Congregation Or HaGalil: A model of unity in Israel’s Western Galilee

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An Unconventional Kaleidoscope of Unity

Picture peaceful co-existence in the Middle East. Imagine Jewish and Arab neighbors living happily side by side on territory where wars have raged. Sound too utopian? Although rarely showcased in mainstream headlines, there are, in fact, thriving pockets of peace and neighborly goodwill in Israel today. Consider Nahariya in Western Galilee.

Situated a few kilometers south of the Lebanese border, picturesque Nahariya is the northernmost coastal city in Israel. Boasting stunning Mediterranean sunsets, bustling cafes and shops, and variegated demographics, the city is a thriving vacation haven.

Nahariya, rich in history and wonder, is home to what we perceive to be one of the most unique congregations in Israel, Congregation Or HaGalil (Heb: Light of the Galilee). Who would have thought that a Messianic Jewish congregation and a Lebanese Arabic-speaking congregation could successfully merge? And yet, miraculously, they did.

Congregation Or HaGalil is a place of unity and peace in Yeshua the Messiah. Co-pastored by Dr. Efraim Goldstein and Pierre Altounian, Or HaGalil is a vibrant community of families and individuals from vastly different backgrounds. Holocaust Survivors, Lebanese refugees, Sabra Israelis, Russian immigrants, business professionals, and ex-pats from the nations – unified in their love for Yeshua.

It wasn’t planned that way; it’s just how it developed. And only by the grace of God.

The Humble Beginnings of a Congregation

Congregation Or HaGalil started in the formative years of the Messianic movement in Israel. More than a handful of Messianic Jewish leaders in Israel trace their roots to the counterculture era of the 70s. God was deep at work among many in the States, including in the Jewish community.

Many of these wildly transformed Yeshua-believers wound up planting congregations in Israel that are still thriving today. Their stories are inspiring. These are some of the modern-day fathers of this faith movement.

At the movement’s inception, Albert and Ruth Nissim’s living room buzzed with varying inflections of French, Spanish, Russian, Hungarian, German, and Yiddish. As Nahariya grew in density and diversity with waves of aliyah (immigration), so did the Nissims’ vision to reach every people group with the love of Yeshua.

What started as a lively home group in the 70s still continues to reflect the region’s melting pot of cultures – the many immigrants, refugees, artists, and entrepreneurs that call this place home.

Congregation Or HaGalil has experienced slow-yet-steady growth over the years, consistent with Israel’s blossoming Messianic movement. They are firmly rooted in their values for discipleship, a genuine family atmosphere, and community outreach.

“Do you Trust the Lord of the Harvest?”

Remember those hippie-sage turned Yeshua-followers? Dr. Efraim Goldstein is quintessentially one of them. Full of joy and compassion for people, Efraim and his family immigrated to Israel in 1994, settling in Tel Aviv. He’s the kind of believer that loves to interact with people on dirty streets and unhinged desert music festivals – the sort of contexts many shy away from. But a truly transformed life evokes such boldness.

After fifteen years in an urban context, the Goldsteins took a leap of faith and relocated to Nahariya to help pastor Congregation Or HaGalil through a time of transition. It was a jolting shift from cacophonous city dwelling to the relative quiet of smaller towns. Yet they were faithful to follow the Lord’s leading.

For many years, Congregation Or HaGalil was the only Messianic congregation in Western Galilee, a predominantly Arab area. Both for projects and funding, Efraim had to find ways to coordinate with the Arab congregations in the community.

“In this region, it’s all about trust and tradition,” Efraim says. “You don’t make quick, good friends. There are no fast formulas. It takes time to build trust. Relationships are forged in a refiner’s furnace.” 

His prayer became, “Lord show us how to reach our community and facilitate unity among believers.” And the Lord simply said “Wait, I’ll show you. Sow seed and sit back. The harvest is mine. Do you trust the power of the seed and the Lord of the Harvest?”

Enter Pierre – a man whose story deserves its own Netflix mini-series. (Perhaps, someday, we will capture it in full.)

two people standing at a grill

A Rescuer is Rescued 

Bold and stately, Pierre Altounian was a brave young officer in the South Lebanese Army (SLA) during the heat of conflict in the 80s and 90s. He scarcely imagined that he would one day pastor a congregation in Israel. In fact, he would have mocked the very thought.

