I was asked by the Interim General Secretary of the IMJA to report on the current state of the Messianic Jewish movement in Israel, and what the future holds for our movement here in Israel.
I’d like to especially thank Dr. Erez Soref and Keren Silver for their 2017 survey of Messianic Jews in Israel. Statistics in this report come from that survey.
Israel’s population is approximately 9.6 million people, of which 74% are Jewish. Approximately 30,000, or 0.4% of them, believe Yeshua is the Messiah of Israel. There has been an historical bias against believers in Yeshua in Israel for centuries, even millennia. Historically, believers in Israel have been seen as missionaries, and Messianic Jews as those that have converted to a different religion. Therefore, we have generally been unwelcomed and rejected among our own people.
This cultural perception may account for the relatively small number of Jewish believers currently in Israel. This would make Israel what is called an “unreached people group”. But the number of those who have put their trust in Yeshua has been growing quickly in the past several decades, so there is much hope among Israeli believers that these dynamics will change in our lifetime.
Israeli Jewish believers come in different sizes and shapes. Some are new, firstgeneration believers from indigenous non-believing Israeli families. Others are secondgeneration believers from foreign countries that have immigrated to Israel in the past five decades. Some are charismatic, and others are not.
Some of these Jewish believers came from the Soviet Union, some from Ethiopia, and others from American, UK and others from Arab countries and backgrounds.
While not the majority, there are now a significant number of Israeli believers who are native-born Israelis and have the privilege to grow up in Israeli believing families. These Israeli believers are typically bolder in their faith and are willing to be known to their friends, neighbors and to the government as proud believers in Yeshua, as opposed to some of their immigrant parents who preferred to “fly more under the radar”. The current generation of Israel-born Messianic Jews recognize that they need not cower to the religious Jewish establishment’s attempts to identify us as non-Jews, and our faith as foreign or irrelevant to Israeli society.
God is growing His Kingdom in Israel one person at a time, and one family at a time. When Israel became a nation, there were only dozens of Israeli believers left in the Land. Many of them were encouraged by believers outside Israel to leave the Land in 1948 lest the Arab nations overrun the Jewish people during the coming War of Independence. It is thought that there was only one Messianic congregation in Israel at the time.
But the Movement in Israel began to grow again over the next four decades. By 1989, the number of congregations had grown to 30, and Messianic Jewish believers (MJs) numbered around 1,200. Two decades ago, the number of congregations had grown to 81 (with 5,000 MJs), and today there are approximately 300 congregations (with 30,000 MJs).
This meteoric increase in MJs in one generation can be partially attributed to those coming to faith without their family’s support: they didn’t grow up in a Messianic Jewish household. A recent survey in Israel of MJs and Messianic congregations showed that 60% percent of participants reported being first-generation Messianic Jews.
So, while the overall Jewish population of Israel has doubled over the past 30 years, the MJ community has growth 25-fold (and the number of congregations has grown ten-fold).
To what can we attribute this tremendous growth over the past three decades?
As we also see outside of Israel, the Body of Messiah in Israel is strengthened through the personal ties, spiritual teaching and development of the members’ faith inside local Messianic congregations and communities. There is a wide range of congregations in Israel. They include people from various ethnic backgrounds and languages. They vary in size and in nature: some are more “Jewish” in practice (including Torah scroll, tallitot and the use of traditional Jewish prayers), and others are less orthopractic (utilizing modern worship music, less formal, and more emphasis on an encouraging message from the front, etc.)
Often these Messianic congregations are led by a single elder or pastor figure (who is usually Jewish). Some are led by a group of elders. The study in 2017 showed that among Messianic leaders, 60% had education up to a high school diploma (40% graduated), and 40% had an academic education. Of that number, 19% had a graduate degree.
Some Messianic leaders are native Hebrew speakers, and some congregations are led by non-natives in Hebrew or another language (with or without translation to Hebrew).
While several decades ago it was rare to find an all Hebrew-speaking congregation (with no translation to/from another language), many Israeli congregations now function in Hebrew (primarily or exclusively).
Most congregational leaders in Israel do not call themselves Rabbis or Messianic Rabbis, as that is seen as identifying with the Orthodox Jewish community.
Most consistent gatherings of Israeli believers call themselves “congregations” or “home groups”. Home groups range from 10-30 people, and many congregations are 50-100 persons. These smaller community expressions are modeled on the home congregations found in the book of Acts.
The reported median size of an Israeli Messianic congregation is 100 members, with the largest number reported as 600 members. There are few congregations numbering over 300 people.
Many congregations meet in buildings. Almost two-thirds of Messianic Jewish congregations rent their facilities, while one-third are owners.
Anti-missionary organizations typically apply pressure on landlords who rent their facilities to Messianic groups. At times, this pressure has resulted in the termination a rental contract or, in cases where the contracts were being negotiated, a refusal to rent to the congregations.
80% of congregations report some form of persecution.
But many congregations meet in homes either by necessity or by design. The latest COVID crisis strengthened the smaller congregations, as the larger ones struggled to adapt to government regulations that disallowed large-scale physical meeting for months on end.
