Yeshua, we praise your name! Yeshua, we love you!” I’m listening to Moti Vaknin, a balding, Israeli guy in his mid-thirties, and he’s describing, in Hebrew, his own conversion to a brand of Christianity known as Messianic Judaism.
Vaknin grew up in Haifa in an Orthodox Jewish family. Today he’s at the forefront of a movement that seeks to convert Jews, in Israel and abroad, to accept Jesus alongside their Judaism.
Vaknin is earnest: he talks candidly about his teenage years; his rebellion against his religious upbringing, his service in the IDF then his trip to New York where he took drugs and struggled to make it as a photographer. He even worked as a mashgiach at a kosher pizzeria. As he hit rock bottom in New York – out of money and feeling hopeless – some American friends took him to what he thought was a synagogue for the Shabbat service.
He says he was puzzled when everyone started singing about “Yeshua”.
He recalls: “I asked my friend, ‘Psst – who is this Yeshua?’ She looked at me, astonished, and said, ‘It’s Jesus.’..I told her straight, I didn’t want anything to do with these missionaries.”
But then, as Vaknin tells it, once he’d studied the New Testament “I felt as if someone is hugging me.” He emphasises that he’s still “one hundred percent Jewish”, but these days he’s a leader in Israel’s 20,000-strong community of Messianic Jews.
Ironically, both proponents and critics insist Messianic Jewry in Israel is booming. Messianic Jews believe that Jesus is the Jewish messiah, and that the Bible prophesises an End of Days apocalypse that brings about the Second Coming. In this theology, all the ingathered Jews are doomed to perish unless they have converted to Christianity.
I was admittedly sceptical about the idea that Christianity is growing in popularity among Israeli Jews. Then I discovered a network of active churches that cater to Israelis from every background, offering services in Russian and Amharit as well as Hebrew and English.
Many have homegrown Sabras on their ministries – native Israelis like Vaknin who were born Jewish, and who blend Jewish traditions with belief in Jesus.
A few days after my first visit to a Messianic community, I discovered a glossy, expensively-produced booklet in my postbox. Written entirely in Hebrew, its cover depicts a rendering of Van Gogh’s Starry Night, with the words “Jesus – The Man and His Way” along the bottom. Inside, peppered with hip graphics, are 37 pages of essays on prophecy, science, war, peace and, bizarrely, Bob Dylan quotes. At the end, curious readers are invited to order the book (for free!) HaBesora (the News) from a site called him.co.il.
I started digging. The Him website, in Hebrew, offers excerpts from another free book, entitled The Prophetic Code. The site itself is registered to “Yeshua the Messiah” at an address in Dallas, Texas.
That same address is also linked to an extensive network of other sites. These have extraordinary names like iGod, IMetMessiah.com, Messiah.co.il, WeLoveIsrael, TheOne, i53 and, wait for it, XRabbi.co.il.
There are YouTube channels and an online radio station which broadcasts the Good News to Jews. All these, I discovered, are part of an umbrella site, OneForIsrael.org, which is the organisation that Vaknin runs, together with fellow native Israeli Eitan Bar.
If Vaknin resembles the kindly uncle of Messianic ministry, Bar is the slick saleman of Jesus’ prophecy. The two are best friends and both hold degrees in Biblical Studies. While Vaknin did a three-year stint working for Jews for Jesus from its Tel Aviv headquarters, Bar, from Tel Aviv, became what is known as a “VLM” – a virtual-led ministry leader.
Their innovation has been to take proselytising off the streets and straight into the PCs, tablets and smartphones of potential converts. With 99 per cent of all Israeli households connected to the Internet, Israel’s population is online more than that of any European country; for every hundred citizens there are 122 computers, giving Israel the highest person-to-computer ratio in the world. As the OneForIsrael site boasts, “while you eat and sleep, we Israelis are surfing the web ;)”
Web-surfers can click to hear individual testimonies of Messianic Jews; they can ask questions about theology, prophecy and the almighty and get an instant response from Bar or Vaknin or one of their trained ministers.
A OneForIsrael Facebook post describes how Eizi, a curious “Jewish Israeli teenager” started writing to Eitan and Moti: “and it all became a part of who I am. But my parents wouldn’t even listen to me…can Eitan and Moti come to my school so they can explain..I never met any believer in Yeshua in my life.”
As Vaknin and Bar assert: “We make sure the truth is easy to find when people search for Yeshua on the internet, and not only that, Israelis will find the message is in their own language and a manner sensitive to their culture.”
When Jews for Jesus distributed leaflets in Petach Tikva, it prompted instant protests by Yad L’Achim, the anti-missionary group.
Israeli law does not ban proselytising, to the chagrin of the religious parties, and Israel’s leaders have for decades welcomed the support of tens of millions of Evangelicals worldwide who have been staunch in their support for Israel.
OneForIsrael is leading the way in soft-sell internet evangelism to Israel, but other Messianic churches are following. In January, WAIO (We Are Israel Online) run by the Trumpet of Salvation ministry in Tel Aviv, launched its online radio service.
Organisations like Jews for Judaism, Yad L’Achim and XMessianics have launched their own sites aimed at dissuading people away from Jesus. Their message is clear but visually unexciting.
Something the evangelicals understand only too well.