The Hebrew-speaking church in Jerusalem following the death of Bishop Alexander: A history of Messianic Jews in Israel, Part 10

We finished the previous article on a sad note, with the death of Michael Solomon Alexander, the Jewish bishop in Jerusalem. The Hebrew-speaking church he established had doubled in size during the few years he served, but it was still only around 30 people, and they were still meeting in a private home since the church itself was under construction and constantly attacked by Ottoman bureaucracy.

The London Jews Society, LJS, specifically focused on bringing Jews to Christ, was still the leader of the missionary work in Israel. Their local director, John Nicolayson, was devastated when Alexander died. In 1846 the successor, Samuel Gobat, arrived. In this article, we will look at the years between his arrival, in 1846, until the first Zionist settlers arrived in 1882.

We have mentioned Gobat earlier, in article 5, when he visited Jerusalem in 1827 en route to Abyssinia (Ethiopia). He was Swiss and spoke French as his mother tongue. By 1845, he was an experienced 46-year-old man who had worked for the CMS (Church Missionary Society) in both Lebanon, Abyssinia and Malta. In Malta, he was overseeing a translation of the Bible to Arabic. He was not Jewish, and unlike Alexander, he did not desire to work exclusively among the Jewish people. Instead, he focused on converting the Arab Christians to Anglicanism. He also wrote that he didn’t wish to remain limited to a “narrow” Jewish mission. A restored Jewish bishopric was no longer on the agenda.

The historian Gershon Nerel wrote in 2002: “One may only surmise that such a Jewish Bishopric in the most sensitive and prestigious place of Jerusalem, created a challenging threat not only to the historical respectability of the Gentile ecclesiastical potentates, but also to their substantial authority and leadership. … Many … during the 19th century still felt threatened by having too much of a Jewish character within the Church. …  They expected Jewish believers in Yeshua to join the churches, yet at the same time they also neutralized any significant Jewish Christian attempts to establish their own independent congregations. Such entities that had the potential to become too influential were de facto labeled by Gentile Christians as ‘Judaizing’ elements.”

We can’t know for sure what happened in the leadership of the LJS at the time, but based on Lord Shaftesbury’s resigned tone in his journal, which I quoted towards the end of the previous article, we might assume that the universalists got the upper hand against the restorationists at this point. However, the LJS never really forgot its origins, and the CMJ, as they are now called, are still to this day involved in Jewish Messianic ministries in Israel, although they have had their ups and downs. Even if we won’t focus as much on them from now on as we did until now, we will see them come up again and again. Sometimes in a positive light, and sometimes less so.

The new British consul, James Finn, also arrived at the same time as Gobat did. As a former board member of the LJS, and a restorationist, committed to the Jewish cause, he believed that Christian missionary work in Jerusalem should be first and foremost focused on converting Jews to Christianity. Just as Young and Alexander had quarreled, so did Finn and Gobat – only they had now switched sides. Finn took the opposite view of his predecessor Young, and Gobat, the opposite view of Alexander. Yet, universalist as he was, he never fully neglected the basic vision of Nicolayson and Alexander, which after all was the very basis on which this bishopric was built.

A plaque outside the LJS director’s residence, called the Bishop’s House, on Prophet Street in Jerusalem (Photo: Kehila News Israel)

Some claim that Gobat was unjustly accused of dismissing the Jews. He didn’t dismiss them, but he wasn’t one of them, and he surely couldn’t assume the position Alexander had had with them. He was accused of not liking them, and adding obstacles for any Jew who wished to convert, but on the other hand, this might just have been an effort to examine the sincerity of the convert.

Gobat wrote that he trembled whenever the missionaries sent him a [Jewish] convert, “for either he is insincere from the beginning, or, if he commences by being in honest and in earnest, he will soon be spoilt by the flattery of the friends of Israel in England.” In one instance, he even refused to baptize two converted Jews, because they refused to acquire a useful trade for their livelihood.

Gobat established schools for girls, initiated missionary enterprises among Jews and Arabs, and set up a school in Shechem (Nablus) before the end of the 1840s.

The Enquirer’s Home where Jews could ask questions about Christianity was still open, as was the “House of Industry,” where they could learn a trade and earn a living once the halukah money was denied from them (donations from wealthy European Jews). Rev. Ewald wrote in a report in 1846: “The Jews at Jerusalem are greatly alarmed at the progress of Christianity, which is secretly spreading among them, almost from house to house … they have recently issued two tremendous excommunications against the missionaries, against the hospital, and against all who are in connexion with us.”

The first protestant church in the Middle East, which was named “Christ Church,” was inaugurated in 1849, and designed with Hebrew inscriptions and stars of David. Services were conducted in English, Hebrew, German, and many other languages. Some sort of Hebrew-speaking congregation was here continuously until the Jordanian occupation from 1948.

