of God. Once hopelessly on the run in the United States, Damkani literally returned from a mysterious adventure to bestow boons—a personal message of the Jewish Messiah—upon his fellow Israelis.
The film’s storyline is no different than that of Homer’s Odyssey, George Lucas’s Star Wars or thousands of other “hero stories” man has embraced since he first began to tell tales. And while it’s been said that everyone loves a hero, not everyone loves A New Spirit or its hero despite its uplifting message.
The reasons why this is so are complex; that is, they are religious and political.
“When we say ‘Christian’ we think of another religion,” Damkani said in an interview with journalist, Leslie Criss, while in the U.S. to promote the film. “But the idea that Jesus came to establish a new religion is far from the truth. Jesus never intended to bring a new religion and the church has to understand that [he] is the natural continuation of God’s promises made to Israel… I didn’t become a Christian if that means following a new religion. If it means a follower of Messiah, then okay, I’m a Christian.”
In Israel, the word, Christian, is charged with more meaning than it may, at first, appear. In 1992, Israel’s High Court of Justice ruled that a Messianic Jewish couple living in the U.S. were ineligible for Israeli citizenship under the Law of Return because they had converted to a new religion; that is, officially, Jews who believe that Yeshua (Jesus) is the Jewish Messiah are Christians, not Jews.
In August of 2017, the Rabbinical Court of Tel Aviv cited the high court’s 1992 opinion when it forbade Messianic Jews living in Israel—Jews in every way according to halakha—to be married as Jews in Israel because, again, it held that all those who believe in Yeshua are not Jews, but Christians.
Given A New Spirit’s messianic message and Israel’s long history of opposition, the film’s appearance in Israeli theaters is nothing short of remarkable. Damkani is a well-known man in the land. As the founder of Trumpet of Salvation to Israel, a non-profit organization whose vision includes proclaiming “the Gospel in its Jewish context” and making “disciples, real followers of the God of Israel through studying his Word,” he has accrued many friends and enemies during a ministry now approaching forty years in duration.
When a Jew visits Jerusalem for the first time, it is not the first time; it is a homecoming. – Elie Wiesel
David and Martha Stern came home to Israel in 1979, in David’s words, as “part of the great ingathering promised by God for which Jews have prayed three times daily for 2,000 years.”
Even before they arrived, David had begun working on what he humbly refers to as his “Messianic Jewish writing projects.” The fruits of those projects, listed below, are now recognized as landmark works of Messianic Jewish faith and testify to the Sterns’ insight, courage and profound service to the worldwide Messianic Jewish community. David’s descriptions follow the titles within quotes:
- Messianic Jewish Manifesto, a systematic view of the “history, ideology, theology and program of Messianic Judaism.”
- Restoring the Jewishness of the Gospel: A Message for Christians, “an abridgment [of the Manifesto] for Christians who have not seriously considered the Jewishness of their faith.”
- The Jewish New Testament, an original translation into English of the New Testament “in a way that expresses its Jewishness.”
- The Jewish New Testament Commentary, “which deals, verse-by-verse, with the Jewish issues raised in the New Testament.”
- Complete Jewish Bible, “which combines in a single volume the Jewish New Testament with [Stern’s] modernized version of an existing Jewish translation of the Tanakh.”
- Messianic Judaism: A Modern Movement With An Ancient Past
- How Jewish Is Christianity? (with others)
Of these, perhaps the most impactful and important is the Complete Jewish Bible.
“My first purpose,” Stern writes in the Bible’s introduction, “is to restore the unified Jewishness of the Bible, and, particularly, to show that the books of the New Covenant are Jewish through and through.”
By any reasonable measure, Stern has eloquently accomplished that purpose – it is impossible to measure his unique translation’s impact on the understanding and growth of Messianic Judaism. According to an article by Sarah Posner in The Atlantic, there were an estimated 350,000 Messianic Jewish believers worldwide in 2012, including “a tiny minority in Israel,” between 10 to 20,000, but that number continues to increase, “according to both its proponents and critics.”
Stern remains one of Messianic Judaism’s foremost representatives and spokesmen. From his article, “Coming to Messianic Jewish Faith” in Ben Hoekendijk’s book, Twelve Jews Discover Messiah, published in 1998, he addressed one of the major obstacles to understanding Messianic Judaism.