Israel 2016: Finding Shabbat in Gi’vat Ye’arim
Shabbat (Sabbath) in a Jewish community in Israel is different from Shabbat at home in America. What we have experienced in Israel may be similar to what one would encounter in an American Jewish community, but it is new to us. We non-Jewish Sabbath keepers, even those of us who have been keeping Shabbat for many years, are still finding our way. What we know is that Messiah Yeshua kept it, that He taught His disciples to continue obeying the commandments, and that we want to do as He did because we love Him so much.
Our Christian traditions have forbidden us from keeping Shabbat ever since the days of Emperor Constantine, and many of the Jewish traditions seem to make Shabbat incomprehensibly complicated. Even so, we know that Shabbat is a bubble in time which occurs once in seven days. When we enter that bubble, we come into a place where YHVH is waiting. America continues at its frenetic pace around us, with its Saturday football games, festivals, work opportunities, soccer matches, and all the myriad other things we deemed important for much of our lives. For us that world drifts into the shadows as we turn our attention inward toward home, family, gathering with friends, and meeting with the holy, loving, and kind God Who has invited us to be still and know that He is indeed God.
This is not to say that our Shabbat observance is perfect. We live in a world where Shabbat is not even a word most people recognize, nor a concept they understand. We juggle our schedules as best we can to avoid any normal business, work, travel, or other things which keep us from this divine appointment. That in itself strains relationships with family and friends who do not esteem the day as we do. Then there are the constant temptations to bend the rules: to finish that one last bit of work just after the sun sets, or to check up on the scores when our favorite teams are playing, or to compromise by meeting our non-Shabbat-keeping family at a restaurant early on Saturday evening. We do our best not to be legalistic, but to manage these competing requirements of life in Babylon while obeying our King.
This is where we begin to identify with our Jewish brethren. They have been living this balancing act for millennia, and it is logical that we look to them for inspiration. Thus we have come to Gi’vat Ye’arim, not even knowing that we have come here for reasons the Almighty had determined before we even heard of the place.
Here everything stops. That is, here near Jerusalem everything stops. I am told it is different elsewhere, such as in Tel Aviv, where the people are less careful about observing the commandments and the various traditions that have grown up around them. In Gi’vat Ye’arim, though, Shabbat is important. The day truly is set apart in time, and the people remember it as holy just as YHVH directed. The Scriptures tell us that Shabbat is a sign of the covenant between the Almighty and His chosen people. Anyone who doubts that Jews are still the covenant people of the Almighty should refrain from judgment until having experienced Shabbat among them.
For us, Shabbat began with the preparation. That meant finding a place to buy food for 11 people for three days. Five of us made the trip to a local supermarket for this purpose. Our gracious host, Tzemach, advised us to go to Jerusalem to the Shuk (market). It would be a cultural experience, he said, and we could find everything we need. However, since none of us know enough Hebrew, and since we are as yet unfamiliar with this Israeli way of shopping, we opted for the Rami Levy supermarket not far from the village. That was enough of a cultural experience! When we arrived at about 1:30 in the afternoon, the store was a frenzy of activity as dozens of families were doing the same as we. Even with the unfamiliar language and the crowded store, we were able to find everything – thanks in no small part to a very helpful employee who guided us to those hard-to-find items. We finished our shopping just as the market was closing at 3:00, and then quickly returned home for the ladies to begin cooking.
As the evening shadows began to lengthen, Pete Rambo, his son Jeremiah, and I drove to Ben Gurion Airport to meet Tom Lewis as he arrived from South Carolina. The only adventure was finding a parking place. It seems that multitudes of people chose to arrive simultaneously with the Shabbat before Sukkot. The crowds were no obstacle to Tom. This is his 19th trip to the Land, and 18th consecutive journey for a Feast. Since 2011 he has traveled to Jerusalem for Passover, Shavuot, and Sukkot each year, just as commanded in Scripture. I know of no one else, Jewish or otherwise, who can make such a claim. His stories are amazing, such as the conversation he had with an El Al employee in Madrid just before catching his connecting flight to Tel Aviv. That gentleman confessed that he had never been to Jerusalem for a feast. Tom’s response was, “Well, you should.” Perhaps that is what Paul meant when he wrote that bit about making our brothers jealous.
After our Erev Shabbat meal we had more opportunity to make our brethren jealous. Not intentionally, that is. In fact, “jealous” is the wrong word. We made them think because we interacted with them in an unexpected way. We had invited Tzemach to visit us, which he did along with his girlfriend, Olga. She is a tour guide; he is an electrician and an artist who works in stone. What we did not know is that he is also an accomplished Israeli folk dancer. Our evening proceeded as it normally does when we gather for Shabbat: we danced. It did not take long for Tzemach to go get another friend to come join us, along with his wife and children. It seems that this gentleman is not only a dancer like Tzemach, but he teaches Israeli folk dance. That, of course, was no coincidence, but a Divine Appointment
As it turned out, we American Hebrews knew the basic steps and even some of the same dances. Even a novice like myself had little trouble keeping up as our new friends taught us the Israeli way to dance. We were moved, and so were they. What moved us all was the deep connection we made, or rather realized that we had just in that universal language called dance. They as Israeli Jews approached the dances from their lifelong attachment to the Land and people who are Israel; we approached them as newly identified Hebrews worshipping our God with our bodies and rejoicing in His work connecting us with that same Land and people. When our Jewish friends danced, it was beautiful. When we danced, it was worshipful. When we danced together, it was a harmony created in heaven and released through our feet into the earth.
