Personal story of Joseph Shulam and the congregation he founded – Netivyah

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Joseph Shulam, the founder and director of Netivyah (Photo netivyah.org)

There are many Messianic congregations in Jerusalem, some old and some new, most with fascinating stories on how God raised them up.

One of the more noticeable ones is Netivyah, whose name means “the Way of God,” alluding to “the Way,” the name of the first congregations in Jerusalem. The congregation is also known as Roeh Israel – the Shepherd of Israel.

What sets this congregation apart is both its history and its unique traditional character. Unlike most Messianic congregations in Jerusalem, Netivyah operates more like a synagogue than a protestant church, with readings from Torah scrolls and prayers from the Siddur, the Jewish prayer book. They finish every meeting with communion. While there are many Messianic congregations nowadays who do this, Netivyah was breaking new and controversial ground in the early 1980s, and they are still among the only ones in Jerusalem. Now, to avoid misunderstandings, let’s establish a few facts before we continue – they do not deny the divinity of Yeshua, they are not against sharing the gospel, and they do not preach salvation by works.

I sat down with Yehuda Bachana, deputy director, and Joseph Shulam, the founder and director of Netivyah, and asked them about the ministry. From a small home group in the 1970s, they now operate a ministry which besides the congregation itself also provides food to 180 needy families of all faiths, distributes scholarships to 40 Messianic students, and sends gift packages to over 200 Messianic IDF soldiers every year. They also publish books and teaching material.

Netivyah storage room of products for distribution (Photo courtesy)

“The most important for us is the faith. We believe in Yeshua. That’s above everything, that’s the emphasis, not the way we do prayers. We come to these prayers from faith in Yeshua,” Bachana says. “He is the center of our meetings, of our lives, of our being. We want to show people you can be Jewish, continue in the Jewish identity and lifestyle, be faithful to our people and our traditions, and also be faithful to the Messiah wholeheartedly. Historically, this didn’t exist. Either you become a Christian and leave your Jewish identity behind, or you embrace your Jewishness and leave Yeshua. It was this or that. That’s what we strive to change.”

“What people do at home is their own business, we don’t intervene. But here, in our congregation, we have a standard to keep it Jewish. We read from Torah-scrolls. Our kitchen is kosher. Even if some of these traditions are not biblical, we can see historically that the households who kept the traditions stayed Jewish and didn’t assimilate. If you remove the traditions, you lose your identity. If you want this identity to continue and stay with your children and grandchildren, you have to keep the traditions, there’s no way around it.”

Yehuda Bachana at Netivyah (Photo courtesy)

“We don’t have a list of principles, and we don’t ask members to sign a decree,” Bachana tells me. “Our decree starts in Genesis and ends in Revelation. That’s our faith,” Shulam points out. Bachana nods and emphasizes, “We give equal value to the whole Bible – also the letters of Shaul (Paul the apostle). We don’t think they are worth any less. Shaul kept the Torah, he said so himself. He never taught Jews to stop keeping the law. Just like him, we are against Judaizing. We don’t believe in forcing a Gentile to be a Jew. If a Gentile comes and wants to keep the Torah and worship with us, we tell him he doesn’t have to and we show him what Shaul said. If he insists, who are we to question it? As for Jews – the Torah is a part of your identity. It is not required for your salvation, that’s through faith in Yeshua only, but we believe that keeping the Torah is a proper expression of that faith.”

“You don’t have to believe like us to join us. We are open to everyone,” Bachana tells me. “Jews, Gentiles, Messianic Jews, Christians. We even have non-messianic religious Jews who join our prayers sometimes.”

Netivyah make an effort to not be divisive and they cooperate with the rest of the Body of the Messiah in Israel. Amongst other, they record lessons that air on the Messianic TV-channel Shelanu. When Shelanu started to air, it received a lot of criticism in Israel because it was a “missionary” endeavor, and even attracted criticism from Christian evangelicals, some of whom criticized the concept of evangelization to Jews. Bachana and Shulam strongly refute this dual-covenant theology.

“All of the Torah point to the Messiah,” Bachana says. “When he came, the leaders asked him, ‘are you the Messiah?’ So the Jewish people had that expectation. To come now and say that Jews don’t need Yeshua is a grave sin against the Bible.” Shulam agrees and says, “Refusing to tell Jews about Yeshua, and only giving Israel political and economic help is a basic corruption which will hurt the Christians who do this more than the Jews. The Bible says that all of Israel will be saved. There is no other people group who has such a promise in the Bible.”