The southern Lebanese border has long been a hotbed of proxy militias and extremist factions intermingled with motley religious clusters. It is catalytic for strife.

During the peak of the Lebanese Civil War in the 80s, internal and cross-border fighting among factions was particularly fierce. The SLA was created to protect the small Lebanese Christian communities in the security buffer zone between Israel and Lebanon.

In terms of war and peace, it is often said that “The enemy of my enemy is my friend.” And so, Israel aided the SLA to procure security on the borders. (This is, admittedly, an overly-simplistic statement regarding only one caveat of the complex relations and history between Lebanon and Israel. More another day…)

March 13, 1994. “I was born that day,” Pierre recounts. Reborn, really. In a miraculous twist of grace, Pierre lived when he should have died. His special ops unit had sustained many losses that day, the very least of which was Pierre’s misplaced helmet. A generous friend lent his to Pierre in a split-second gesture that would end up saving his life.

Their unit was suddenly ambushed and three soldiers beside Pierre died. The borrowed helmet took the brunt of the blow. Gravely wounded and pierced through with shrapnel, Pierre was airlifted to Israel for medical care.

His life trajectory was about to change.

Remember Rahab in the Bible? She hailed from Jericho and yet her efforts to assist the people of Israel were rewarded with safety and, ultimately, a place among the people of Israel. Although extremely rare, this principle has occasionally been applied throughout Israel’s history.

In 2000, Israel withdrew from the security buffer zone in Lebanon. A few thousand Lebanese from the war-torn security zone were offered the unique opportunity to enter Israel with the IDF. Several years later, many of the families that stayed, including Pierre’s, were granted full Israeli citizenship.

In Israel, Pierre encountered an Arminian pastor who spoke words of hope and life that deeply impacted him. “God put something on my heart I have to tell you.” Gifting Pierre a Bible, he said, “You will serve the Lord. And you will learn this book and know this book and teach people about the Lord.”

Years later these words still ring true. Since those early days of his faith journey, Pierre and his wife, Maggie, have worked closely with many families and refugees that left Lebanon during the wars. They pastor, disciple, teach truth and offer loving hope to many in Israel.

picture of the galilee region

The Miraculous Mystery of “One New Man”

“For he himself is our peace, who has made us both one and has broken down in his flesh the dividing wall of hostility by abolishing the law of commandments expressed in ordinances, that he might create in himself one new man in place of the two, so making peace, and might reconcile us both to God in one body through the cross, thereby killing the hostility.” Ephesians 2:14-16

Pierre and Efraim’s journeys in Nahariya collided in friendship and faith. The Lord prompted them to join efforts for the sake of the harvest at hand. A story this miraculous could only be initiated and sustained by God’s grace and wisdom.

Successfully merging a Messianic Jewish congregation and an Arabic-speaking Lebanese congregation was no small ordeal. It required a massive paradigm shift to adjust focus to include the entire community and demographics. But as they stay faithful to preach the Word and disciple believers, they see how the Lord of the Harvest can work wonders.

They are living out the beauty of the gospel as “one new man.” This congregation is a miracle of unity and a beacon of hope in Israel today.

“There is great potential for harvest in Nahariya, as in all of Israel,” Efraim says. “If someone tells you there is no hunger for truth and the Lord in Israel, they are plain wrong. We just have to be wise about the means of reaching people with the truth, but we must be ready to give a reason for the hope we have in us.” 

When asked how people can come alongside the vision of Congregation Or HaGalil, Efraim replied:

“Pray and Engage. Put the Galilee region on the map. It’s an under-reached area with a real need for spiritual impact. This is a wonderful place to visit, to volunteer, to learn Arabic in a welcoming family context where people are open to faith conversations.The future is waiting for us at Congregation Or HaGalil. The relationships we build are about the future. There is much harvest waiting. So pray the Lord will send laborers for the harvest.”

This article originally appeared on FIRM, September 21, 2022, and reposted with permission.