March was an exceedingly busy month for us at the CFOIC Heartland Israel office for one very good reason — we were inundated with tour groups visiting with us from all over the world. I am not sure why so many people chose March for their visit but it was wonderful! We had the privilege of greeting visitors from as far away as Vietnam, New Zealand, Australia, Holland, Germany, Austria, +USA, Canada, UK, Switzerland, Belgium, Denmark, Uganda, Tanzania and Brazil. And they all came with such joy to be in Israel and with such love for the land and people of Israel. It was a joy to be with them all.
When I was a child in Cleveland, OH, growing up in a small suburb on the eastern edge of a small city, traveling beyond my comfort zone usually meant travelling to the west side of the city. Traveling to New York City was like visiting a foreign country. And a visit to Niagara Falls in Canada was the only foreign travel I had ever done. Of course, I loved reading about people in foreign countries and learning about their different cultures but usually their cultures were presented from a historical perspective and we rarely gained an understanding of how peoples’ perspectives differ in real time.
And then I came to Israel. Right at the beginning, we were in an absorption center and in our first day there already met Jews who had made aliyah from many different countries. I remember a family from Denmark, a few families from the US and the UK, and others from Argentina. There was a mix of languages but we all managed to communicate in English or Hebrew and learned so much about one another. As Jews it meant so much to us to find out how we each celebrate the Jewish holidays, which customs we have in common and where we differ. I remember a Chanukah party just a few weeks after we arrived when various residents prepared plays and songs in Hebrew, sometimes barely understanding what they were saying. It was a fun mix of old and new.
But it was only in the late nineties, when I began reaching out to groups and individuals from all over the world with regard to the settlement movement, that I began to come in contact with non-Jews from many different countries. At first, it was mostly the media and I gave many interviews to journalists from Europe. But it wasn’t until I began my work with CFOIC Heartland, that I was really able to get to know people from different countries and become acquainted with different mindsets and cultural assumptions. I have personally traveled to a number of countries in Asia and Europe, have visited Australia many times and been to New Zealand twice. But I have greeted visitors in Israel, literally from all over the world.
So many of the people I have met come from English-speaking countries but accents and idiom vary greatly. And over the years, I have spoken to many German, Dutch and Spanish speaking groups, where my English or Hebrew was translated by an interpreter. I learned to speak in a rhythm that suits translation, in shorter sentences and with many pauses.
But beyond the cultural interest, I believe we are witnessing an amazing phenomenon. Israel has become a magnet for peoples from all over the world. The tour groups that I meet are all Christian but each tour group is so different, bringing their own cultural background and even different religious customs to bear on their Israel experience. Some relish the fulfillment of prophecy of Jeremiah 31 and want to drink the wine made from grapes that have grown on the hills of Samaria. And some won’t touch wine. Some explode in song or prayer at an ancient Biblical site such as Shiloh, while others reflect quietly on the beauty and wonder of the moment.
But all have come together to experience Israel. All read the Bible in their own language and want to experience the Bible, the past and present of the Bible, in Hebrew, in modern Israel, through the eyes of Jews.
Isaiah predicted some 2,500 years ago that “all the nations shall flow unto it, and the many people shall go and say: ‘Come, Let us go up to the Mount of the Lord to the House of the G-d of Jacob, that He may instruct us in His ways, and that we may walk in His paths.’ For instruction shall come forth from Zion and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem” (Isaiah 2:2-3). And Zechariah prophesied some 200 years later: “In those days ten men from nations of every tongue will take hold—they will take hold of every Jew by a corner of his cloak and say, “Let us go with you, for we have heard that G-d is with you’” (Zechariah 8:23).
I believe these many tourists who are flocking to Israel at this time, with love in their hearts and prayers to the G-d of Israel on their lips, are living testimony to the fulfillment of these prophecies. Some may come for a well-deserved holiday and others come to learn and experience. But if their hearts are open and their eyes and ears alert, they will absorb the intense significance of the moment and understand their role in the fulfillment of G-d’s word.
The people I met this month were people seeking G-d’s hand among His people and upon His land. And I believe they found it. They found it in the renewal of Jewish settlement in Hebron and in Shiloh, in the blooming of vineyards on the mountains of Judea and Samaria, in the lush greenhouses and delicious peppers in the Jordan Valley. They saw it in the many children born and raised in lovely Jewish communities. They saw it in the special children, the elderly and the needy who are cared for with love and sensitivity. They saw it in the synagogues and study halls where prayer and Bible study take place around the clock.
Throughout these years of greeting and meeting Christians from all over the world, I have also found something. I have found love and faith in everyone I meet. Your language and culture may be different but we can all meet in Israel, united by a love of G-d and a devotion to Israel. And that is truly a miracle!
Sondra Oster Baras
Director, Israel Office