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Seeds of hope

Christians in Israel serve their neighbors as war brings suffering and few prospects for peace

Pastor Israel Iluz (left) delivers a box of meals to soldiers at an army base near Kiryat Shmona. Photo by Jill Nelson

Seeds of hope
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On a crisp December evening in the hills of Shoresh, 11 miles west of Jerusalem, five young boys chase each other around a hotel parking lot. Their families are among nine who came to the hotel from City of Life, a Messianic congregation in Sderot—a city just 1 mile from Gaza’s border and one of 22 villages and military outposts Hamas infiltrated on Oct. 7.

Fearing additional attacks, the Israeli government urged residents to evacuate an area known as the Gaza envelope that includes all communities less than 7 kilometers (4.3 miles) from the coastal enclave Hamas took over in 2007. Many of the families who fled ended up in hotels like the one in Shoresh.

After giving some instructions to his two sons, Pastor Michael Beener ushers me inside the hotel cabin where he lives temporarily with his wife, mom, and kids. It’s a shelter for the family and a staging ground for outreach. Despite the trauma and displacement among his congregation of 50 people, his church’s mercy ministry remains active, delivering food, diapers, heaters, blankets, and other necessities to more than 100 families in Sderot who could not evacuate. Nearly 3,000 of the city’s 30,000 residents, including many elderly, stayed behind.

Across Israel, Christians are stepping into areas of need and suffering, looking for creative ways to minister and provide hope in a time of war. Many are serving amid their own wartime challenges. And as Israel battles rocket attacks from three different fronts and faces mounting international pressure to wind down its deadly campaign to wipe out Hamas in Gaza, the work of churches ministering to those on both sides of the conflict has grown increasingly important.

Once we’re settled around a small table in the cramped but tidy cabin, Beener tells me his story.

It began at 6 a.m. the day of the attack when he awoke with “an urgent sense to pray.”

Thirty minutes later, the city’s alarm began to sound. Residents of Sderot, dubbed “the bomb shelter capital of the world,” knew the routine well. Beener and his wife had 15 seconds to get to their bomb shelter—a room that doubled as their boys’ bedroom. But 10 minutes later, they emerged to a scene far more frightening than one of the usual rocket attacks.

Outside their window, Beener’s wife spotted men shooting machine guns as they yelled “Allahu akbar.”

“We understood the bomb shelter won’t save us anymore because the ­terrorists may get in. It doesn’t lock,” Beener explains.

Minutes later, friends texted photos of bodies at the bus stop near his home. Elderly women on their way to visit the Dead Sea on Shabbat had tried to run from their bus to the station’s bomb shelter. Hamas fighters gunned them down. Beener shows me the pictures and points out a woman his wife knew.

Beener has dark circles under his eyes. Months of leading his ministry from a hotel, sleeping in tight quarters, and creating a Bible school structure for the church’s kids has left him exhausted.

But he’s grateful to be alive. The terrorists shot out his windows and set fire to the cars on his street but didn’t enter his home, a close call he says felt a bit like the Passover in Exodus. Still, the stories of what Hamas did to their neighbors and friends haunts his small community.

Beener’s 11-year-old son didn’t sleep for weeks, and many women in his church have persistent nightmares. But that hasn’t stopped them from serving, or praising God.

A giant, white tent straddling the grass in front of the cabins serves as a temporary worship center, or tabernacle as Beener likes to call it. It’s also their supply center.

“In 2001, Hamas proclaimed Sderot the ‘city of death’ and vowed to wipe it off the map,” Beener said. “This is why we named our ministry City of Life. We want to bring hope to people who have experienced generations of trauma.”

Israeli soldiers walk by the former Sderot police station, damaged during battles to dislodge Hamas militants.

Israeli soldiers walk by the former Sderot police station, damaged during battles to dislodge Hamas militants. Jack Guez/AFP via Getty Images

THREE MILES EAST OF SDEROT and just outside the Gaza envelope evacuation zone on Dec. 6, four buses and several vans full of volunteers pulled up next to a grassy field at Kibbutz Dorot—home to 870 people before the war began. Dorot is part of a collection of 10 kibbutzim called Sha’ar HaNegev that lost hundreds of employees due to the attacks and resulting war. Since then, managers have struggled to ­harvest ripe produce and keep the farms running.

Most of the newly arrived volunteers were from local churches, but some Christians came from other countries, including South Africa, Germany, and the United States. As nearly 250 people poured onto the field, an explosion sounded in the distance.

“If you are not close enough to a bomb shelter to get there within 30 seconds, you will immediately get down and cover your head,” coordinators from the Fellowship of Israel Related Ministries explained in both Hebrew and English as everyone ­gathered for instructions. “And just a reminder,” they added. “If you choose to work in agriculture, there are no bomb shelters around. So that’s what you’ll be doing whenever the siren goes off.”

