“Why are you visiting Israel?”
I’ve posed that question to tourists at the Western Wall, at the airport or on my flight, or visitors from the many groups my husband leads as a tour guide. I have asked that question so many times I already know what the answer will be…at least I thought I did until I spent time with a group of South Korean Christians in Israel on a tour with The Fellowship.
Usually the answer is “to walk in the land of the Bible” or “to walk where the prophets walked” or “to see the Bible come alive.” And don’t get me wrong – even though I know what the answer will be, I still love hearing it. I love to hear that Israel is a place where Christians feel inspired, connected, and that they too love the land that the Jewish people cherish.
But the Christians from South Korea had something else to say. They are just as devout as any other Christian group I have met. And they enjoyed walking the land of the Bible just as much as the next Bible believer does. But this group had an additional agenda: to learn how Israel in general, and The Fellowship in particular, help the needy. They told me that we are innovative, creative, and highly effective when it comes to our charity work. They hoped to learn from us, partner with us, and take ideas home to South Korea.
The South Korean group especially loved that all of our charity work is based on the Bible, deeply rooted in Scriptures entrenched in the hearts of those who care for Israel’s needy. I visited several sites with them, and at each they pointed out that The Fellowship’s programs were both Bible-based and extremely innovative, often solving multiple problems with one ingenious solution.
One of my first visits with the group was to the Neve Michael Youth Village near Caesarea. Yael Eckstein welcomed them to the Holy Land and then spoke about how the Youth Village has completely changed the concept of a typical orphanage by mimicking a normal family life in every way possible, something the children there are missing. Actual families live in the village, with ten children assigned to each, forming one family unit with all the caring, support, and sense of belonging that goes with it. Yael quoted Proverbs 22:6, “Start children off on the way they should go, and even when they are old they will not turn from it,” explaining that we give these children from broken homes all of the tools when they are still young so that they can build wonderful lives when they are grown. The Youth Village is not merely a practical solution to the problem of children with parents who cannot properly care for them, it is the fulfillment of biblical values.
The Ben Shemen Youth Village adds an amazing twist to the same concept of family-oriented care. At the heart of this peaceful village we visited is some of Israel’s greatest technology – all run by the kids who live there. From the most advanced chicken coop in the country to a hydroponic greenhouse, the kids in Ben Shemen are on the cutting edge of agricultural technology. These children have a loving environment, a top education, and the experience that can ultimately land them great jobs when they are grown – transforming from “needy” in Israeli society to being the “needed” in our country’s economy.
There are many more examples. The Fellowship Hotline – based on Lamentations 3:56, which says, "Do not close your ears to my cry for relief," – is a place that anyone in Israel can call with just about any problem. The staff speaks seven languages, partners with 550 organizations nationwide, as well as with the main utility providers in Israel, and have access to 900 volunteers across the country. Whether the caller is struggling to put food on the table, needs medical advice, or is coping with a psychological issue, someone will hear them and help them.
Susan’s House is a Fellowship program for at-risk children. Named after the founder’s wife who passed away at a young age, Susan’s House was his way of turning tragedy into hope. This colorful “workplace” gives teenagers and young adults who have been living on the streets a place to learn arts and crafts and sell what they have created. Susan’s House gives these young adults life skills, a career path, a way to earn money, and most importantly, positive self-worth and self-esteem that keeps them off the streets.
Helping out the other end of the lifespan is Yad L’Kashish, or Lifeline for the Elderly, another Fellowship-supported program that uses art and creativity, this one lifting up and caring for Israel’s elderly. In the entryway of Yad L’Kashish is a large sign with Psalm 71:9 on it: “Do not cast me away when I am old; do not forsake me when my strength is gone,” once again displaying the biblical nature of The Fellowship’s programs in Israel. Yad L’Kashish provides for the most vulnerable among us, many of whom are Holocaust survivors or new immigrants to Israel. But you won’t find anyone getting a handout there. In order to preserve dignity, cultivate comradery, and provide a sense of purpose, the program is designed to teach the participants a craft which is then sold. Crafts include carpentry, metal work, embroidery, paper crafts, silk painting, and more. The elderly “workers” are paid, provided a daily hot meal, and given free transportation. Yet they also receive so much more – a sense of belonging, of purpose, of friendship, and of being cared for.
There is much to say about each one of these programs and the many more that I did not visit with the group. Israel is changing the way we help the poor and the needy – all based on the fundamental biblical directive to “love your neighbor as yourself” (Leviticus 19:18).
As Israel’s 70th birthday approaches, we celebrate all that she has contributed to humanity. It’s wonderful that we export Jaffa oranges around the globe and invented cherry tomatoes. It’s amazing that we share agricultural innovations with countries in need. It’s astounding that Israel has created some of the greatest technological innovations and has produced lifesaving medical breakthroughs. And it’s impressive that we teach security techniques and provide advanced and effective military equipment.
But I’d much rather see this: that Israel’s #1 export would be our techniques in helping the needy. In that way, we will truly fulfill our national mission to be a light unto the nations and a blessing to the world.