The only Hebrew-speaking Messianic congregation inside the walls of Jerusalem’s Old City is “the congregation of the Lamb on Mount Zion.” They meet in the Anglican chapel of Christ Church, which is located just inside the Jaffa Gate, directly across from the entrance to the Tower of David, but don’t belong to the CMJ nor to the Anglican Communion.
Established in 1987, they see themselves as the successors of the first Hebrew-speaking congregation in Israel, which was in the same location from 1842. This congregation just might be the closest you will get to a resemblance of apostolic succession among Messianic Jews in Israel.
The leaders of the congregation are Reuven and Benjamin Berger, two brothers who grew up as orthodox Jews in New York. Similar to Paul the apostle, neither of them got married, and they live together in Ein Kerem in Jerusalem. “When I turned 30, I received a direct instruction from the Lord to devote myself only to him,” Reuven says.
But let’s start from the beginning.
The CMJ, “Church’s Ministry among the Jewish people,” which we have covered in an earlier article, was established in London in 1809 by Evangelical Restorationist Anglicans, who believed in the restoration of the Jewish people to Israel long before Theodor Herzl and modern Zionism. Originally “The London Society for Promoting Christianity Amongst the Jews,” their mission was to reach out to Jews with the gospel. After many attempts with varying degrees of success of missionaries passing through Jerusalem in the 1820s, John Nicolayson, became the first protestant to receive permanent residency in Jerusalem in 1833.
The CMJ, then called the LJS (London Jews Society), successfully convinced the British government that an Anglican, Jewish presence in Jerusalem would safeguard the British interests in the geopolitics of the Middle East, and pushed for the building of an Anglican church in Jerusalem and the appointing of a Jewish bishop in Jerusalem. This upset the previous status quo of Jerusalem and was very unpopular with the Muslims, the Jews, and the historic Catholic and Orthodox churches. Michael Solomon Alexander, originally a Rabbi in Plymouth, who had come to faith, was appointed to be the Jewish bishop of Jerusalem.
In 1842 he arrived, and even though the church hadn’t been built yet, the first Hebrew-speaking church in Jerusalem met in his residence. Several Jews came to faith, including at least two Rabbis. This Jewish church in Jerusalem, with a Jewish bishop and Jewish deacons, performing services in Hebrew caused a great deal of excitement in London, and was referred to as the St. James church, as they saw Alexander as the direct successor of the Lord’s brother, James, an apostolic succession superior to the one the Catholic Church claimed from Peter. The church had less than 30 people, but that didn’t matter. It was the first time Jews had worshipped Jesus in Hebrew in Jerusalem since the time of the New Testament.
However, when Alexander suddenly died in 1849 the dream of the restored Jewish church died with him. The rapid development of the Jewish church in Jerusalem had frightened some Anglicans who were worried that the ecclesial authority of Canterbury might be challenged, and they saw Jewish elements in the church as “divisive” and “Judaizing.” The new bishop of Jerusalem, Gobat, did not want to “limit” himself to the Jews only. The believing Jews stayed, but were expected to assimilate into the general church.
There were serious attempts to create an association of Christian Jews in the 1890s, but this was also met with resistance from the Anglicans. There were still Jewish believers within Christ Church, but their independent association did not survive past 1904.
When I interview the Berger brothers, they assure me that the Jewish believers who were part of Christ Church stayed faithfully until 1948 when they were evacuated to England in the controversial “operation mercy” which became a watershed moment for the Messianic Jews in Israel. After the War of Independence in 1948, Christ Church found itself on the Jordanian side of Jerusalem. From 1948 to 1987, Christ Church had no Hebrew congregation.
Enter the Berger brothers.
Benjamin Berger came to faith in Yeshua in 1967, and his brother Reuven followed him in the faith three years later.
“I was in an inner turmoil, wondering about my identity,” Benjamin says. “And then I felt a presence in the room with me. It scared me a lot, even if it was a presence of purity, holiness and love. I felt the presence get closer to me, and it was as if it took a key and opened up my heart. The presence flowed into my heart, and I wept without understanding why. Then I heard God’s voice inside me. He said, ‘I am the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, and I am your God. Your life is an open book before me.’ Then I heard the name ‘Yeshua,’ a name I had never heard before. I instantly knew that he was the Messiah, but I had no Christian friends, and I didn’t even know that Yeshua was the Hebrew name of Jesus.”
As he read through the New Testament, he realized that he believed it. He understood what had happened to him, and who Yeshua was. “When I then reread the Old Testament, The Holy Spirit showed me all the prophecies about the Messiah. I knew it was the truth,” he says. “But I had never heard of Jews who believe in Yeshua. I thought I might be the only one, and I kept it for myself.”
In 1970, he broke the news to his parents and his brother Reuven. “When he told me, I felt God’s presence for the first time in my life,” Reuven says. “I don’t know how, but I just knew that this was the truth. The following morning, that presence was within me. I was born again without even asking for it. I did the least I could, and He did everything. It was grace.”
Just a few weeks later, God told Reuven to leave everything and move to Israel, which he did. After some time in the land, he telegraphed his brother to come join him – and he did. After many years in the Galilee, they eventually moved to Jerusalem in the 1980s.
“After a few years in Jerusalem, I visited Christ Church, because I had heard that there were a few Jewish believers there. I visited, and there were maybe just five people, and the Anglican Pastor. After just an hour, he asked me if I wanted to take over this group and create a congregation,” Benjamin says. “I went home and told Reuven and we prayed over it. I came back to the pastor and said that we are willing. But if so, we want it to be a congregation that is free from the Anglican Church, and we want to administer the communion ourselves.”
It was a problematic demand. Only an ordained Anglican priest was allowed to administer communion in a consecrated building. But a month later the CMJ granted their permission, and in 1987 the “Congregation of the Lamb on Mount Zion” was established. The congregation grew rapidly, as there were very few other congregations in Hebrew in Jerusalem, and at the time they were the only Hebrew-speaking charismatic church in Jerusalem.
“I don’t like to say charismatic, it has all kinds of connotations, but the congregation is open to the Holy Spirit. Not only that, but we believe that the future of Jerusalem is connected to the outpouring of the Spirit, as the prophets said it would be,” Reuven says.
The congregation’s services are conducted in Hebrew with translation to English and Russian. They meet on Shabbat and celebrate the Jewish holidays, using a liturgy that Reuven has put together. They also take the Lord’s Supper every Shabbat. When I ask them about the Christian holidays like Christmas and Easter, they answer that they acknowledge and mention on Christmas that this is the day in which the gentile world celebrates the birth of the Messiah, and they might sing a few Christmas songs. “We are not cutting ourselves off from the rest of the body of Messiah, we don’t want to think ‘they and us’ – but we don’t really celebrate Christmas per se,” they say. They signify resurrection day together with the English speaking Christ Church congregation.
Part 2 will be posted next week.