We spent five months in Israel in 1997, doing voluntary hospital work with the army organisation Sar-El.This year was very, very different from our time in 1996 for two reasons. One: we managed to be transferred to an Orthodox home for the elderly in Jerusalem, just a hop and a skip from the Old City. Two... but let's start at the beginning.
For the first three months we worked in the same Tel-Aviv hospital as we did last year, among severely disabled and terminal patients. It was a delight to find that many remembered and welcomed us back. But Tel-Aviv isn't Jerusalem.
It's soulless, brash, like any city anywhere. And we wanted the impossible:
Jerusalem. The army had no openings for us there, nor did the management of our hospital group - until a senior official in the group was wakened in the night with the clear conviction that we should apply to be interviewed at a certain sheltered home for the elderly in the heart of Jerusalem.
We fixed the interview for 3.00 p.m. on the 30th July, and asked our boss to let us leave work early so we could be in Jerusalem before lunch, giving us time to walk the colourful Jaffa Road, explore and buy lunch in the Mahaneh Yehudah Market, and continue to the Old City and the interview. We were told that our hospital was far too busy and we would have to work a normal morning shift. So (grumble, grumble) we worked, had lunch in the staff canteen, caught the bus to Jerusalem - and on the bus an emergency announcement in Hebrew came over the radio. Passengers immediately reached for their ubiquitous cellphones, the ever-present soldiers quietly fitted full magazines to their rifles and moved to the front of the bus, and police and military vehicles began overtaking us at speed with sirens screaming.
It was, of course, the first of two suicide bombings. We arrived to find the Jaffa road closed to all traffic, except for a steady shuttle of ambulances taking the 16 dead and 180 seriously injured away from the market. The explosion had occurred at the precise time we had originally intended to be in there. And we were strongly aware that God wanted us in His city and would look after us.
The Home turned out to be mainly for Holocaust survivors and for early Zionist pioneers. It was Orthodox, which meant (among other things) strict kosher observance in the residents' dining hall, Shabbat lifts that ponderously visited every floor in turn and would not respond to accidental or deliberate button-pressing, and its own synagogue with three daily services. We were offered a 9' x 9' room in the basement, with a toilet that was also used by residents, and we had access to a bath three floors up. Plus a midday meal. Our work - well, as the Home had never taken volunteers, we would have to approach the residents - folk mainly in their late eighties and early nineties - and find out their needs.
We started there on the 1st of September, well in time to learn the ropes before the busy period of Rosh Hashana, Yom Kippur and Sukkot. And we were greeted with open arms. Coincidentally - in the rather precise way that God organises events - a 92-year-old lady had started to withdraw from the life of the Home and stay in bed in her flat, so Eileen was to 'special' her. She had never shaken off the trauma of having her family murdered by the Nazis; she used the reparation monies from Germany to put 48 discharged Israeli soldiers through university. And the warden of the synagogue - a youngster in his seventies - had gone on holiday to Vienna and on the first day had fallen and smashed his hip, so George would have to do everything for him - from making breakfasts and suppers to showering. In our spare moments we would take residents to the shops, clinics or banks, help them with chores in their flats, or simply make friends and talk with them.
It was the most demanding job ever, but also the most rewarding. We had time off, of course, but in practice we were on call whenever we were in the Home. And whereas the Tel-Aviv hospital had the frustration of patients who could only communicate with the greatest difficulty if at all, here in Jerusalem we had almost a hundred highly educated. highly alert residents with whom we had daily contact, all of whom had a dramatic story to tell. We had to get used to reading books on Israel (for example, 'O Jerusalem' a highly readable account of the Six-Day War) and recognising some of the characters as people who now lived in the Home. Or we would be invited to a flat for morning tea and be told how the resident as a young woman pregnant with her first child in Holland was hidden by Corrie Ten Boom's underground, and Christians would share their scanty rations with her at the risk of their own lives...
Which brings us to the second reason why this year was different. Last year we talked to the Israelis we met about Yeshua HaMashiach - Jesus the Messiah. And it was hard going. But this year we didn't have to broach the subject. Wherever we went, whether talking to Jewish volunteers, Jewish tourists, or Israelis in or out of the Home, almost everyone wanted to ask about Jesus. Nor was this only our experience; other believers who have lived in Eretz Yisrael for years confirmed that they were experiencing the same phenomenon. While - publicly - some ultra-Orthodox still shout and bully when anything remotely Christian is mentioned, Jews privately are starting to say 'Hey - Jesus was one of us; the New Testament is an historical Jewish document (one of the few) from the Second Temple period; we have a right to know about all that'. So wherever we went in Israel we had interesting, often startling, conversations. We were asked for copies of the New Testament in Hebrew. And on three occasions we gave lectures to different Orthodox organisations.
And even among the Haredim - the ultra-Orthodox - there are changes taking place. We were told the following story and have since been able to verify the details:
A tourist was standing in the Jewish Quarter of the Old City when someone called her name. The only person nearby was a rabbi, so she ignored him. He said again: 'Barbara! That is your name, isn't it?' Then he explained that he belonged to a yeshiva in Mea Shearim - an adult college for the in-depth study of the Torah in the ultra-Orthodox area of Jerusalem. He and others had been saying their set prayers when the Spirit of God had come on each one and revealed to them that Jesus is the Messiah - and, as a sign, he was to go to this place on this day and he would meet a tourist with long white hair, a believer whose name was Barbara. The rabbi told her that they now met secretly in small groups in various homes, because if their neighbours found out, they would be killed.
It is impossible to put all that happened and all that we learned in this letter. Sufficient to say that Israel is unique, and something big has begun to happen. There may be war there; there will certainly be a spiritual revolution, one that will unite grassroots Jews and Christians in a way that has never been seen before.
God has not allowed Israel to achieve their usual successes recently. There was the tragic loss of life in the collision of two helicopters, the cumulative negligence that led to the bridge collapse and the death of many Australian athletes, a fiasco with a sea attack on Lebanon, and the bungled assassination attempt of a terrorist leader in Jordan, plus many minor incidents including young soldiers killed by friendly fire that scarcely make the newspapers. Then there was Sukkot...
Sukkot, the Feast of Booths or Tabernacles, is the week-long celebration when most Jews eat, live and often sleep in flimsy temporary structures roofed sufficient to shield from the worst of the sun, but without completely hiding glimpses of the stars. The sukka or booth symbolises the supernatural protection and covering of God over his people. In Israel it never rains until after Sukkot; in fact special prayers are said during the Feast asking for rain afterwards. But this year rain fell part-way through in such devastating quantities that 13 people were killed and millions of dollars of damage was caused. At our Home the prayers after the meal had just finished and the hundred old people had just left the sukka when a whirlwind struck the booth and wrecked it. If it had been a few moments earlier many of our residents would have been injured or killed. The point is that when God fails to protect Israel at such a time, He is definitely signalling that something is drastically wrong, and some rabbis acknowledged it.
We're in for an interesting few years!
George and Eileen Anderson
P.O. Box 946, Whangarei, New Zealand
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