Some congregations, like the Messianic congregation we lead, are focused more on teaching of the Scriptures, on being real and involved in each other’s daily lives, on fellowship, and on friendship-based discipleship of young Israeli believers.
We concentrate on how a secular Israeli can connect to the God of his forefathers through salvation in the Jewish Messiah, and less on Jewish traditions and prayers. While we live as Jews and celebrate the Jewish holidays, we live in Israel our whole lives, therefore we already know we are Jewish. Our identity is secure and doesn’t need shoring up by acting like the religious.
Anglo-Saxons that immigrated decades ago to Israel from the Diaspora (US, UK and Canada) have gradually become more indigenous in the Messianic Movement in Israel. This is evidenced both by the use of Hebrew as the main language, as well as worship music morphing into more original songs by Hebrew-speaking songwriters - as opposed to translated hymns that were common in previous generations.
Many congregational leaders are not trained theologically, but this is changing too. The Israel College of the Bible now offers congregational leaders a Hebrew divinity degree program for busy leaders, and other theological schools are cropping up to help mature the local Body in the work of the ministry. The breadth of ministries assisting various sectors of the Body and the non-believing society, including women, pregnant mothers, soldiers, professionals, etc. has grown.
A little over half the congregational leaders are salaried, and the others are strictly volunteer run. Only 45% of congregations report that they function mostly independently of financial support from abroad.
Yet significant progress has been made in in the previous decades, from a small minority existing under the auspices of foreign mission agencies, to a self-defined community.
Most congregations are Israeli in culture and character:
Symbols and liturgy do not play as significant a role in Israeli Messianic Judaism as it does abroad. While 70% of congregations report having a menorah, only 46% have a Torah scroll, and 39% have an ark for that scroll.
Many Israeli believers are happy that they don’t have symbols that overtly point toward religious Judaism, seen by secular Israeli society as objectionable and unfulfilling.
What are some of the challenges that face Israeli believers today?
Prospects for the Future Identity
The identity of the Israeli Messianic Jew has changed over the past several decades. Instead of being under radar and averse to persecution, Israeli believers are now taking their place as full Jewish citizens of the State with a coherent and Jewish faith. No longer do Messianic Jews feel inferior to the Orthodox community but are willing to challenge the rabbis self-proclaimed leadership over the spiritual character of our people. We are recognizing that it is us, not the Orthodox rabbis, who should guide our people to relationship and obedience to the one true God. We need to become Israel’s authority on who God really is. We, the Messianic believers, are the shepherds of our people, that need to replace the wicked and unfaithful shepherds talked about in Ezekiel 34 and Jeremiah 50.
For example, the Israeli Messianic organization “One for Israel” and the Israel College of the Bible are publishing high-quality videos demonstrating what the orthodox rabbis are saying about Yeshua is incorrect. Over the Internet, and by their very existence, they are boldly declaring the truth about the Jewish, Israeli Messiah in Hebrew, in an Israeli way.
Debates are also being held directly and indirectly with Israeli orthodox rabbis in person and online for the benefit of all Israel to see, challenging the status quo understanding in Israel that Israeli Messianic believers aren’t Jewish and that the Rabbinical establishment speaks for God. Even the Rabbinical Oral Tradition’s divine origins are being challenged credibly by Israeli Messianic Jewish scholars and academics.
Some Messianic Jews in Israel are rejected by their family and friends, some persecuted, especially in the South of Israel, by the religious so-called “anti-missionary” organizations. Congregational efforts are occasionally resisted, harassed, and opposed, and spiritual oppression is still felt in places. Sometimes individual believers or leaders are targeted with posters or unfavorable newspaper articles, persecuted to take away their jobs and congregational buildings, interrupted during their meetings with picketing, their property is damaged, and some endure arson and even death threats. Like Joseph, Israeli Messianic Jewish believers understand that resistance to our faith by our brothers is to be expected.
In an earlier generation, the Messianic community was more closed and protective of their civil rights, now the MJ community focuses on growth and development as we mature as a movement. Yet the Body has not yet fully recognized the way to best bring Israeli to faith, and disciple them when the turn to Yeshua. There is much openness to share the faith relationally with friends and co-workers, especially among the excited firstgeneration and bold second-generation believers. The work of evangelism is now not only done by foreign missionary organizations, but by Hebrew-speaking indigenous Messianic Jews. This may explain the quick multiplication of believers over the past few decades.
A full 75% of the current Jewish population of Israel was born here. In the recent Messianic Jewish survey, 63% of respondents indicated that they were born in Israel. Thus, making the Messianic movement and congregations natively Israeli is key to our future success and impact to the society around us.
Many congregations are becoming Hebrew and indigenous not only for demographic reasons, but also to show that believing in Yeshua doesn’t make you Gentile and foreign. Rather, we are an integral part of society and worship Yeshua, who was Israeli and not a Gentile from the Diaspora.
We need to show that our faith is not imported from outside Israel. Israelis will listen to us about our faith in Yeshua when the people explaining it aren’t seen as foreigners with a faith foreign to Judaism. When Israelis, especially secular Israelis, see what we are proposing is authentic, local, and not foreign to the cultural Judaism they knew growing up, they will stop, listen and consider.
