Patty and I moved to the Jerusalem area (Mevaseret Zion) nearly fifteen years ago. Downtown is only 10 to 15 minutes away when it is not rush hour. It is amazing how living close by changed our perspective on the city. It is a great privilege to live in a community of young adults and to be part of the leadership team with Asher Intrater. New planting has already begun. However, in this article, I want to mostly emphasize my perspective on Jerusalem.
The Orthodox Shift in Jerusalem
Jerusalem has become much more Ultra Orthodox than it was twenty years ago. This is through immigration and family growth. The Ultra Orthodox men wear 18th century clothing including large black hats, dark suits and coats. A previous mayor was Ultra Orthodox and had a reputation of not reaching out to all the constituents of the city. He did not give the Christian supporters of Israel the kind of welcome that his predecessors gave, in spite of the strong support of the central government. It has been a source of some concern and amazement to me to see Ultra Orthodox in more and more neighborhoods of the city. At present, this is the group that is the least open to the Gospel, yet we do know of some who have embraced Yeshua and his Kingdom. The general sense I get is that the city is more oppressed today than previously. The legalism is much greater than in the past. The Orthodox seek to block legitimate arteries for travel on the Sabbath. There have been clashes with police authorities as well. The vibrant mixture of populations has lessened and business enterprise seems lest vibrant as well. Terrorism has taken its toll on the city.
Can we really see the leadership of Jerusalem, including the Ultra Orthodox, say “Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord?” We trust so, but it is not by natural eyes that we believe this.
The Secular – Religious Divide
Conservative and Reform Judaism exist in Israel. However, these more liberal varieties of Judaism have not really taken root. The Orthodox control much in the State. The coalition governments of Israel enter into very sad compromises with the Ultra Orthodox to obtain a majority parliamentary coalition. Part of this compromise includes huge sums of money for the Orthodox. The Orthodox schools have more funding than their secular counterparts. These are religious training schools (Yeshivot). Most Ultra Orthodox do not serve in the Army and are given exemptions even though Judaism is not pacifistic. While the Modern Orthodox (those of the smaller knitted kippah or skull cap) serve in the Army and are a normal part of the society, the Ultra Orthodox in their various varieties have become a welfare underclass. Unlike in New York where most Ultra Orthodox have to work to make a living, in Israel many simply live on government support. Hence, most secular Israelis who live in the Jerusalem area despise the Ultra Orthodox who have become the dominant Orthodox. Though some Israelis become Ultra Orthodox, most secular Israelis are turned off to religion completely. They point to the Ultra Orthodox as the reason and find them repulsive.
The secular youth are open to everything. They experiment with sex, drugs and New Age religion. There is an emptiness and skepticism. The secular Zionist values of their parents are proving inadequate to give meaning. Some think of leaving Israel to make money. The divine purpose of Israel and a rationale to fight to establish the land elude most.
Bored Orthodox Youth
Yet even in Jerusalem among the Orthodox, the inroads of modernity have been unavoidable. One night after riding home from a dinner out with our close friends, Ron and Elana Cantor, we came across hordes of Ultra Orthodox young people who were acting like teenagers do in many cities. They were cutting up, jaywalking and jay-running across streets, and generally seeking to let off some steam. The great anomaly was their dress. There was a contingent of police present to keep order. I had such a sense that their orthodoxy was not fulfilling to them. Someone we know maintains a ministry to these kids. He holds a Christian rock jam and these kids show up. Amazing! They are listening to Christian rock! Perhaps there will be more openness to the Good News than first appears. Some of these Orthodox kids are experimenting with drugs and other destructive behaviors unbeknownst to their parents.
The One Great Alternative
Of course, every follower of Yeshua would say that He is the only real alternative to Orthodoxy and Secularity. However, the more I observe the scene in Jerusalem, the more I become convinced that the option of following Yeshua is the extraordinarily more attractive alternative. In New Covenant Biblical faith we find the true answer to both the skeptical secularist and the Orthodox legalist. First we have the attractive figure of Yeshua himself. In the light of His glory all else pales. Can we present Him and His Kingdom in a way that enables others to really see the “Pearl of great price?” The New Covenant preserves the promises and purpose of Israel. It gives us a strong rationale to live in the land and rebuild it. We understand the irrevocable gifts and call to Israel. (Rom. 11:29). There is a divine mandate for being Jewish and Israeli. The secularist does not know this mandate and the Orthodox have a somewhat twisted form of living out this mandate. The follower of Yeshua, by having the mind of the Messiah, is able to receive the good things in the Jewish heritage but also to reject that which is not compatible with the Bible. He provides an answer that is truly spiritual and hopeful. He offers the message of everlasting life. It is the solution to the meaning of life. The appeal of life in the Spirit in comparison to Ultra Orthodox is refreshing indeed. It is through the Spirit that the righteous requirements of the Torah are fulfilled in us (Romans 8:4). We do really have the answer to the terrible split between the religious and the secular. The opportunity is enormous. Our community of Yeshua disciples includes both Jews that were raised in secular homes and in Orthodox homes.
Jews are Responding to the Good News
A few weeks after our move to Jerusalem, I happened in on Asher as he prayed with a young man from an Orthodox background who had just embraced Yeshua.
Both Orthodox and secular Israelis will only come in significant numbers if we can show an attractive life in the Kingdom and demonstrate the reality of the Kingdom with signs and wonders just as Peter prayed in Acts 4 in the first century. We think we are on the verge of something wonderful. Indeed, the secular-Orthodox divide in Israel is just the situation where the Gospel can flourish.