The congregation grew from a small home group that Shulam established in the ’70s together with Moshe Imanuel Ben-Meir (1905–1978) and a handful of other like-minded people. Ben-Meir is one of the more fascinating characters of Messianic Jewish history in Israel. He grew up as an ultra-Orthodox (Haredi) Jew in Jerusalem, and after coming to faith in 1925, he insisted on continuing to live according to the Haredi lifestyle, which he did until his last day. For many years he tried, unsuccessfully, to establish a Messianic synagogue. “His mistake was that he tried to do it in cooperation with foreign missions, first with the Anglicans, then with the Lutherans, and they shut down the efforts to add a Jewish character to the worship,” Shulam says. In 1972 Ben-Meir met Shulam and together they established the nucleus of what would become Netivyah.

But let’s start with Shulam himself. Born to an atheist Jewish family in 1946, he came to Israel from Bulgaria in 1947 and grew up in Jerusalem. “My parents hated all religions, especially ultra-Orthodox Judaism. They were Jewish and celebrated the Jewish holidays – but in a very secular way. We lived on the first floor and had a garden, so my dad arranged a pork barbecue every Passover. That’s how I grew up. But we had Haredi neighbors who had children my age and they would often invite me over for the holidays.”

“In high school we were asked to do a deep research of a subject and prepare a paper by the end of the year, and the subject I was given was ‘early Christianity,’ and that’s how I started reading the New Testament. The teacher told me to read ten chapters in Matthew and ten chapters in Acts. I read it and I couldn’t find anything Christian in the text of the New Testament. I asked my teacher about it, and he said, with these words: ‘Yeshua and his disciples were really okay in the beginning. After that, the whole thing became a mess.’ That was my first introduction to the gospel.”

Shulam finished his paper and got top grades for it, but didn’t give it much further thought until two American missionaries of “Churches of Christ” moved into the neighborhood in the early 1960s. The missionaries drew the attention of the kids of the area by their luxurious cars and their ten children, and at some point Shulam got into a confrontation with one of them.

“I told him, ‘I know what Christianity is. I did a paper on it.’ He said, ‘Really? So what do you think about Jesus?’ I said, ‘I don’t think about Him at all,’ and he answered, ‘well, you should. Either He was the biggest scoundrel of the world, who deceived humanity, or He was who He said He was – the Messiah, Son of God.’ That question took root in my heart. It bothered me day and night. Who is this Man? What did He do? I couldn’t rest, and from then I continued to read the New Testament, mostly the gospels.”

In 1962, when Shulam was 16 years old, he skipped school and went to be alone. He had recently learned the philosophical principle of Pascal’s wager in school, and did the calculation for himself. “If Yeshua is the Messiah and I believe him, what will I gain, and what will I lose? If He is the Messiah and I don’t believe Him, what will I gain and what will I lose? If He isn’t the Messiah and I believe Him, what will I gain and what will I lose? If He isn’t the Messiah and I don’t believe Him, what will I gain and what will I lose?” He spent the day in a nearby former British military camp, smoking cigarettes, going through the questions, until he reached a conclusion.

“At the start of the day I was sure Jesus was a big criminal based on what the Christians have done to the Jews in history. Towards mid-day I had changed my mind, ‘what if He is the Messiah?’ and eventually I reached the conclusion that I believe in him.”

He went to see the American missionary who had talked to him, but he was in hospital, so Shulam met the other one. He walked up to him and said that he believes in Jesus. “What do I do now?”

“He said to me, ‘If you believe in Jesus you need to be baptized,’ and I asked, ‘What’s that?’ and he said, ‘to go into water,’ and I said, ‘alright, sure, what’s the problem?’ He asked me when and I said now. So he took me in his car to the beach in Tel-Aviv and he baptized me. No one else was around. When I came home, my mom asked me where I had been, and I told her I had been with the American.”

Shulam recalls how his mother asked him if he had been baptized, and when he said yes, her response was “I have no son anymore, you’re dead to me. Take what you want from your stuff and get out.” When his father came home, he said the same thing. Shulam went back to the military camp and slept there for a few nights until he found a church to attend through the missionaries who had brought him to faith. Through contacts in the church he was accepted to a boarding school in Georgia where he could finish high school, and he stayed in the US for two years.

In the 1960s there were only three major Hebrew-speaking congregations in Israel, one in Jaffa, one in Haifa and one in Jerusalem, so Shulam attended the Messianic congregation in Jerusalem. While studying Biblical Archaeology and the Bible at the Hebrew University, two professors from the US offered him to come and study at the David Lipscomb University in Nashville, Tennessee. “It was very tempting to go, because many of the professors there had studied at the Hebrew Union College,” Shulam says. He went there and studied Chemistry and New Testament, met his wife and got married, and in 1969 he had finished his studies and went back home to Israel.

It was in 1972 that he met Moshe Imanuel Ben-Meir. At the time, all Hebrew-speaking congregations used a blue book with over 400 traditional Christian hymns translated to Hebrew. Ben-Meir was the translator of those hymns, and he had published the book by himself. But he wasn’t allowed in any of the congregations that sang his songs.

