Celebrating the Jerusalem Assembly – Looking back at the last 30 years

599
Shabbat service at Jerusalem Assembly (Photo courtesy)

“The Jerusalem Assembly, House of Redemption,” is one of the largest Messianic congregations in Jerusalem, with over 200 members, and they recently celebrated their thirty year’s anniversary. One characteristic that makes this congregation stand out is how local, yet international, it is. Everything in the pulpit is translated to English, and there are translations available to Russian, Spanish, French, German, and more through headphones. Yet, it is a local independent Messianic congregation, established by local Israeli believers.

The congregation publishes books and gospel tracts and has an active online ministry in Hebrew. They manage the website yeshua.co.il with lots of free resources in Hebrew, and they are known for a bold, unapologetic evangelistic approach. They have run nationwide advertisement campaigns with ads on buses and on billboards, tracts in people’s mailboxes, and also YouTube and internet advertisements. Many of the campaigns get interrupted by pressure from religious protests. They also provide free children’s activities and youth camps for their members, and provide food and clothing for those in need.

Unlike many other Messianic congregations, they have an official doctrinal statement, and rather than “accepting anyone,” they define which doctrines they hold when it comes to some divisive issues. Anyone is welcome to visit, but they don’t allow teaching that is contrary to these principles.

One of the chapters in the statement says the following:

We hold to the following Scriptural distinctives:

  1. Sole authority of the Scriptures for faith and practice.
  2. Autonomy of the local church.
  3. Believers’ baptism by immersion before church membership.
  4. Two offices, pastor (elder, bishop) and deacon.
  5. Two ordinances, baptism and the Lord’s table.
  6. Individual priesthood of the believer.
  7. Separation of church and state.

These 7 distinctives lead us to identify ourselves with those who historically have called themselves Baptists. … We believe the rapture of the church is imminent and will be personal, pre-tribulational and pre-millennial.

I sat down with the pastor, Meno Kalisher, and asked him about the origins of the congregation, how he looks back on the past thirty years of service, and what the vision for the future looks like. Before we continue, full disclosure – my family and I have been a part of this congregation since 2012, and I often translate the sermons from the pulpit.

“I recommend every congregation makes a doctrinal statement,” Meno tells me. “Visitors can come from anywhere, but if someone wants to be a part – here, read this, this is what we believe. And yes, it makes us a bit sectarian, we define specific doctrines, but it prevents conflicts. We have never had any conflict that resulted in the church splitting, and I say this with trembling. I think the doctrinal statement is one of the reasons.”

Many people in Jerusalem know the congregation as “Meno’s congregation,” but Meno is very clear – it is not his congregation. “We are a team of elders, and I involve them in every decision, as well as the deacons. I also let elders in training sit in on the meetings. This congregation belongs to God, not to me,” he states. He also emphasizes, “We are no one’s marionette. We have never received donations with conditions, nor would we accept it. We are a local independent congregation. We are thankful to the churches, organizations and individuals who donate to our work, but they do it because they see the blessing it has given for thirty years and continues to give.”

Meno (short for Menachem) Kalisher was born in 1962 and grew up in a Messianic family in Israel. His father, Zvi, was a holocaust survivor who came to faith from a missionary tract after arriving in Israel.

“When I was a child,” he tells me, “there was largely just one central congregation in each large city. Jerusalem, Jaffa, Haifa and Beer Sheva. I’m sure there were some home groups or Messianic services in other places, but generally, that was it. There were only maybe 150 or 200 Messianic families in all of Israel. Everyone knew everyone, that’s how I grew up.”

Kalisher had a degree in electronics and worked at tech giant Intel’s plant in Israel when he received a scholarship to study for a year in a new Bible college in the US. The college belonged to “Friends of Israel Gospel Ministry,” an organization with connections to his father. “It was an opportunity to take a year off from life, to focus on studying the Bible, doing something for the soul,” he says. In 1987 he left his lucrative job at Intel and went to New Jersey for a year. When he returned, his previous manager at Intel offered him his job back, with the same position and salary as before, as if the year had been invisible.

When he came back in 1988, a friend of the family named Randall Cook approached him. He was a representative in Israel of the Association of Baptists for World Evangelism (ABWE) and had on his heart to plant more congregations in Israel. He asked Kalisher about the possibility to establish a home group together in Jerusalem, and so it started.

“It was a Bible study meeting, sometimes in our home, and sometimes with Randy and his wife Phyllis. But it was managed as a congregation. We would meet, study, sing worship songs. People tithed, we baptized people, we had communion. Except for calling it a congregation, it was a congregation. It was like that from the first day.”