That warning didn’t deter Esther Arnusch, a homeschool mom of five from Jerusalem. “It might be nice to pick fruit. I enjoy being outside,” she noted as she passed by the groups designated for cleaning and repairing a new school building and laying irrigation lines.

Arnusch joined dozens of other volunteers going to nearby Kibbutz Ruhama to pick pomelits—a cross between a grapefruit and a pomelo. The seemingly endless rows of trees teemed with ripe fruit, and the group quickly went to work, twisting and pulling the large pomelits while avoiding the trees’ thorns. Another group of agriculture volunteers picked tomatoes.

Ran Ferdman is CEO of the agricultural company managing three of the local kibbutzim. He described some of the more urgent items on his to-do list: harvest the cotton fields before the rain arrives, pick the fruit before it rots, fix the irrigation lines, and sow the winter crops to avoid a future food shortage. Already done: planting carrots and potatoes for nearby kibbutzim hit hard on Oct. 7.

More than 75 percent of Israel’s ­carrots and potatoes grow in this fertile region, but it has been under near-­constant rocket attacks for several months. “You see missiles in the air and explosions all the time,” Ferdman said. “But we don’t have any choice. We have to supply food to Israel.”

The loss of manpower compounds their challenges. Before Oct. 7, his ­company had 60 full-time and 100 part-time employees. He was left with only 12 workers in the aftermath of the attacks. Neighboring farms suffered similar losses.

Ferdman said 20 percent of his employees were part of the 360,000 reservists called up, and another 20 to 30 percent took their wives and young children to a safer location. His Thai workers returned home.

Hamas murdered all seven of his Palestinian workers from Gaza—­further evidence of the terrorist group’s crimes against its own people. Ferdman identified the men, shot to death inside their vehicle, when he was on his way to Kibbutz Mefalsim a day later.

It’s against this backdrop that hundreds of volunteers arrived to help in the kibbutzim, many sharing their own personal challenges as they worked. Desta Tekla had just finished her ­military service, a minimum two-year requirement for most Israeli citizens. “I wasn’t in combat or anything, but it’s very much impacted me emotionally, spiritually, and mentally,” she said. She came to volunteer with her mom and members of her church in Haifa.

Taffy Carpenter has three kids in their 20s serving in the Israel Defense Forces (IDF). She said a resolve had set in to overcome evil with God’s light. “We all know in our family that we’re each called not just as a family, but as individuals, and now as adult children, to lay down our lives and to serve,” she explained as she briefly paused her work in the fields.

A woman living in Sderot is overwhelmed with emotion as she describes how Hamas gunmen attacked and took over the police station.

A woman living in Sderot is overwhelmed with emotion as she describes how Hamas gunmen attacked and took over the police station. Tamir Kalifa/The New York Times/Redux

GAZA ISN’T ISRAEL’S ONLY security crisis. It takes a little more than two hours to drive from Jerusalem to Israel’s northernmost city, where Hezbollah rockets rain down almost daily from southern Lebanon. It’s a stark reminder that this tiny country has enemies to fight on multiple fronts.

Most of Kiryat Shmona’s 20,000 residents left in the wake of escalating Hezbollah rocket attacks and fear of a terrorist rampage similar to what Hamas perpetrated. The Iranian-backed terrorist group has 25,000 ­full-time fighters, including an elite commando force 2,500 strong, and has long planned to use its own vast network of tunnels to slaughter Israelis across the border.

Despite the dangers, a dozen people from Congregation Kiryat Shmona stayed behind to cook meals for IDF troops stationed nearby. On a Thursday afternoon in early December, Pastor Israel Iluz held a giant pot of ground beef, vegetables, and rice while others helped dish the food into individual containers.

“How much did we do today, Gabi? How many dishes?” he asked his 21-year-old daughter, who was busy ­drawing smiley faces for the cardboard covers. “Around 350,” she responded. Some days they prepare as many as 500 meals.

A small speaker near the kitchen played Israeli music while several of the women sang along. At a nearby table, an 81-year-old couple from Jerusalem folded napkins around plastic utensils. They help the church ministry during the week and return home on the weekends.

Iluz said Israel was unprepared to house and feed the surge of soldiers sent to the north after the war began, so the family decided to convert his 28-year-old son’s new restaurant into a church ministry opportunity. “Instead of worrying about what’s going on, we are busy giving as Jesus basically did. You know, He fed the multitudes,” Iluz said. Much of their funding comes from overseas churches, he added.

