ONE FOR ISRAEL’s Bible college, Israel College of the Bible, has recently conducted a study looking at the modern Messianic movement in Israel. It focused only on Jewish believers, even though the Body of Messiah is comprised of both Jews and Arabs, since the communities have different journeys, challenges and expressions. We are one in Messiah and count it a privilege to serve both Jewish and Arab believers together at Israel College of the Bible. The key findings from our research will be presented below, but first, a little background to put the history of the Israeli Messianic movement in context.
Pre-1948: Evangelism and Messianic Jewish believers in the land
For much of history, Bibles had been large, Latin, communal tomes, chained to the church pulpit, and the layman had no hope of getting to see what was really in it. However, after the fifteenth century, when Christians were finally able to purchase their own Bibles in their own language, there was a great awakening in eschatological interest and study of biblical prophecy as they read about the promises yet to be fulfilled. For the first time, they could read for themselves God’s promises and plans for Israel and the world, thanks to the heroes of Bible translation and the reformation of the church, along with the timely invention of the printing press. As a result, the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries saw a renewed interest in Israel and in sharing the gospel with Jewish people both in Israel and abroad, and people started to come to faith.
Key Events for Messianic Jews in the Holy Land before the State of Israel
- In 1841 Anglican churches in England and Lutheran churches in Prussia decided it was time to have a Protestant bishop in Jerusalem, and appointed a Messianic Jewish believer named Michael Solomon Alexander, the former rabbi of Norwich and Plymouth in England, and Hebrew professor at King’s College London. This symbolic appointment of a Jewish man who believed Yeshua (Jesus) was the Messiah made an immediate connection in many people’s minds back to the ancient church in Acts, which was essentially Jewish. This theme of restoring the ancient church is like a scarlet cord – a thread that runs through the story – for Messianic Jews in the land of Israel.
- The Balfour Declaration of 1917 brought about the British Mandate which lasted until Israel became independent in 1948. During the Mandate era, there were several hundred Messianic Jews living in Palestine, and others were trying to immigrate. Messianic Jews were deeply unpopular among other Jews, but were free to practice their faith under the British Mandate. However, as the British were preparing to leave, the nations around Israel declared war and made clear their intention to “drive the Jews into the sea”. Church clerics and missionaries who felt responsible for the believers in their care were deeply concerned. If the Arabs won, they wouldn’t discriminate between Jews who believed and those who didn’t, and if not, they feared that the new Jewish State of Israel wouldn’t be friendly to them either.
- Thus, “Operation Grace” was born, offering passage by sea for all who wanted to escape what was thought to be inevitable disaster by many missionaries at the time. A place on the ship and guaranteed asylum were provided under the auspices of the Anglican church, and Messianic Jews were strongly encouraged to take advantage of it.
Almost all of the Jewish believers accepted the offer and were taken by boat from Haifa port away from the land of Israel. Only three or four families remained.
For this reason, there were only some 23 Messianic Jews in Israel when the state was re-established on 15th May 1948.
The Body of Messiah in the early days of Israel
Messianic children would suffer discrimination in schools, and the majority of the Jewish population saw believers as traitors at a time when Jewish nationalism and emotions were running high. A few mission agencies were allowed to stay in the new state of Israel, but there was very little gospel activity at that time. In the 1950s and 60s, the Messianic Jews were trying to define who they were and find their place in the Jewish state.
However, 1967 was a turning point. Against all odds, Israel won the Six-Day War; Jerusalem was reunited, and Jewish sovereignty was reestablished over the Temple Mount and other holy places of Jerusalem. Perhaps not coincidentally, waves of revival also began to occur at this time. In the US, the “Jesus Movement” broke out, and about one million people came to faith in Yeshua, many of whom were Jewish. Many of these new Jewish believers immigrated to Israel in the 1970s, giving the Body of Messiah a much-needed boost in numbers and energy.
1989 – First research project
The first attempt to research the Jewish Messianic community in Israel was a study carried out in 1989 by Dr. Jim Sibley. He noted there was a well- established but informal organization of pastors and leaders who would meet together to cooperate with one another. He personally counted just 30 Messianic congregations in the entire country.
At this time, the body was going through a process of indigenization. The language in many of the congregations was switching from the English of the missionaries to the local Hebrew language, and they were moving away from translated church hymns to original songs written in Hebrew. The community was still small and trying to find its place in society, like a young adolescent.
Believers were still trying to fit into Israeli society and figure out their identity in the land of their fathers.
