Ashdod threatens Messianic congregation for operating a ‘house of prayer’

Entrance to Beit Hallel's old building, which the City of Ashdod now claims was operating illegally.

As if it wasn’t enough that Orthodox Jews had vandalized their new building, now the Municipality of Ashdod is bearing down on the Beit Hallel congregation in the legal arena declaring that the non-profit organization itself is operating illegally.

“We got our permits 11 years ago,” Pastor Israel Pochtar told Kehila News Israel. “Then suddenly one day you wake up and say its illegal?”

This latest threat, which is a different tactic from the physical vandalization of the congregations’ property, began when Pochtar and other leaders went to City Hall to discuss getting permits for a new building they are planning.

“Not only did we not receive them, we received a letter saying our current building is illegal,” Pochtar said. The municipality accused the congregation of “illegal gathering and operating a house of prayer in the city.”

The municipality’s declaration, made in a letter sent last month, is quite a switch since the municipality itself had granted Beit Hallel’s tax exemption based on its non-profit status a decade ago. 

The matter had been brewing for about two years, however, when one of the city council members, Avi Amsalem, publicly promised to do everything in his power to stop Messianic Jews in his community. Amsalem, who is running now for re-election, is Orthodox and is a member of the Shas party. Two years ago he asked the city to verify that renovations of the congregation’s building were being one according to the law.

In a letter this week to leaders in the believing community, Pochtar says that the municipality “has really taken on itself the mission to put an end to our presence and work in the city.”

Pochtar wrote, “they suspiciously enough decided it wasn’t enough for a prayer house to operate under all the required permits, according to their current stance” and that “a different, exceptional permit is also required for an organization like ours (something that as far as I’m aware of, has never been mentioned, nor appears in city bylaws, that I know of).”

Despite the ongoing pressure from these attacks, Pochtar said he has received supernatural encouragement from the Holy Spirit. 

“We’ve come through many battles and each one has turned out for good for us,” Pochtar said. “So now we are looking to see how this is going to turn out.”

The congregation’s administrator, an Israeli lawyer who has won in the courts several cases of discrimination for other congregations and houses of prayer, is on the case. 

Pochtar believes that at the root of the continuing discrimination in Ashdod is the influence that his congregation of 300 people has in the city. Each month, the ministry helps 1,200 families from Holocaust survivors and people with disabilities to single mothers and new immigrants. The congregation provides food, clothing and counseling to those who are in need. Some 100 volunteers man the center.

The impact of the believers in Ashdod from two congregations that meet in buildings and a few home groups rivals that of the Orthodox community in 350 synagogues in the city. 

“That is part of the reason the religious people have become jealous,” Pochtar said. “They see the work we do and our influence. And everyone knows, the Orthodox only help the Orthodox.” 

Pochtar said his team will fight this latest battle so as to prevent a precedent in Israel that could be used “to impose strict limitations on the work of other congregations in the country.”