“One Shabbat morning,” Shulam recalls, “I went to the congregation with my wife and our baby. I noticed a Haredi couple entering the congregation. He was dressed in the regular black hat and robe. He took off the hat, and he was wearing a kippa underneath. One of the elders at the entrance smacked his head, took off his kippa, threw it on the floor, and said, ‘you don’t enter a church with the head covered.’ The old man picked up the kippa from the floor, shook it, put it back on the head with tears in his eyes, and left. He went out and sat at the bus stop, crying. I went after him and sat down with him. I realized that this old man wrote the hymn book that all congregations use. At that moment I understood that for the sake of the future of the faith in Israel, this anti-Jewish and anti-traditional attitude must stop.”

Shulam and Ben-Meir started a home group of six people. Him and Ben-Meir and their wives, and two more persons. At this point in the interview, Shulam points to Yehuda Bachana, and says, “His mother, Shifra, was one of the six.” They met in different homes, and the group slowly grew. During this time Shulam also studied in an Orthodox Yeshiva. “Even there I had the opportunity to preach the gospel and bring people to faith. They even gave me the opportunity to teach from the New Testament in the yeshiva. The Rabbi gave us a room for it. My friends, the Berger Brothers were also a part of that.”

With time, the anti-missionaries at Yad L’Achim found out about them, and the harassments started. With time, it became unbearable.

“Vendyl Jones, the original Indiana Jones, used to come to our congregation once in a while. He was connected to Robert Lindsey and the Baptist Church on Narkis street, so he told me, ‘why don’t you use the Baptist House for your meetings? Your group is large enough, and you can’t do it in your homes anymore.’ So we started to meet there. They supplied everything we needed, and we paid a symbolic rent.”

The harassments didn’t stop, however. They once found a grenade next to their door during prayers, and the window of the Bible shop window of the church was regularly shattered. The attacks reached their peak in 1982 when extremists burned down the Baptist Church to the ground. The church building wasn’t reinstated till 1996. Netivyah was already a rather large group, and now they didn’t have a place to meet anymore.

“Ben-Meir had already gone to be with the Lord by then, but I remember looking at what was left of the Baptist House with his widow, Ahuva. Smoke was still going up from the ruins, and she said ‘Yosef, I don’t think we can meet here anymore.’ I looked at her and said, ‘No kidding…’ We needed to find a new place. And that’s when we found this place,” Shulam says, referring to the building where we are sitting.

They purchased an apartment in a small residential building, which is also on Narkis street, just a block away from the Baptist church. This was the first time that a local Israeli Messianic Jewish Congregation owned their own building and not an inherited protestant church. Shulam tells me the miraculous story of how they were able to pay it. “We didn’t have any powerful missionary organization behind us or anything, we still don’t. It’s just us and our father in heaven,” he says. Every time a payment was due, they didn’t have enough, and a miracle occurred. Once someone called and said “God just told me to sell one of my apartments and give you the money.” Another time, churches that he hadn’t heard of contacted them to send a donation. Within less than a year, they had paid for the entire apartment. With time, they purchased another apartment in the building, and another one, until they owned all four apartments of the entire building. They teared down interior walls and turned it into a proper full church building, “after a long and bloody legal fight with the municipality,” Bachana states. From the outside it looks like just another apartment building, but once you go in, there is a meeting hall, Sabbath school class rooms, offices, and a large kitchen and food distribution facilities.

After the interview, Bachana gives me a tour of the building. I lost count on how many floors there were, with a narrow stairway in the middle, passing through the different parts. The sanctuary looks just like a synagogue, with proper Torah scrolls. The kitchen and food distribution facility are incredibly impressive, as are the logistics Bachana explained to me that go into the endeavor. Their roof has an amazing view of Jerusalem, and is covered with artificial grass and a few chairs and tables where their youth groups hang out. They also host larger inter-congregational youth group meetings.

“We’ve been around as a congregation for over 47 years now. I grew up in this congregation, and my children are growing up here now, so we are seeing a third generation,” Bachana states, confident of the future.

I leave the interview impressed with what I’ve seen. Even if I personally express my faith differently than they do, I could scarcely find anything in their theology which I disagreed with. They have a genuine heart for the people of Israel, and contrary to the many accusations groups like theirs often receive, they are not being divisive, nor are they being deceitful about who they are. They are very clear about being Jewish, expressing their faith in a Jewish way, while maintaining unity with the rest of the body of the Messiah.

When Yeshua prayed for unity among the believers, I don’t think he commanded all of us to think and act exactly the same way and all have the exact same traditions. I rather believe he foresaw churches and congregations with widely different traditions and practices, who cooperate and help one another in brotherly unity, even if they sometimes disagree. If that’s not true unity, then what is?