At that time, to believe in Yeshua was not accepted at all, and the very idea of a Jew who believed in Jesus was met with scorn, derision, and disbelief that anyone could cross such an uncrossable line.
1999 – Second research project
In 1999 more research was carried out by two Danish Protestant believers on behalf of the Caspari Center, showing a significant advance. They counted and interviewed 81 Messianic Jewish leaders, who represented 81 congregations. However, only 20% of them were led by local Israelis, and 80% came from outside Israel. They noted that the congregations were tending to become more Jewish in character and developing an expression of faith in Yeshua that was more Israeli. Israel is a democratic state with freedom of religion, but it was very common for congregations to be harassed and persecuted by so-called “anti-missionary” ultra-Orthodox Jewish organisations who, like Paul, believed they were serving God by making the lives of believers as difficult as possible. Gradually, it became harder and harder for missionaries to stay in Israel.
The 1990s saw a huge influx of immigration from the former USSR which radically changed Israel and the body of believers. Many arrived having faith in Yeshua, or at least great openness to faith. Congregation numbers swelled, and by this point there were some 5,000 believers in the land. There were good connections between the leaders, but overall the community was still largely marginalised and struggling to find its Israeli identity.
2017 – Third research project
Israel College of the Bible recently compiled a questionnaire that was initially sent directly to every Messianic leader, then later disseminated more broadly among the wider body of believers.1
Growth since 1948
- In 1948, there were approximately ten million Jewish people around the world who had survived the Holocaust. About 600,000 were living in Israel. Of those, only 23 of them believed in Yeshua as their Messiah. There were some churches led by denominations and missionaries in Israel, but there were no Messianic congregations at all.
- In 1989 Israel’s Jewish population had grown to 3.5 million, and by this point, the estimated number of believers had reached 1,200. There were now 30 congregations.
- By 1999 there were 4.8 million Jews living in Israel, 81 Messianic congregations and an estimated 5,000 believers.
- In 2017, 300 congregations were counted. It has become increasingly difficult to accurately identify the number of Jewish believers in Israel, but a conservative estimate is now 30,000.
The growth has not been linear, but exponential. Similarly, attitudes towards Messianic believers have also come a long way. Israeli Jews used to be mortified at the thought of a Jew who believed in Yeshua, but today almost everyone we talk to has heard of this growing movement of people.
The character of the Messianic body in Israel
Our study found that 60% of the sample are first-generation believers – they are the first in their family to believe in Yeshua. The next largest group is second-generation – their parents are also believers. This shows that we are a young body and that the majority of growth is no longer from people immigrating or having children, but is rather due to people coming to know the Lord themselves.
The study shows that Messianic believers in Israel tend to be very committed: 95% attended congregation 3-4 weekends a month, and 60% also attended a midweek meeting.
Messianic Jews in Israel have struggled long and hard to find their place and identity, but our study indicates that we are also seeing great steps forward in this area. Israel is a land of immigrants, so being “Israeli” is very important in general society and even more so in the Messianic community. Our survey asked participants, “How Israeli do you perceive your congregation to be?” The results showed that 93% perceive their congregations to be “very Israeli”, and that many of the identity struggles of the past were being overcome. Identity is made up both of what you perceive about yourself, and what others perceive about you. This research shows that we now overwhelmingly perceive ourselves as part and parcel of Israeli society.
Parameters of Jewish / Israeli culture expressed in Messianic congregations
Almost all (92%) of the congregations operated in Hebrew, although most offer translation (to Russian, English, Spanish, German and other languages). Similarly, 90-100% celebrate the Jewish holidays (100% kept Passover). 99% said their congregation actively encourages serving in the army, which in Israel is generally considered a hallmark of being part of Israeli society – almost a rite of passage. Perhaps not unconnected is the fact that one of the places where Messianic Jews get acceptance and appreciation in Israeli society is in the military. Messianic Jews serve as pilots, officers, in prestigious elite units, in intelligence units and more, and have gained a very good name in the IDF, which is no small matter. Moreover, ministry to the believing soldiers has grown over the years, helping them to stand in their faith and represent the Messiah wherever they serve.
Relationship with the global church
Messianic Jews all over the world exist on the edges of two worlds simultaneously – they are on the fringes of both Jewish and Christian communities. Each community says to the Messianic Jews, what’s wrong with you? Jews say, “You’ve crossed the line, why not just call yourself a Christian and admit you’re no longer a Jew?” Some think that Yeshua was Jewish “before he became a Christian”!