We read in Genesis 42-45 that Joseph’s brothers came back to Egypt to buy grain from “the lord of the land” of Egypt - from Joseph their brother, but they didn’t recognize him as their brother.
Why? Because he was dressed up by the Egyptians as one of them, a foreigner. He dressed and looked like an Egyptian - wearing their clothes and speaking the Egyptian language. Joseph seemed foreign to his brothers.
His Jewish brothers only recognized Him when Joseph had all the Egyptians leave his presence, and he revealed who his was, and that he was truly one of them. They suddenly saw him as one of their own, not a foreign ruler or foreign god from outside Israel, rather their own brother from their own people, who had come from the Land of Promise.
In the book of Romans, Paul the Apostle, inspired by God’s Holy Spirit, writes that, “all Israel will be saved”. Half of world Jewry live in Israel. This verse of course clearly speaks to the Jewish people in the Land of Israel. Salvation of Jewish people in the Land is key to Yeshua returning to the Earth to establish His Kingdom.
God will keep his end-times plan to redeem His people, even if it takes thousands of years. We are a stubborn people. But God wants to graft the Jewish natural branches back into our own olive tree.
World economic crises and growing antisemitism will further drive immigration to Israel, which should help the Messianic Movement. Even the Russia-Ukraine war in 2022 has led to a renewed wave of immigration. The current wave of Aliyah is larger than the 21 years of the First Aliyah in 1882-1903, which too came mostly from Russia. Russia has threatened to close the Jewish Agency there, which has accelerated the desire of the remaining Russian Jews to emigrate to Israel before it is too late. Ukraine has a Jewish community numbering 200,000 (along with its President Volodymyr Zelensky). Aliyah from Russia and Ukraine has tripled this year, and we have seen over 30,000 new immigrants since Russian forces invaded Ukraine in February of this year. Israeli officials say the influx may end up being the largest wave of immigration to the country since the collapse of the Soviet Union. The Israeli government is struggling with its response as it balances competing demands and pleas. The government is preparing for at least 100,000 Jewish Ukrainian immigrants eligible to make Aliyah.
In the last 140 years, there have been successive waves of immigration to Israel from various locations and Jewish communities in the world. These are usually driven by economic factors, antisemitism, and persecution. The world is increasing seeing the conditions ripen for further waves of Aliyah.
As Messianic Jews, we hope to see a day in which there is a wave of Messianic Jews from all nations to Israel. Aliyah of Messianic Jews is a key component to the strengthening of the Body of Messiah in Israel. More strong Messianic believers here will create and foster the next generations of native, Israel born-and-raised believers that are bold, not foreign, and on fire to reach their Israeli friends in an Israeli way.
Youth work has tremendously strengthened in Israel in the past decade. In addition to congregational youth groups, many junior and senior-high school camps and conferences offer hundreds of Messianic Jewish youths throughout the year the opportunity to grow spiritually in a loving and Hebrew-speaking environment of their peers.
Led by native camp counselors and trained youth leaders, our youth are learning to be passionate for the Lord in an Israeli way.
Young adults enjoy pre-military and soldier discipleship programs and conferences throughout the year.
This strengthening of the individual, young Israeli believer allows him/her to go with confidence to explain their faith to their family, their friends and later to their co-workers.
Our youth and young adults enjoy a unity not seen in the older generation of believers, though cultural and language barriers are still obstacles to overcome.
The increasing focus of the Body on the spiritual development of this sector portends well for the growth spiritually and numerically of the Body here over the next generation.
Yeshua said we are to go into all the world to make disciples of all people. But He said we were first to spread the good news to our own people “in Jerusalem, then in Judea and Samaria, and then into the rest of the world.”
Many Israel believers here are living regular lives in Israeli society, being a light to their non-believing families, their neighbors, and their co-workers.
We serve in the Army like all other Israelis, and we are being light in that dark place. Some young Israeli believers are now taking serious positions of responsibility in the Army and are being noticed as decent and important components to the Israeli IDF.
Shaul the Shaliach (the Apostle Paul) was a “Jew to the Jews”, and we are called to be “an Israeli to the Israelis”. Yeshua told many Israelis after healing them to, “return home and tell how much God has done for you.” God does not want us to be seen as foreigners by our own people, representing a foreign, culturally Christian God. The Israeli Body is striving to present Yeshua to our people in his original homeland and cultural context.
The Messianic Israeli Jews will not be considered foreigners by our people when we are: * Like them culturally
Most of Israel today is secular. Many are turned off by Jewish orthodox practices, and see the Orthodox religious here as hypocritical, lazy, and harmful to society. They don’t see God in them, and most flee from this version of godliness.
Their souls, though, are still looking for truth, and for meaning.
So, God has established approximately 300 small and mid-size Messianic congregations and communities in Israel scattered throughout the Land. Each is a little outpost sent to their own people in their own town or city.
Yeshua is calling his own people, the Prodigal Son if you will, to come back to Him. Yeshua will return to Zion, and to the Earth, when His own people say, ‘Baruch ha-ba b’shem Adonai. Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord!’
May God’s work and plan among the Israeli Jewish people be established in our days.