Planning for the future harvest – equipping Messianic youth in Israel

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Joel Jelski giving a teaching at a Katzir youth conference, 2019 (Photo courtesy)

Since the early 2000s, the Katzir youth camps and conferences for 14 to 18 year olds have blessed the Messianic youth in Israel. For the past decade they have held it three times a year; during Passover, the summer, and Hanukkah. In December 2019 they held a Hanukkah conference, not knowing it would be their last for the foreseeable future. Now they are finally back! The next conference will be held this July.

Eitan Shishkoff is the founder of Katzir, as well as the founder of Tents of Mercy network of Messianic congregations in northern Israel. Back in September 2019, he wrote about the 2019 summer conference. Two years and a pandemic later, I interviewed him together with Joel Jelski, the current director of Katzir. I asked them about the idea behind the ministry, what they do, their history, and their vision.

The name “Katzir” means harvest, and is taken from Matthew 9, when Yeshua says that the harvest is great but the laborers few. This occurs when he sees the multitudes, and his heart is moved because they are like sheep without a shepherd. “We feel that the young people of Israel, those who are growing up as part of the country, are going to be the best messengers for the good news of Yeshua,” Shishkoff says. “They are the ones who will be able to convey their faith to their generation, and into Israeli society.”

Jelski tells me he had a radical encounter with the Lord in a Katzir conference in 2008. “The Lord healed me out of a lot of hatred and brokenness,” he says. “I’ve always believed in the vision of youth camps to provide a place for teenagers to meet with the Lord. Of course, some come to a camp and get spiritually hyped up and then go back to reality and their enthusiasm goes back down. But it provides a place where they can encounter the Lord in a life-changing way. Even if we only get a hold of a few of them, it’s worth it. I experienced it myself – the Lord meets you in a powerful way, and it changes the trajectory of your life forever. That’s what we hope to see happen when the kids come to these camps. That they have an encounter with God that changes them years forward, into adulthood, into the military. That we have equipped them to walk with the Lord, beyond just the teenage years. For every teenager that comes, it’s valuable and worth it. The energy, the expenditure. It’s worth all of it to see their lives transformed.”

The Katzir youth camps also reinforce the Jewish and Israeli identity. “Israeli society tells us that Yeshua is not for us Jews, and if we believe in him, we have converted to Christianity,” Shishkoff says. “Part of the goal is to help them understand themselves as Israelis, and to help them see that the New Covenant is a Jewish document. That the idea of following Yeshua is not in contradiction to Jewish identity, but it’s the whole direction of scriptures.”

At each camp, the teenagers are divided into smaller groups, each led by a trained counselor, where they go deeper and discuss issues, handle questions that the young people have, and develop relationships. “It’s not just large meetings where they hear the Word of God, but they learn personally how to apply it,” Shishkoff tells me.

“This is a source of tremendous joy and fulfillment for us. I’m in my 70s, and to me, working with young people is the best thing I could do with my life.” Jelski agrees, and adds: “Most of the camps are limited to 90 attendees, and we normally have more people interested than we can accommodate. This is because we are very keen on personal discipleship. Each small group has a young adult leader who meets with these 5-6 kids daily. Both one-on-one time and small group time. They get to know the kids and pray with them.”

They often involve volunteer work with the camps as well. “We go to old age homes, we serve people in need, we clean the coastline of the Sea of Galilee. And we have also conducted evangelism on the beach in Tel-Aviv and Haifa, introducing them to sharing their faith,” Shishkoff says.

During COVID, no physical meetings were possible, and Katzir did their best to keep in touch with the teenagers and arrange zoom-meetings. “We tried different formulas and approaches and we also held worship,” Shishkoff says. “I have to give the team a lot of credit, they came up with really creative solutions. But it’s just not the same.”

The camps are held in different places in the country, such as the Golan Heights, the Galilee, or the Negev desert. They rotate between the locations, but for the past six years they have been praying about finding a permanent facility. The non-profit Fields of Wheat was set up about a year ago in order to gather resources and look for a fixed place for Katzir, and since then, it is also in charge of arranging and overseeing the camps themselves. Besides hosting Katzir, Shishkoff wants the new facility to have a residential discipleship program, and serve the local congregations for retreats.

Jelski and Shishkoff also point out that there is a representative inter-congregational spiritual board of directors, so Fields of Wheat doesn’t belong to any single congregation. “We are a national ministry,” Shishkoff says. “It’s not unusual to have young people from forty different congregations. Katzir has been established for the entire body of Messiah in the land. Our purpose is to serve the local Body. We don’t want to be a subculture, where the young people feel it’s only exciting at the conference. We want them to go back to their home congregation and youth group and serve.”

When I asked Shishkoff how it all started, he told me the story: “Over twenty years ago, there was a group of people from the States who had a ministry to youth and a burden for Israel, and they began to hold some events. I attended some of those first events, and I was impressed, because the teenagers from our congregation were really being touched, and moving into a deep relationship with the Lord. So I saw the impact on young people, but it was not in Hebrew, and there was no focus on the Jewish and Israeli identity. When I approached them, they immediately said they never intended it to continue under their leadership. They wanted to get the ball rolling and hand it off, so they were thrilled that I wanted to do something with it. I began to participate, and within a couple of years, it became indigenized under our leadership. We made some changes and came up with the name Katzir – Harvest.”

As I have already written about the Netivah youth camps in the past, I gathered some courage and asked Shishkoff and Jelski what the difference is between Katzir and Netivah, besides the fact that Katzir has been around for a longer time. They first assured me that there is no competition or rivalry. Quite the contrary, they have good cooperation with Netivah. Then Jelski explained the difference: “We are a spirit-filled ministry, and we don’t shy away from that. We actively tell people that if this is an issue for you, there are other camps for you. We are not in competition. If the way we do our camp is okay with you, then you are welcome to join. We have had people attend from many backgrounds who love it and have no problem. It’s not an issue of just charismatic and not charismatic, but as leaders we believe in the work of the Holy Spirit, and we want to encourage that and that’s the way we do our camps.”

“There are not enough of us in his country to be competing or be at odds,” Shishkoff adds. “The unity of the Body is something that you have to be committed to and work for. That’s part of what we are communicating to the kids too. We don’t want these young people to say that ‘this group of congregations is kosher, and this group isn’t.’ That’s not where we’re coming from. We want them to have a heart for all the believers in the land.”

How do you see the future of your ministry?

Jelski: “We want to continue to invest in youth camps and discipleship. A lot of the teens who come to the camps come back after the army to become young adult leaders who lead small groups and equip the teens, so it’s an ongoing cycle. We will continue equipping them in whatever way possible. That’s our main objective and vision.”

Shishkoff: “It’s not only a matter of investing in teenagers but also the young adults we train as leaders. We give them an opportunity to exercise leadership and responsibility. So it’s a pipeline, from generation to generation. You heard Joel’s testimony, how he was impacted as a camper, and now he is the director. This is the pattern. I believe these years are critical. And I don’t think it will get easier. Without going into too much eschatology, I believe we are entering the End Times, and it’s important to focus on their fears, insecurities, needs and doubts. Not to create cookie-cutter believers, but to give them an opportunity to say ‘this is what I’m struggling with.’ God has really given me a heart to reach out to them with empathy and compassion, but also to challenge them. They are hungry for something real.”