Yeshua is the Christ, the Messiah, and he remains Jewish forever. Neither do we cease to be one of the tribe when we start following our Jewish Messiah. Some Christians mistakenly assume that Jewish people somehow stop being Jewish when they come to faith in Yeshua, but believing in the Messiah is the most Jewish thing we could ever do.
68% of Messianic Jews today feel a full or significant congregational identification with the Jewish people (that is, their congregation sees itself as part of the Jewish people), and the rest would say their congregational identification with the people of Israel is either “partial” or “somewhat”. At the same time, 63% significantly or fully identify with the evangelical church worldwide, showing the overlap in identification with both communities.
It should be noted that most Messianic Jews make a distinction between the evangelical church and traditional churches, largely due to the persecution of the Jewish people throughout the history of the church. Our friends and family are horrified thinking that we have allied ourselves with the perpetrators of the Spanish Inquisition, the pogroms of eastern Europe, and the Crusades… There is so much painful history tied up in the traditional church, but Evangelicals are seen as good friends to Israel. For that reason, only 30% identify with the worldwide church, when all the traditional churches are included.
Evangelism and persecution in the twenty-first century
80% of Messianic Jews have reported persecution, whether that is social marginalization, discrimination in the workplace, or intimidation and threats. Some have seen posters with their name and picture displayed in their neighborhood, warning the public that they are “dangerous” and to be avoided, and others have experienced physical abuse. However, we are seeing a great move forward in evangelism at the same time.
22,000 Israelis search every month for “Yeshua” or “Messiah” in Hebrew, and a lot of effort is put into making sure they reach the answers from a Messianic point of view. Testimonies of Jewish believers and answers to common objections to faith can all be easily found as soon as someone starts searching for the Messiah. This has proved wildly successful. There are barely seven million Jewish people in Israel, yet our Hebrew language videos have been viewed more than fourteen million times!
The “anti-missionaries”, concerned about the numbers coming to faith in Yeshua, have been publishing a magazine called Searching, ostensibly for Jews who have “lost their way,” mailed directly to the personal addresses of believers. So in response, we started publishing a magazine called Finding, answering each of their criticisms and objections. We have also produced videos tackling false claims and libels, and exposing some of the errors within Rabbinic Judaism. This is the first time since the beginnings of the early church that local Messianic Jews are publicly going against the religious authorities – against the Pharisees, essentially. It has become an internal conversation within our people about our shared history, heritage and destiny.
Trajectory and hopes for the coming decades
In 1989 most of the pastors had no biblical training whatsoever. They may have wanted it, but it was not readily available in Israel – certainly not in the Hebrew language. However, the 2017 study found that of the 300 congregations, most had at least one person in their leadership with some sort of theological training, many of whom had a degree in theology, often with us at Israel College of the Bible. 84% saw this training as “very important”. Interestingly, those under 44 years of age indicated it was more important to them than it was to those over that age. This indicates that the perceived importance of theological training is growing, not diminishing.
Younger believers don’t feel the need to “prove” their Israeli credentials as the pioneers of previous generations did, and so we expect to see more of the younger generation being trained and confident to lead in many areas of Israeli life. There has been a sharp decline in biblical education in wider Israeli society, creating a huge opportunity for Messianic Jews to step up and contribute particularly in this area – both in Bible colleges and in state universities. We believe that according to the trends we see in the research, we can realistically expect to see many more Israelis come to know the Lord, and that believers will be able to have a greater impact in all kinds of places in society.
1. Soref, E., “The Messianic Jewish Movement in Modern Israel.” In: Israel, the Church and the Middle East Eds. Dr. M. Glaser and Dr. Darrell Bock. Kregel: MI, in Print.
Breakdown of our research sample for the study: “The Messianic Jewish Movement in Modern Israel”
The study was focusing only on Jewish believers, even though the Body of Messiah is comprised of both Jews and Arabs, since the communities have different journeys, challenges and expressions. We are are one in Messiah, and count it a privilege to serve both Jewish and Arab believers together at Israel College of the Bible.
- 298 adult Messianic Jews replied, 76 of whom were leaders, and 222 lay people.
- Ages ranged from 18-73, with a median age of 31 – relatively young, overall.
- 47% were women, 53% men, slightly different to from the general population: 49.5% men, and 50.5% women.
- 56% were married and 42% single.
- 241 answered in Hebrew, 39 in English and 18 in Russian.
- 63% of the responders were born in Israel – “sabras.” 37% were born outside of Israel (compared to 75% in the general Israeli population who are sabras, and 25% immigrants).
- Educational level: about 60% had up to a high school diploma, 40% had academic education, of those, 19% had a graduate degree – similar to the general population.