Jewish believers in the late 1800s who maintained a Jewish identity and remained devoted to Jesus: A history of Messianic Jews in Israel, Part 11

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Bernard Heilpern's home in Jerusalem today (Photo: Kehila News Israel)

In the previous article, we tried to cover the time between 1845 to 1882, when the sources are extremely silent on the issue of Jewish believers in Jesus. Many important things happened in Israel and Jerusalem during these decades, such as the firm establishment of the Anglican and Protestant church and their involvement with biblical archaeology, as well as the expansion of Jerusalem outside of the Old City walls. The British consul, Finn, and Bishop Gobat worked well together in the 1850s and 60s and they enjoyed amazing accomplishments. Both are enshrined in the history of Jerusalem as movers and shakers who were instrumental in Jerusalem’s development in this era, and their successors had a great foundation to build upon in the 1880s and 90s.

But these articles are not about general history, and they are not about protestant missionary work in Israel. You can read about that elsewhere. These articles are about Jewish believers, with a focus on the Hebrew-speaking ones who maintain a Jewish identity. And these are scarce during this era. In the last article, we pondered whether this could be because all the converted Jews assimilated or left Israel (whether by force, necessity or free will). It is for sure part of the answer, but another reason could also be censorship. In a later article (number 13), we will talk about a Hebrew Christian association, which we now know existed between 1899 to 1905. The existence of this association was unknown until the historian Gershon Nerel stumbled upon a documentation of it when he went through the LJS archives in 1999. For almost 100 years, the mere existence of this association was unknown, and this begs the question – was this the only attempt? Were there more instances like this which were removed from the archives? We will never know. What we do know is that the Hebrew-speaking services of Christ Church continued in an unbroken chain from 1842 until the Jordanian occupation of 1948. We also know of a Hebrew-speaking congregation in Jaffa whose fate is unknown. More about them in the next article.

Before I continue, I must also apologize for something I’ve missed in the previous articles. Our focus has been on the LJS a lot, but there was one other organization that also worked in Israel from 1847, called “The British Society for the Propagation of the Gospel among the Jews.” They operated from Jaffa rather than Jerusalem through a missionary named William Mannings, who arrived in 1847. We know very little about what this organization did and accomplished in its early years, but we will see them come up later when a certain Mr. Joseph establishes an outreach center in Haifa in the late 1800s. This organization later changed name to “Christian Witness to Israel.”

In the previous article, I ended with a promise. I wrote, “There were still some Jews in the late 1800s that stood against the norm and were an exception. A small number of Jews who came to faith, went abroad for education, and returned to Israel. People who affirmed their Jewish identity and remained devoted to Jesus. They were rare, but they existed.” I promised to give more details about two of these men: Bernard Heilpern and Ben-Zion Friedman.

So let’s start with Bernard Heilpern, a fascinating character. He was a Serbian-born religious Jew who visited Jerusalem at the age of 18 in 1864 and there heard the gospel for the first time. He was baptized a year later by E.B. Frankel, a Jewish missionary who worked for the LJS. He then worked in the Jerusalem House of Industry before he went to Malta for further studies under the LJS.

Once he had finished his studies, he came back to Israel and earned his living as a goldsmith for the rest of his life. He also served as the representative of the British travel company “Thomas Cook & Son,” representing them in “Palestine, Syria and the Desert.” Because of this, he was in charge of the itinerary when the German Emperor, Kaiser Wilhelm II, visited Jerusalem on his famous visit in 1898. Who knows? Heilpern might be the man who raised the idea to breach a part of the wall of the Old City close to the Jaffa Gate to allow for the emperor to get into the city with his vehicle escort. It’s still one of the few car entrances into the old city.

In 1903, Heilpern built a luxurious and spacious private home, which is still standing on Agron Street in Jerusalem, adjacent to Paris Square. It is now in a very central part of Jerusalem and close to the Prime Minister’s residence. When Heilpern died in 1909, he left the house to the American missionary organization C&MA (more about them later) who during the 1950s leased the house to the use of the “Israeli Messianic Congregation,” the first independent Israeli Messianic congregation in Jerusalem, then led by Zeev Kofsman. However, the house was eventually sold in the 1960s, and today houses the Jewish conservative movement’s offices, as well as a youth hostel.

Heilpern was one of the few who took the initiative for the Hebrew Christian Association in Jerusalem in 1899, (which we will look closer at in article 13). In 1904, he tried, in vain, to assemble donations to build housing and build a Hebrew Christian residential area outside of the walls of Jerusalem, which indicates that there were a significant number of Jewish believers in Israel. However, in the letter where he asks for these contributions, he noted that, “Besides me, there is no other Hebrew Christian in Jerusalem who is self-sufficient.” Heilpern died in 1909.

A plaque on Bernard Heilpern’s home in Jerusalem (Photo: Kehila News Israel)

Ben-Zion Friedman is the second fascinating character we wanted to examine more closely. He was born in Russia in 1852, but moved to Safed with his parents as a little boy. He was gifted, and they consecrated him as a rabbi at an early age.

And then he met the LJS missionaries.

After many discussions and debates with the missionaries, he delved into the New Testament and became convinced of its truth. When he visited Jerusalem in 1876, he met with LJS missionaries at Christ Church and came to faith. He knew that his friends in Safed would try to bring him back, so he left Israel and went to London, where he met other Jesus-believing Jews. They mentored him, and he was baptized by Dr. Aaron Stern in 1878. He studied for two years in the LJS school and acquired British citizenship. He eventually returned to Israel in 1882, just as the first aliyah wave began.