A year after the home group had started, Randall and Phyllis Cook had to leave to Brazil, and ABWE sent another couple to Israel. “The meetings developed. We evangelized. More people came. Most people joined us as an addition to their regular congregation. It was a meeting in the middle of the week, in a residential neighborhood in Jerusalem, and it was convenient for many because it was close to their homes. God really blessed us with the teachings – we practiced expository preaching, and that has been our focus from day one – studying the scriptures.”

In 1991, as the gulf war started, Jimmy and Judy DeYoung arrived in Israel. “Jimmy was amazing, he could turn a phone book into a Mission Impossible movie,” Meno says. “Not everyone has those gifts! He asked if he could join our meetings. It was like inviting Einstein to see a math lesson in an elementary school.” Meno continues, “I asked him to teach, and he was a bulldozer. The congregation took a great leap ahead. This type of teaching had never been heard before in Israel. He would see the Bible and the prophecies on a strategic level. What is this prophecy? What’s the goal of this verse? Where is it taking us? Not just focusing on a few verses and make a devotional out of it, but looking at the whole Bible the way God looks at it. The new couple from ABWE had amazing administration skills. For me, as an inexperienced young man with no degree except in electronics, it was astounding to be around people with these extraordinary gifts in administration and preaching. What more could I ask for?”

Jimmy DeYoung was the one who told Kalisher that he was, in fact, leading a congregation. “If it looks like a duck, walks like a duck, and talks like a duck – it’s probably a duck.” The step to become an official congregation occurred in 1991. “The biggest fear was the responsibility this brought,” Kalisher says. “This wasn’t our life goal or dream. It took years until we realized, that this is it, this is what God wants for our lives – to lead this congregation. I sat for hours with Jimmy and the ABWE representative, and I felt that I was little Timothy next to Paul and Peter. Trying to learn from them what it means to lead a congregation, what is required from the leadership. All these things. Eventually we took the step and shared the dream with the home group and asked if they are ready to accept us as elders. Many opted to leave, since they already had a congregation. I have full understanding for that. We went from 35 to 13 people when our congregation took its first steps, on May 4th 1991.”

With time, the congregation grew, and they needed to find a place to rent. Most places said “we have nothing against you, but if we work with you, the religious will boycott me.” Some answered with hatred. Kalisher recalls one who said “Do you exist? Apparently Hitler didn’t do a good enough job.” Said by a religious Jew! “May God bless them and open their eyes,” Kalisher says. They tried to rent halls in hotels, event halls, but no one wanted to work with the Messianic Jews.

They ended up renting a place from a Catholic ecumenical research institute in Tantur where they stayed until 1999.

“We evangelized, we put flyers in mailboxes, we went door to door and told people who we are. We put advertisements in the weekend newspapers, full-page ads with a full explanation of the gospel. A local newspaper did a three-page interview with me. We put our name out there, nothing hidden, just show who we are and what we believe without shame, with our phone numbers and everything. Yes, my personal home phone number. Because there were no cell phones, and my home was the office. People called mostly to curse us. My children were afraid to answer the phone. ‘We will burn your dad,’ ‘We have hidden a bomb in your home,’ things like that. It went on for years. When did I know my kids had overcome the fear? One day the phone rang, my daughter answered and I hear the swearing and screaming, and she just turned around and said ‘Dad, it’s for you!’”

From its inception, the congregation was bilingual in Hebrew and English. “Is it easy? No. Is it annoying? Very. But the congregation grew. We prayed to God for more Israelis. We got immigrants, we got volunteers, we got tourists who heard about us and came to join our service with their tour bus. At some point we felt frustrated. What about the Israelis? The every-day Mr. Levy and Cohen? But God made it clear to us: ‘This is what I’m doing. It’s not up to you to decide. I came to save everyone, and right now, these are who I bring.’ We were happy with that, because it’s true and it’s biblical. It glorifies God. We need to spread the gospel in as many languages as possible.”

By 1999, the congregation numbered 120 members, but the amount of students and volunteers who came and left, people who were “friends of the congregation,” grew exponentially. They reached a point where there were friends of the congregation in almost every country in the world. And once these friends were back in their home countries, they kept helping and donating. “People ask why we do everything bilingually, but look what happened. The congregation nursed, taught and supported everyone who came, no matter where they were from, and for thirty years, these international friends have gone home and given back in love. Because we gave them a home. They came here alone, as students, barely believers, and they came home strong in faith. Their parents saw we gave them love, that their child changed for the better. Praise God for that grace. We couldn’t do this, it’s all him.”

It was then, in 1999, that they were asked to leave Tantur, as they had grown too large, and they were able to secure a place to meet in a hall of kibbutz Ramat Rachel hotel in south Jerusalem. “It was not easy at all, but God was faithful,” Meno sums up. “We were there for a few years. There was another hall on the other side of our wall that was used as a synagogue. A hotel worker would tell me when the coast is clear for us to start. The synagogue on the other side of the wall wasn’t supposed to hear the name Yeshua declared in our microphones on Shabbat.”

