What started as an idea to build a congregation 15 years ago blossomed into a Messianic ministry that reaches some of the most vulnerable of Israeli society — drug addicts, alcoholics, prostitutes and homeless.
The congregation never happened, but the Aviv Center outreach in Tel Aviv has grown into a multi-denominational cooperation that has been going strong since 2005.
“I couldn’t dream of what we have now,” Dov Bikas told Kehila News.
“Fifteen years ago we wanted to build a congregation there,” Bikas explained. “The Russians (immigrants from the former Soviet Union) were very open to the Gospel. I had a vision to go to the outcast, so I went there with friends and distributed Bibles.”
When they arrived, they were shocked by the number of people living on the streets in the area and their desperate situation. Bikas calls this neighborhood in south Tel Aviv the “Unholy Land,” where junkies, alcoholics, prostitutes and refugees live on the streets near the old bus station.
The area is also morbidly referred to as “the last stop.” Many involved in drug abuse will die here on the streets. If the neighborhood represents a last stop in life, it also offers a last shot at salvation, Bikas noted. These people are desperate, and that makes them open to hearing the Gospel.
Even the local police don’t have a strategy for the area.
“On the one hand, south Tel Aviv streets are very scary and dirty,” Bikas said. “But on the other hand, precious metals and stones are usually found in the dirt — and we do find precious stones there.”
Bikas insists that if Yeshua walked the streets of Israel today, this is where we would find him.
“If Yeshua came today, He wouldn’t go to the Western Wall and other tourists sites,” Bikas said. “He would come to the prostitutes and the addicts.”
At the beginning, even Bikas was nervous to approach these people in such desperate circumstances. But a rule they have abided by from the beginning is to treat every person equally and with respect no matter how repelling their physical condition might be.
“God created them too,” he said. “We are not looking down at them, we are treating everyone with respect. There is no judging, we are not looking at them as worse sinners than any of us is.”
“If Yeshua had been judgmental, the sinners wouldn’t have come to Him,” Bikas noted. “They came because He treated them with respect and love.”
Bikas described Aviv Center’s humble beginnings as they set up a table on the sidewalk, distributed food and even showed the Jesus Movie to whoever would show up.
“That is how we started,” he said. “We didn’t end up building a congregation, but this movement was built.”
About eight years ago Aviv Center moved into a storefront where people could come off the street, have a hot meal and spend time with the volunteers.
Many volunteers joined along the way and, at its peak before the COVID-19 outbreak, 50 volunteers from 10 different groups of churches and other ministries were distributing 100 home-cooked meals a day. Each group has a specific time of the week to come and use the center for its own outreach.
“When I started the place I didn’t know how we would operate it everyday and keep it open,” Bikas recalled. “We didn’t have enough money to pay salaries, so I had the idea to recruit volunteers from local congregations.”
“It is extremely positive and beneficial to do it like this,” he said. “We are all from different denominations working together. Every few months, we all get together. There is real unity between the believers. Many of them were themselves addicts at one point.”
Even in the worst times of the COVID-19 lockdowns, the volunteers came to distribute food adapting to the ever-changing regulations handed down by the Ministry of Health. The center itself was subject to nationwide restrictions and had to close during that time, but the volunteers came every day even if it meant taking sandwiches and drinks to people on the street while the center remained closed.
“It was moving to see the volunteers keep coming,” Bikas said. “Even with the coronavirus outbreak, no one was afraid. They continued to come and give out food. They still had the passion.”
At present Israeli Messianic congregations from Beersheva, Ashdod, Ashkelon, Tel Aviv, Jerusalem, Netanya and Maalot send their volunteers to Aviv Center, and Bikas invites other believers put their faith into action and serve the Lord in a practical way such as this.
“We as believers are learning all the time, and even when someone finishes learning, they usually want to teach,” Bikas said. “But if we only learn then the church is one big university and does nothing practical. A place like this offers us the possibility to go out and serve the Lord.”
The outreach is focused on both providing for the physical and spiritual needs of these people involved in drug and alcohol abuse and prostitution. The goal is to eventually get them to a rehabilitation center and fully restored. Though not every attempt at recovery is successful Bikas said he has seen many people turn their lives around. Some 25 percent of a congregation in Ashdod is comprised of former drug addicts and half of the students who completed a two-year program for Russian speakers at Netanya Bible College were recovered junkies and alcoholics, some of whom came through the Aviv Center.
Bikas, who also started a rehab center and, more recently, a women’s shelter in Beersheva, hopes to expand the services offered at Aviv Center one day (maybe at a larger facility) to offer showers and hair cuts among other things.
He also urges congregations in any big city around the world to open a center like Aviv in their own area.
“Anyone can do this. It is extremely effective and it is not really complicated,” he urged. “A little food and a little love goes a long way.”