As I write this newsletter, I am in Australia on what has become an annual February trip. This is my third visit to this far away country and, as always, I so enjoy the people, the landscapes and the weather. Although the news was full of terrible floods and wild fires in Australia before I got here, I have experienced only beautiful warm weather, which makes me wonder if G-d is smiling down on my mission of education to the Christians of Australia.
Every day has been filled with meetings, sometimes two or three in one day. But the most successful events that we have held in Australia have been the Shabbat Dinners. We first initiated this unusual program two years ago in the US and since then I have hosted a number in the US and now four in Australia. When Kim Troup, our US director, first suggested the idea to me, to demonstrate to Christians what a Jewish Shabbat dinner is like, I was stunned. I could not imagine why a Christian would be interested and why anyone would come. The dinners have not been held on Shabbat itself, as I take my Shabbat seriously and rest on that day. The CFOIC Heartland Shabbat dinners are always held on a Sunday or weekday and have been an amazing hit on both sides of the ocean.
When I come to these dinners as a Jew, I am sharing with my Christian friends some of the most beautiful and significant of the traditions of my faith. But the values that shine through from these experiences include expressing joy in what is holy and rejoicing in the togetherness of family and these are values that good people all over the world can identify with.
After these events, so many have come up to me and expressed their gratification for what I have shared with them. On this trip in Australia, I have met many at these dinners who have little or no knowledge of Judaism or of Israel. But they want to learn more and I hope that this brief dinner experience will open up avenues of serious spiritual exploration and Bible Study for so many who had never been exposed to these issues in the past.
On this trip, as is the case on many of my trips abroad, I have encountered questions from both Jews and Christians that demonstrate to me how little each faith group knows of the other. Christians have approached me and asked me if I believe in Jesus and when I respond that I am Jewish and do not, they are shocked. They have never encountered someone like me before. I think that what is particularly surprising to them is that a Jew who knows Scripture so well can reject the New Testament. But then, that is the essential difference between Jews and Christians. But so many Christians are just now aware of this.
And when I spent Shabbat in a Jewish community in Sydney, I was asked to address the synagogue on new developments in Christian Jewish relations. When I discussed the enormous changes that have happened in Christian attitudes towards Judaism and towards Israel, my audience was enthralled. Although they had heard about Christian support for Israel in the US, they were totally unaware that there were Christians with similar beliefs in Australia and asked me repeatedly – “but where are these people?”
I was struck by this mutual ignorance, although I have encountered similar instances in the US as well. While those who have been active in Christian Zionist circles have been exposed to Jews and Israel and while those in Jewish leadership have recently become aware of the valuable support for Israel coming from sectors of the Christian community, there is very little awareness of these new developments at the grass-roots level. And that presents a challenge to us all.
In Israel there is quite a growing awareness among the Jewish population that Christians are supporting Israel in large numbers. There are frequent television and radio interviews and programs, newspaper articles and magazine features that have brought this issue to the forefront of the Israeli scene. And as that awareness grows, a similar awareness will grow among Jewish communities in the Diaspora. I actually witnessed an example of that in Sydney. While there, I was invited to speak to an audience of supporters hosted in the NSW Parliament by the Rev. Fred Nile, a Parliamentarian himself. When we chatted before the meeting, Rev. Nile told me enthusiastically about his recent visit to I srael as part of a delegation of Australian political leaders. After the meeting was over, on my way out of the building, I noticed a fellow with a kippa on his head, a sure sign of an Orthodox Jew. I went up to introduce myself and learned that he was the head of the Sydney Jewish community and had been the one responsible for bringing Rev. Nile to Israel. A few days later, I met him again in the synagogue. So while most members of the synagogue were not aware of this activity, it is clearly taking place within the Jewish community.
But what I am becoming more and more aware of is a lack of knowledge, basic knowledge, about Judaism and the Jewish people in the Christian community. So many people have no idea of the differences in our faiths, nor of our similarities. Christians, who love the Israel they meet in the Bible, have no idea that the modern-day country is a Jewish country. And those who are aware of the “Jewishness” of Israel are often not aware of what being Jewish means.
I have often defined my role as enabling Christians who read the Bible and who love the Israel of the Bible to connect to the Israel that is modern Israel and to understand how modern Israel is connected to Biblical Israel, not just geographically, but Biblically and spiritually as well. And the more I travel, the more I realize that this role is a vital one.
You have been a supporter of our work and are well aware of the notion of Christian support for Israel. But I am sure you know many who do not understand your passion for Israel and whose knowledge of my people is minimal at best. I need your help. In order for Christian support for Israel to reach the dimensions it deserves, it is vital that each and every Christian who knows and supports Israel helps us spread this knowledge within the church. I want to personally invite you to connect me and my Christian colleagues at CFOIC Heartland, Kim Troup and Margy Pezdirtz, with Christians you know who are in need of this education and who are open to hearing our message.
Sondra Oster Baras