After four years the religious found out, and threatened to boycott the hotel, because it “collaborates with the missionaries.” Ramat Rachel then arranged for the congregation to meet in the kibbutz’ dining hall instead of in the hotel, since the kibbutz members didn’t use it on Shabbat. “No one in the kibbutz thought about making sure we got a clean place. They used the area as a pub on Friday evenings, with everything that implies, so we had to come in early Sabbath morning to make a deep sanitary cleaning of everything. All the elders came, early on Sabbath morning, gathering by hand all the condoms, the female sanitary products, everything the pub visitors had left from the day before.”

After three years, and lots of unashamed evangelism, the religious Jews again started to call for boycotting the hotel, with ads in orthodox newspapers. The manager didn’t want to kick the congregation out, but when Meno realized his distress, he opted to leave willingly. Within two days, the C&MA let them meet in their facilities on Prophet Street 55.

The historic church of C&MA (Christian & Missionary Alliance) on Prophet Street 55 was, however, already too small for them, and the only time slot available for them was on Friday evenings, as the facilities were used by other congregations at other times. “We were already 200 people. It was too small for us. But with the grace of God, we managed for two years there while saving money to purchase a facility.”

Meno called the Jerusalem municipality advisor on Christianity, Mr. Mordechai Levy. “I told him, look. We are here. We are growing. We are not going anywhere. We won’t disappear. Instead of being here as a bone in the throat of the ultra-orthodox Mea Shearim neighborhood, let’s sit together. Let’s think of where we can purchase land and build a facility for us to meet. His answer was, and I quote: ‘Over my dead body will you receive or build a new Christian place in Jerusalem. Buy a convent if you need to.’ Well convents are seldom for sale…” After the interview I did a quick research and discovered that Levy was later appointed as Israel’s ambassador to the Vatican.

The current premise of the congregation is in the Talpiot industrial area. They own the fifth floor of a large building on Yad Charutzim 4. The other floors of the building are used for shops, work facilities, family crisis centers, offices, and there’s also a film and television school. The congregations’ premise on the fifth floor includes a large hall for meeting, office facilities, a recording studio, class rooms for the Sabbath schools, an industrial kitchen, and a fellowship hall for refreshments and coffee. There is also a large outside area, covered with artificial grass, with a beautiful view over Jerusalem. “The owner agreed to let us pay a fourth in advance and the rest within a year and a half. We didn’t have a penny, but praise God, he provided,” Meno says. The zoning could have been a problem, as it is an industrial zone, but since that floor had been used for a theater school for the twenty preceding years, the municipality had no legal right to deny the use of the facility for teaching anything else, including the Bible.

Their next legal battle was to get the municipal tax status as a “house of prayer,” which all synagogues, mosques, and historic churches already enjoy. “The municipality wouldn’t hear of it, they demanded full taxation. We took it to the Supreme Court, and after five years of an uphill legal battle, the court ruled in our favor. This became a precedent for all Messianic congregations in Israel.”

How do you see the future?

“Training of elders and deacons is our focus. It’s critical for the local body. If we want to grow, we need pillars. You can’t build additional floors on a building if you don’t have a solid, deep and strong foundation. Everything else springs forward from that.”

A new congregation is being planted in Mevasseret Zion, and the building is already paid for. Meno stresses that there are three fully equipped elders ready to take it on once the building is ready.

“Let me give you a few examples of how our training of elders have blessed others – one gifted preacher who used to teach here is now teaching in an Arab-speaking church in east Jerusalem. We lent teachers for two years to a congregation in Tel-Aviv whose pastor didn’t get a visa. For a period I taught in a Philippine congregation in Tel-Aviv.”

When Sudanese refugees arrived, Meno tells me, the congregation adopted some families, and sent two of them to study in an Arabic Bible School in Nazareth. “For four years we paid for their studies and their livelihood. After South Sudan got independent, they went back, and now they are pastors.”

“I believe every pastor needs to think ‘How do I train the next generation? Do I have a potential for four generations in my congregation?’ Always strengthen the foundation. A congregation is a growing organism, and the more floors you build, the more you need to strengthen the pillars.”

I leave the interview impressed and also slightly angry with myself. I have been a member since 2012, which is almost a third of the congregations’ lifespan. Why didn’t I already know most of these things? Maybe it is because I’ve been a part of both a mega-church and a small home group, but one of the things I love with my current home congregation is that it’s neither. It’s small enough to not elevate the pastor to an unattainable celebrity, but yet large enough to have the means to invest in each and every member, to arrange children’s camps in the summer, and three camping trips for the youth group every year. I know I should be objective, but at this point I can’t anymore. I love this congregation. It has truly been a blessing for me and my family.