On the eve of Holocaust Remembrance in Israel I found myself involved with my teenage son in a Holocaust research project. This is required academic work on the part of every 9th grade student in the Israeli public schools. The subject he chose? The plight of the German Jews before and during the Shoah.
My maternal grandparents were both German Jews. My mother's maiden name is Mendelsohn, the middle name of the young man doing the research. The afternoon leading up to Holocaust Remembrance Day we spent hours reviewing and writing about the Final Solution. At one point, this Israeli teenager was so moved by an eye witness account of the barbarity and suffering discovered at Buchenwald concentration camp upon its liberation that he put his head down in his hands and groaned with identification.
Remarkably, only days before our youth group had spent 72 hours with a group of believing youth from Germany. This is how we concluded the celebration of Passover - eating matzoh in a tent in the Negev desert on woven mats. Jews and Germans together. Sixty years ago the Nazis were gassing us and systematically tearing down the Warsaw ghetto house by house. Now the children of those who had oppressed us (Isaiah 60:14!) had come to have fellowship with us, to affirm their unconditional support of Israel and our deep brotherhood as disciples of the same Jewish Messiah.
We looked up to view the night sky, bannered with stars just as Abraham saw it 4,000 years earlier in the same neighborhood. We saw the kibbutz close by, where Ben Gurion dedicated many of his years to agriculture and to the vision of the desert blossoming as the rose. We were awed by vistas of rock, sand and immense canyon as far as the eye could see.
We were accompanied by a Russian-speaking German pastor, Paul Brightenbach, originally from Kazakhstan and a pastor from South Carolina in the USA, John Lastinger. From the German side a city architect named Johannes Engelhardt from Dusseldorf, deeply dedicated to building a bridge of covenant love between Germany and Israel, organized the expedition. Each of these men - three nationalities, three languages, all Gentile servants of Yeshua - came to the desert to express solidarity with us.
From our side, Michelle Telfer, a professional high school teacher and member of Ohalei Rachamim who grew up in Israel, served as our coordinator and guide. Dusseldorf and Haifa are sister cities. Rotating seats on the bus we immediately encountered the laughter of trying to find a common language and get to know each other. Russian, English, Hebrew and German were heard all at once. Adding to the fun was the Russian background of our wonderful Israeli driver, David, who arrived in Israel from Georgia, USSR at the age of 12.
Our first stop was Ein Gedi, the spring fed canyon in which David hid from Saul 3 millenia ago. The Dead Sea was our next experience, its salts and minerals making it impossible for us to sink when we went in for a dip. That night we worshiped the God of Israel in a Bedouin style camp run by Israelis. We were served after dinner coffee and tea by a Bedouin tribesman complete with a serenade on a small stringed instrument I'd never seen. Watching the birth of a camel highlighted our second day.
Hiking, singing, praying, and surviving an 8 hour sandstorm brought us together as no conference table could. While trudging in the hot sun we were reminded of the days of the pyramids and Israel's trek out of Egyptian slavery to the Promised Land.
In one of history's ironies, most of the Jewish people now living in Germany have come there from the former Soviet Union, seeking a new start in life. The vast percentage of our congregants also come from the former Soviet Union. The majority of the German youth on this desert expedition were actually Russian-speaking Jewish youth, as are the majority of our Israeli Messianic youth group! This natural bridge led to a number of declarations: We'll see you again. Hey, come to Cologne, we'll host you next time. What's your e-mail address?
Several of the young Jewish believers from Germany were moved by their first visit to Israel. They are praying to know if Israel is in their future. I pray that it is.