In 1850, Protestantism was officially recognized as a community in the Ottoman Empire. This encouraged other Protestant elements to arrive in Israel, hastened by Gobat. More and more organizations arrived and established themselves. One of those was the CMS, the organization with which Gobat had worked for so many years. He convinced them to make Palestine the springboard of their activities rather than Malta, and they arrived in the early 1850s. With time, they established many educational institutions all over the country in which thousands of children received education. In 1873 the CMS even built their own Arab-speaking Anglican church in Jerusalem, St. Paul’s church, outside the walls of the Old City, today on Shivtei Israel street.

With Finn’s help, a British Hebrew Christian named John Meshullam, who had come to faith through Joseph Wolff, established an experimental farm in Artas, south of Bethlehem, in 1850. This was the first agricultural farm in Israel worked by Jews, 32 years before the first Zionists arrived. He did it together with some German and American Christians, including Johann Adolf Grossteinbeck, grandfather of American author John Steinbeck. After a dispute, the others left, and Meshullam was left alone. The farm eventually failed, and Meshullam died in 1878. He is buried alongside all the LJS missionaries at the Protestant Mount Zion cemetery.

With the new societies arriving, the LJS noticed how their previous status of being the guardian of British interests in the Holy Land was eroded, and how Gobat employed mostly German coworkers, and worked chiefly among the Arabs. In the report of 1851, Gobat referred to the LJS as “them” never as “us” as Alexander had. The amount of converted Jews was reported zero for the first time in many years. The LJS recalled Nicolayson to London to reassess the situation, and eventually sent him back, together with another two missionaries, arranging a conference in Jerusalem for all LJS missionaries in the region where they took decisions on strategies on how to strengthen their presence there and work alongside Gobat.

And then the Crimean war happened.

Russia’s ambitions to expand to the south and gain a foothold in the Mediterranean had worried France and Britain for a long time. They would rather see a weak Ottoman empire in the area to serve as a buffer than a strong expansionist Russia that could stretch out its arms to India. So when the Russians demanded authority as the protector of the Christian population of the Ottoman empire, and control of the holy places in Jerusalem, France demanded the same as the protector of the Catholics. Eventually, the Ottomans took the side of the European powers, and Russia attacked in 1853. The war was long and bloody and ended in 1856 with Russia defeated and over 200,000 dead.

The war cut off the supply channels to the Jews in Palestine that were depending on the halukah (foreign aid) for survival. The LJS tried to alleviate the situation with the support of consul Finn and initiated a small agricultural farmstead to help Jerusalem’s Jews make a living (in what is today Ovadia street in the Geula neighborhood of Jerusalem). However, most of the help to the Jews came from wealthy European Jews. It was at this time that Montefiore purchased a plot of land that would later become Mishkenot Shaananim, and built a mill, probably as a reaction against Finn. An Austrian Jew named Lämel built a Jewish school within the city walls, and a representative of Rothschild arrived to establish a hospital. The LJS had lost its grip both on the missionary enterprise in Israel and on the monopoly they had had on healthcare for the Jews. Another blow to the LJS came in 1856, just a few months after the end of the Crimean war, when Nicolayson died.

During the decades that ensued, the British and missionary organizations grew and thrived while the Jewish expressions of faith faded and starved – but they didn’t disappear. The sources are few and scarce, but it seems like the Hebrew-speaking church established by Alexander in Christ Church was still meeting. A song book used in Christ Church in Jerusalem printed in London in 1862 has Hebrew writing, and is called “Songs of Zion” with Anglican hymns printed in English, German, and Hebrew. The reports confirm 56 adult Jewish believers and 59 children. The issue might be that there were very few second or third generation of local believers. The Jews who came to faith could not rely on the halukah money for provision anymore, and they generally had two choices. Either they left Israel to get a formal education in a Western country, or they live in poverty. One report of the LJS reads: “The right type of Jewish Christian has self respect and pride, and filled with ambition. Most of our true converts do not wish to rely on the mission for a living, so they leave Palestine to America and other developed countries. You can find them all over the world, many of them working as missionaries.” If their publications that we quoted in the previous article had had hints in them of proto-Zionism, this report seems to express the exact opposite.

We have a number of examples of Jews like this who left Israel to study in Scotland, London and America. Many studied in theological schools belonging to the missionary organization. Very few ever visited Jerusalem again, and even fewer came back permanently. They were outcast by the Jews and had no access to the halukah, so the temptation to seek a better future outside of Israel was big.