The hour grew late and everyone grew tired, so the blessed gathering had to end. Yet it is not the end of our connection, but the beginning of something we cannot at this point discern.
Early the next morning several of us took a walk around the village. It is beautiful. Some houses are small and neat, and others are large and imposing by Israeli standards. Each house is a garden, surrounded by pomegranate, olive, and palm trees, interspersed with fragrant herbs and colorful flowers. Dogs and cats abound as well, wandering freely through the narrow streets. They are not vicious, but well-fed, well-behaved animals, and some quite friendly.
The people are friendly, too. The men walking to synagogue for morning prayers did not know quite what to think of these Americans wandering their streets in our tzit-tzits, kippas, and t-shirts, but they greeted us with “Shabbat Shalom”, “Boker Tov” and “Gut Shabbos”. We returned their greetings, but under the circumstances deemed it best not to try to join them at synagogue. Perhaps next Shabbat.
As we wandered to the northern edge of the town, we looked across the valley to Route 1, the main highway linking Tel Aviv with Jerusalem. It occurred to me that thousands of pilgrims travel that route each day, most of them in air-conditioned tour buses on their way to the holy sites, but with no awareness of the little bit of genuine Israel only two kilometers to their right. Still, they are here, and hopefully they will experience a connection to the Land that will change them forever. The change began in me with my first trip to Jerusalem four years ago, and it is still in its early stages.
Something about that connection strengthened or accelerated during our morning walk. On that same north side, at a picturesque spot, we encountered a stone engraved in Hebrew and English with this message:
In memory of
The Hesdoerffer Family
who were killed by the Nazis:
My beloved mother Johanna, nee Joseph
My brother Ernst, age 16
My Aunt Lina and my cousin Carl
My father Karl, died in Bad Kreuznach 1934
Donated by Heinz Hesdoerffer 2010
Herr Hesdoerffer may never know the service he rendered to me by so honoring his departed loved ones. I realized at that moment that he had waited his entire life to fulfill something he had vowed to do since he saw his family perish during his childhood. It happened in a place I know, or know of. American soldiers were stationed there for decades after World War II. Some of them were friends and colleagues of mine. They would not have known much about the Nazi oppression that slew Karl Hesdoerffer in 1934, but on this very day when I saw the memorial to him, the link between us was forged. At that moment I realized the true significance of this village of Gi’vat Ye’arim.
The town did not exist until 1950. In that year a number of families recently immigrated from Yemen settled the barren hillside and began the process of turning it into home. Now, 66 years later, the barren hillside is a lush garden, and those few dozen Yemenite Jews have become a close-knit community of over 1,000. It is a testimony to human courage and hope, but more importantly to the eternal covenant of YHVH with His people Israel. These Yemenites may not know known their part in seeing that covenant fulfilled, and neither perhaps would the Germans and Greeks and Spanish and Moroccans and Italians and Iraqis and Ethiopians and myriad others thrown upon the shores of Israel in the aftermath of the tribulation called World War.
And this is where I am amazed, and shamed. In 1950 the Yemenite Jews and their fellow Israelis from many lands were only beginning to breathe easily after the loss of so much that defined their identities. As they struggled to build a new identity out of rocky, barren hills, we Americans were basking in the glory of our newfound superpower status. American mothers wondered how they could afford a new washing machine; Yemenite Israeli mothers wondered how they would feed their families. American fathers considered the best way to acquire a new car; Yemenite Israeli fathers wondered if they would be alive to see their children grow up. American children laughed and played along with Mickey Mouse and Howdy Doody; Yemenite Israeli children made dolls of sticks and bits of cloth, and helped their parents build a new life in a strange new/old land.
Today, 66 years later, I wonder who has gained the most. America has progressed in wealth and power and prestige, but is there shalom in the hearts of Americans? We wonder how we have come to this place where none of the candidates for office in our land reflect the values that made America great. Is it really home to those of us who hold those traditional values dear? Is it, perhaps, as much home to us now as Germany was home to the Hesdoerffer family in 1934? And for us who have embarked on a Hebraic journey to embrace both Messiah Yeshua and the Torah which speaks of Him, will there be a day soon that we follow the Yemenites and others into a new identity in this covenant Land?
If Scripture is true, then the answer to that is yes. Perhaps tomorrow, perhaps next year, or perhaps one hundred years from now. The world does not yet know that it is possible to be Hebrew and not Jewish. Jews do not know what to think of us who do not want to usurp their place in this nation of Israel, nor become Jewish ourselves, but rather contribute our part to Israel as the returning House of Joseph.
Perhaps here in Gi’vat Ye’arim we can all learn something of what that means. The peace of Shabbat may have eluded us in the lands of our exile these 2,700 years, but we pursue it nevertheless. And here we have found a measure of that Shabbat Shalom which Messiah promises to give to all Israel.
If you turn away your foot from the Sabbath, from doing your pleasure on My holy day, and call the Sabbath a delight, the holy day of the Lord honorable, and shall honor Him, not doing your own ways, nor finding your own pleasure, nor speaking your own words, then you shall delight yourself in the Lord; and I will cause you to ride on the high hills of the earth, and feed you with the heritage of Jacob your father. The mouth of the Lord has spoken. (Isaiah 58:13-14 NKJV)