As we drove into the nearby foothills to deliver the first two crates of meals, we heard a loud explosion—Israeli troops firing at Hezbollah, Iluz explained. He pointed over the hill to where the Iranian-backed terrorist group is stationed. “As long as there is no siren, we’re good,” he said.

Hezbollah has an estimated 150,000 missiles, more than most countries in the world, and many have long-range capabilities. According to Iluz, the terrorist group typically doesn’t begin firing rockets until after 5 p.m.

Still, the soldiers at the first military checkpoint turned us away because of increased attacks near the base in recent days. A missile killed a farmer in a nearby field later that evening.

But our next three stops were in safer territory, and a group of soldiers at one of the military outposts promptly dug into the food as they sat around their makeshift tables, a tank parked nearby.

As we drove back to the church, Iluz shared his concern about the religious roots of the conflict. Hezbollah, he said, is on a mission to wipe out Israel and proclaim victory for Islam.

“It’s not going to end with us. It’s going to come to you guys,” Iluz noted after he showed me where a Hezbollah rocket recently incinerated a vehicle and damaged an apartment up the street from his home. “They say, ‘Let’s start with the little Satan, and then we go to the big Satan.’ That is America.”

Israeli soldiers gather to eat meals provided by Congregation Kiryat Shmona.

Israeli soldiers gather to eat meals provided by Congregation Kiryat Shmona. Courtesy of Israel Iluz

THE CHRISTIANS I MET IN ISRAEL embraced the importance of serving their neighbor, but they also understood the conflict at a human level—one that speaks to both its religious roots as well as the sinful nature of man.

David Pileggi has lived in Israel since 1980 and for the past 15 years has pastored Christ Church Jerusalem, a 175-year-old Anglican congregation in the heart of the Old City. Around 30 members are serving in the IDF, including one of his sons.

The West “doesn’t really believe people take religion seriously,” the ­rector explained as I took a seat in his church’s library, a stone building with arched walls.

“If you’re going to comment on the Middle East, you need to somehow enter into the minds and lives of the people who live here,” Pileggi said. In this part of the world, he added, respect and honor are hugely important and often fused with religious identity.

Hamas and the wider Muslim community have an eschatology—a view of the last days—that says Muslims will rule the world under Shariah law. That worldview influences their perception of the Arab-Israeli conflict.

“In the last hundred years or so, they have come to import a lot of Western anti-Semitism and conspiracy theories, and they somehow believe that the Jews, and in particular the state of Israel, is hindering [the end times],” Pileggi said. “The lie that’s being spread in the West is that Hamas is reacting to the occupation. No, they’re fighting against the existence of Israel.”

But Pileggi also cautioned against a Christian eschatology that objectifies Jews instead of approaching them as real people who have suffered trauma over the centuries. “I don’t know how many times thoughtful Israelis have told me that they simply suspect that all this Christian love and outpouring of support for Israel is not based on anything, but it’s our way of somehow engineering the return of Jesus,” he said.

As Pileggi walked through Christ Church’s ancient building, just steps from the Old City’s Jaffa Gate, he translated the Hebrew writing in the stained glass windows and the Communion table. One of the ­windows lists the three persons of the Godhead, and the 150-year-old Communion table displays Jesus’ words, “Do this in remembrance of me.”

Since its founding in 1849, this church has always had a contingent of Jewish Christians. But it also has an Arabic service and a vibrant ministry to Arabs and Muslims that includes legal aid, food and medicine, and plans for helping the West Bank’s deaf community by providing watches that vibrate during a rocket attack. Pileggi said the global Church should be careful not to turn all Muslims into enemies.

“On one hand, we’re talking about an ideology that’s quite dangerous,” he said. “On the other hand, we’re talking about millions of people who are made in the image of God. And this becomes an ethical challenge for the state of Israel and even for the West.” He believes Christians should strongly oppose anti-Semitism but avoid writing the state of Israel a blank check to do what it wants.

In early January, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said once Israel destroys Hamas and frees the hostages, “Gaza can be demilitarized and deradicalized, thereby creating a possibility for a better future for Israelis and Palestinians alike.”

Heavy Israeli bombing has killed more than 24,000 Palestinian civilians and militants, according to Hamas ­officials. Those numbers can’t be verified, but nearly half of Gaza’s structures have been destroyed. The coastal enclave will likely take decades to rebuild, and many churches have teams of people ready to go to work.

Amid the practical and political planning, Pileggi said, Christians should keep the spiritual elements of the conflict in mind.

“It should drive us to our knees to pray,” he said. “It should cause us to be more missional, and to act ethically and morally, even when those around us no longer do so.”

Jill Nelson

Jill is a correspondent for WORLD. She is a graduate of World Journalism Institute and the University of Texas at Austin. Jill lives in Orange County, Calif., with her husband, two sons, and three daughters.



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