R-D Reporter in Israel, Part 1

The following article was published in the Pocahontas Record-Democrat on June 15, 2011, and is reprinted here by permission.

By Kirsten Ekstrand
    Let me take you on a journey — a journey to Jerusalem. On the way, we’ll stop at Armageddon, the Sea of Galilee, Masada, Nazareth, Capernaum, Bethlehem, and the Golan Heights. These are places in the news, on the maps in your Bible, and in the history books of western civilization. They are also places I was privileged to visit as I spent two weeks in land of Israel this May.
    It would be impossible to share all the memories of this trip with a single article, so if you’ll permit this journalist to reminisce a bit, this will be the first of several articles reflecting on my time in the land of milk and honey.
    Two weeks is hardly enough to become an expert on any location, but my trip to Israel has broadened my perspective in a variety of ways. Going with my college choir, I was able to interact with local people in a way most tourists cannot. Since our chaperones were Bible college professors, I was able to hear a perspective on the sites we visited that the average tour company may miss. And since I’m in the throes of a corresponding class on the political conflict of the region, I learned (and am learning) more than I ever thought I would about the intricacies of Middle Eastern political policy. I’ll share some of this with you over the next weeks, but for now, we’ll start with the primary purpose of the trip: to encourage Israeli and Palestinian Christians with our music.
    Tours are a huge part of the life of the average music major at Moody Bible Institute, an accredited college located in downtown Chicago. I’ve been a part of the Women’s Concert Choir since my freshman year in 2008, and have been privileged to travel from coast to coast with the group, giving concerts from Washington to Rhode Island. Every two to three years, we take an international tour in the summer. This year’s concert schedule opened with a trip to Bethel Baptist Church in Newell, and closed with a series of concerts in Jerusalem.

The whole group poses for a photo.

    WHEN WE GAVE OUR FIRST concert in Haifa, I knew it would be a special tour. The Beit Hesda congregation is one of two messianic congregations in the city of Haifa, a modern city with a population of 300,000. (For readers who are not familiar with messianic congregations, this a term for Jewish churches — Jewish people who believe that Jesus is the Messiah and Son of God, still keeping many of the traditions of their Jewish heritage.)
    This tiny congregation (seating perhaps 150 people) welcomed us with exuberance. An exhausted, jet-lagged choir offered a concert that was the fruit of two semesters of long practices. As we sang and played, the audience listened with some of the most rapt attention I’ve ever seen. We performed the Israeli national anthem, “Hatikva,” for the first time at that concert, at the special request of the pastor. This piece became a fixture in all our concerts; if we didn’t perform it, it was demanded by the audience.
    The pastors at the messianic congregations where we performed always seemed to end the concert in a moving way. That first performance was no exception. At the end of our performance, as the director stood to take a bow, the pastor stopped her. He stood and announced that we would sing our last piece again, and since the text was printed in our programs, the congregation would join us.
    “Lord, make me an instrument of thy peace,” we sang. “Where there is hatred, let me sow love; where there is injury, pardon.” Joining with this beautiful people in the prayer of St. Francis of Assisi offered a perfect opening to the tour — a prayer that our music would offer the hope for peace to a war-torn region of the world.

    THE AUDIENCE CLAPPED AT the next concert. Applause isn’t unusual — most of our audiences have known when to offer the culturally polite applause at the end of a number. But most of our American audiences don’t clap during the bell ensemble’s rendition of “Hava Nagila,” a Jewish folk dance.
    When we were encored that evening, our director smiled at the bell ensemble and told them it was time to give this piece its Israel premiere. They smiled back nervously, and raised their bells. As soon as the upbeat chorus came around, the audience started to clap to the beat. The joyous look on their faces was enough incentive for those of us without bells to join them. Suddenly it wasn’t about musical perfection; it was about sharing in the joy of the Israeli people.
    For many of the messianic believers in Israel, a tour like this is spiritual manna. While not necessarily persecuted, messianic Jews are often harassed and shunned by their Orthodox or secular neighbors. Messianic congregations are small — the largest one in Israel seats only 400 people.
    In the midst of the difficulties of being a believer in Israel, these people were able to hear the message of the gospel proclaimed in song by fellow believers. We heard consistently from the leadership at the congregations that our concerts were a blessing and encouragement, “like angels singing,” they often said. But personally, I left the trip just as blessed by their heartfelt faith and worship of Yeshua, Jesus.

A performance at the National Park in Zippori.

    ON OUR FIRST SHABBAT (Sabbath) in Israel, we attended a congregation in Tiberias. The service was in Hebrew and Russian, translated into English for our benefit. While we performed two pieces for the congregation, they preceded it by leading the singing of several messianic worship songs. I found myself standing with the choir in the back rows, singing in Hebrew a declaration that Yeshua is God. I didn’t have to speak the language to find a connection with these people; it was there already, stemming from our common faith.
    Not all of our audiences shared our faith. The choir gave a concert at a Jerusalem nursing home and an ancient Roman theatre in a national park. Even if they didn’t share our belief in Jesus, our inclusion of some Jewish literature was still a blessing. Our director chose a piece in our program about belief in God even when He is silent, with text taken from an inscription found in a Holocaust prison cell. Some of our nursing home audience may have survived the Holocaust themselves, and our tour guide remarked that it particularly touched an audience who still deals with that pain.
    Unique to this tour was a visit to Palestine. With the continual political tension in the region, many groups are forced to choose between Israel and Palestine when planning a ministry tour like this one. Our choir leadership was made sure we did not forget the Palestinian Christians, who often fall by the wayside as groups come to Jews and Muslims in the area.
    One of our chaperones was born and raised in Palestine. We were able to perform at his home church, a Presbyterian church in Bethlehem. While Bethlehem is under the control of the Palestinian Authority, and Muslim converts to Christianity are severely persecuted, the established Arab churches are allowed to worship somewhat freely.

    THE PALESTININANS WERE OVERJOYED. With the complexity of crossing the border and finding the church, we arrived with less than an hour before our performance time. The other accompanists and I played on an electric keyboard that lacked the full 88 keys, and needed constant manual volume adjustment. But our audience was so glad just to have the chance to meet other Christians that they didn’t care.
    They soaked up our music, much like their Israeli neighbors, and used similar analogies to describe the concert. The angels had returned to Bethlehem again, they told us. They insisted on preparing a meal of traditional Arabic food for us after the concert, and I didn’t need to speak Arabic to understand the smiles on their faces.
    Later that week, back in Israel, we performed at a messianic congregation in Natanya. After asking for an encore, the pastor came to the front and asked the congregation to stand, much as the pastor had at our first concert. This time, however, he gave a different request.
    Together, the congregation and the pastor spoke the words of a special Hebrew blessing for us. The Aaronic blessing, taken from the book of Numbers, was spoken first in Hebrew, and then in English.
    “The Lord bless you, and keep you. The Lord make his face to shine upon you, and give you peace.”

    That one word seems to summarize our tour like no other. I count it an incredible privilege to have been able to bring a message of hope and peace to such a conflict-ridden land. While political peace is far from present, I have seen first hand that the land is not entirely devoid of that rest. There is peace in the hearts of Israeli and Palestinian Christians, peace that transcends the outward circumstances that surround them.

There are five articles in this series. For the next one, visit R-D Reporter in Israel, Part 2.

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