The historian Gershon Nerel also believes there was another reason many never came back to Israel – the churches blocking any kind of Jewish association and expression of faith, and their insistence that the Jews assimilate into mainstream Christianity. Gone were the days of Solomon Alexander, when Jewish worship in Hebrew was encouraged. The radical idea that one can have faith in Jesus and still worship on the Sabbath, circumcise your sons, and celebrate Jewish holidays was still unheard of (Unless you were a follower of Rabbi Lichtenstein who we mentioned in the first article. But he didn’t appear until the 1880s, and he was in Kishinev). Newly converted Jews were expected to join existing established churches, accept the historic doctrines, and become assimilated. Nerel believes there was a church policy, although not explicitly stated, to encourage believing Jews to leave the country. All attempts at Jewish Messianic associations were strangled by the churches under the pretext that “there is no longer any difference between Jews and Gentiles.”

In England, a Hebrew-Christian Alliance made by and for Christian Jews formed in 1866, an organization who strongly supported Zionism and resettlement of the land of Israel, but nothing similar occurred among the actual converted Jews in Israel. Most of the Jews who converted to Christianity in Israel were assimilated.

At this time, Jerusalem grew, and new neighborhoods outside of the walls were built. The farmstead that Finn built in 1855 was one of the first buildings outside of the wall. Gobat built a school for girls just outside of the walls even earlier than that, in 1852 (it still stands, and now houses the Jerusalem University College). Finn also built a summer house for himself in the area which is now the Talbieh neighborhood. After the Crimea war, the Russians built the Russian compound in 1860, with churches and hospitals to serve the Russian pilgrims to Jerusalem. The French built a Catholic compound and a hospital nearby (which is still operating). In 1887, the Ottomans added “The New Gate” in the Old City wall, close to the French and Russian compounds, to allow easy access from their churches to the Christian Quarter of the Old City, facing what is today known as Tzahal square. In the same year, they ceased closing the gates at night. They had already built another new gate, known in English as Herod’s gate, just ten years earlier, to connect the Muslim quarter to the new Muslim neighborhoods north of Jerusalem. Many Christian organizations came and built churches and orphanages outside of the walls, such as the Talitha Kumi house whose remains can still be seen on King George street. Many foreign consulates and churches were established on the street today known as Prophet Street, including a few private residences, one of them being for the LJS director. Almost all the Christian new buildings outside of the walls were public buildings; churches, orphanages, schools. Some Muslims built outside the walls as well, but mostly private dwellings for the wealthy in the areas today known as the American colony, Talbieh, Baka, and Katamon. The Jews were the first to massively invest in building large residential areas, and it started with Mishkenot Shaananim, initiated by Montefiore, in 1855. At first the locals hesitated, but when a plague hit the old city and the inhabitants of the new neighborhood were unharmed, they moved fast. The Jerusalem Rabbi, Yoel Moshe Solomon, pioneered the building of additional neighborhoods, and by 1874 there were five Jewish neighborhoods outside the walls. For the fifth one, Mea Shearim, they hired the Christian architect Conrad Schick, who worked with LJS. He was the manager of LJS’s House of Industry. His private home, Tavor House, on Prophet Street 58, is famous as one of the most beautiful buildings in Jerusalem, and now houses the Swedish Theological Institute. He also built the “Bishop’s house,” the LJS director’s residence on Prophet Street 25, and a sanatorium on Prophet Street 82 – on that spot he later erected a hospital, in 1897, which is today the Anglican School.

When I recently said that the Christians who built outside of the walls were mostly public buildings, I lied, because there was one exception. A number of members of the templer sect from Württemberg in Germany settled in the area today known as the German colony in 1873. They were seized by a Messianic zeal and came to Jerusalem to wait for Jesus’ return while making a living through farming, carpentry and blacksmithing. They built eight colonies throughout Israel, one of them near Jerusalem. The main street of their area was named Emek Refaim. Today, the “German Colony” is a central neighborhood of Jerusalem, but the descendants of the German settlers were all expelled by the British during World War Two.

Jerusalem grew, and the missionary activity during the 1860s and 70s with Gobat and Finn and their successors (Finn was removed from his office in 1863 and Gobat passed away in 1879) flourished more than ever. They built more and more schools and hospitals, but neither they nor the Rabbis allowed the converts to stay Jewish. There is a story about a Jew named Jonah who came to faith in 1850 in Safed who was beaten up and pressured to divorce his wife and leave the city. He eventually left the country altogether to get away from the troubles and found refuge at the LJS mission station in Constantinople. 

This environment for Hebrew Christians was the norm and didn’t get a chance to change significantly until the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948. But 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. Bernard Heilpern was one such man. Ben-Zion Friedman was another. In the next article, we will not only meet these men but also see what happened when the Christian missionaries met the first Zionists who arrived in 1882.