The first Zionist Jews arrived in Israel in 1882, mostly following horrific pogroms in Russia. This later became known as the first aliyah or immigration wave. This motivated the LJS to intensify their work, and they set up new bureaus in Safed and Jaffa. Sources critical to the missionaries claim the LJS tried to “infiltrate” the new pioneer settlements, offering them economic help in exchange for conversion. In reality, these places were run by Jewish Christians, such as Ben-Zion Friedman, and they gave practical help, health care and education. The help was for free and with no strings attached, but there is no denying that they would use the opportunity to preach the gospel.

When Friedman arrived to his old homeland he came as an official missionary of the LJS, and in 1885 he settled in Safed for good, where he stayed until his death, thirty years later. He established a hospital which took many years to build. In 1904 it opened as the second hospital in the Galilee, and one of the most sophisticated in the area. He also opened a school for girls where his wife served as the principal. His sister and his sister-in-law both worked as teachers in the school. Friedman died in 1916.

During he first aliyah wave about 35,000 Jews arrived between 1882 and 1903, which doubled the Jewish population of Palestine. They established the first modern agricultural settlements (not kibbutzes – they didn’t appear until 1909) and received donations from wealthy Jews like Baron Edmond James de Rothschild and other philanthropists.

One of these philanthropists was the Zionist Christian, Sir Laurence Oliphant. According to the historian Nathan Michael Gelber, “You could find in the houses of poor Jews a picture of Oliphant. It would be hung right next to the picture of the great philanthropists Moses Montefiore and Baron Hirsch.”

Oliphant, born 1829, was a South African-born British author who had been a member of the British parliament between 1865-1868. As a diplomat and later a journalist, he became concerned about Russian expansionism, and devised a plan where Britain would plant a Jewish agricultural colony in northern Israel. Great Britain’s prime minister at the time was Benjamin Disraeli, who was a Hebrew Christian and a strong supporter of Zionism. He granted Oliphant permission to investigate the conditions for doing this. Oliphant had the connections and the funds to purchase large areas of land and settle Jewish refugees there, and met with the sultan in 1880. The sultan refused.

After the pogroms of 1881, Oliphant became involved in gathering donations to help them. He convinced many Jews to go to Israel rather than America, promising that those who did so would have their religion safeguarded (in other words, he promised not to try to evangelize them). Many Jews saw him as another Cyrus, and his settlement plans were praised in a Zionist paper.

Oliphant arrived with his wife to Haifa, where they divided their time between Haifa’s German colony, among the templars, and the Druze village Daliat el-Carmel. They had good contacts with the pioneers of the first aliyah and donated sizeable sums to the settlements. It is said that we can thank them for the survival of cities like Rosh Pina, Yesod HaMaala and Zikhron Yaakov. Their secretary was a Jewish Hebrew poet who lived with them. His name was Naftali Herz Imber and he wrote the poem HaTikvah, which eventually became the national anthem of Israel. Oliphant died in 1888.

As we said, the LJS increased its efforts to convert Jews to Christianity when the first aliyah wave came, but as their converts almost always assimilated, this hindered more than helped the Zionist goals. This caused Christian philanthropists like Oliphant and Horatio Spafford to distance themselves from the LJS. Oliphant and Spafford are examples of Christians who, similar to some modern organizations, chose not to engage in evangelism among Jews, but rather only give material help, no strings attached. Horatio Spafford was from Chicago, and after grueling ordeals in life, which also led him to write the hymn “It Is Well With My Soul,” he came with his wife to Jerusalem in 1881. They established a small community of believers that engaged in philanthropic activities. After Spafford’s death in 1888, the community grew to 150 people with Swedish colonists who arrived in 1896, and they moved into a large house outside the walls. They would engage in philanthropy and good deeds, teach in both Jewish and Muslims schools, and gained all communities’ trust, as they refused to engage in missionary activity. The area where they lived is known to this day as the American Colony neighborhood of Jerusalem.

Meanwhile, in the LJS, there was a short glimmer of hope that the former glory of Alexander’s bishopric would be restored when Joseph Barclay was appointed to become the third bishop in 1879 after Gobat. He had been working for the LJS in the past and had even previously served as the head of the LJS in Jerusalem from 1861 to 1870 (when he resigned in protest over a salary dispute). He was strongly in favor of focusing on Jewish mission and had written a book on the Talmud. But then he died in 1881 after just a few years. Until 1886 there was no bishop, and the Prussian-Anglican cooperation fell apart. In 1886, the first Anglican-only bishop arrived. His name was Blyth, and he was an Anglo-Catholic. He yearned for the Anglican church to become a legitimate part of the Catholic church under the pope and was much more “high-church” oriented. He was not interested in the LJS vision for Israel. Not being able to convert LJS’s Christ Church nor CMS’s St. Paul’s church to his own Episcopal view, he established St. George’s Cathedral in East Jerusalem, built in 1899, which is the cathedral of the Anglican Church in Jerusalem to this day. Christ Church stayed as a church directly under the LJS, which they are to this day.

The LJS engaged at the same time in aggressive missionary activity, condemned by the likes of Spafford and Oliphant.

In the next article we will look more closely at the type of work the LJS did with the Jews arriving through the first Aliyah, and see how the first Jewish agricultural settlements like Petach Tikvah and Rishon leZion inspired them to try to establish the first ever Jewish Christian agricultural settlement, Har-Tov – and why it failed so spectacularly.