In 2003, at the height of the second intifada, Bert Woudwijk, the pastor of an Evangelical church in The Netherlands, arrived in Sussiya, an Orthodox community in the South Hebron Hills area. He was leading a Christian solidarity mission. But what he encountered in Sussiya would change his name, his country, his religion and his entire way of life.Today, Bert Woudwijk is Aryel Tsion, a 45-year-old Orthodox Jew living in Sussiya with his wife, Shlomit, and their three young children. His transformational journey into Orthodox Judaism and to the Promised Land is made all the more remarkable by the fact that the majority of his Dutch congregation followed him out of Christianity.Several have already converted to Judaism, and several more are in the process. Six of them (ranging in age from 28 to 74) plus a South African family have followed him to Sussiya.
For Tsion, the journey into Orthodox Judaism is the culmination of a long search for “the truth.” Raised in the Dutch Old Reformed Church, Tsion originally studied to become a pastor in that church. “But during my studies, I started asking questions,” he recalls, seated in his Sussiya home, where a row of wooden shoes mounted next to the entrance attests to the family’s Dutch origins. “I was disturbed that the largest portion of the Old Testament talks about Israel, yet in the Dutch Reformed Church we only mentioned Israel once a year. I realized this was not right and left my studies.”Tsion continued to question. In 1998, he was excommunicated from the church over the issue of baptism. “It is written in the New Testament that one should be baptized after one comes to Christ. But the Dutch Reformed Church practices infant baptism. I had a big problem with this. So I did an adult baptism and was excommunicated,” he says.Looking for a church that acted in accordance with what is written in the Bible, Tsion started his own independent Evangelical church – the Shalom Gemeente Dordrecht (the Shalom Congregation in the town of Dordrecht) which, over time, had some 400 members. “I wanted to find the truth,” he says. “I thought maybe there were more things that were not as they are written in the Bible. I didn’t realize what I was saying or getting myself into.”Tsion became interested in Succot. He read in Zechariah 14:16 that in the future all the nations will come to Israel to celebrate Succot. “I was taught that after Jesus it was not necessary to keep the mitzvot and Jewish holidays. But I saw that this holiday was meant for all the nations – Jewish and non. If we are going to celebrate it in the future, why shouldn’t we do so now?” Tsion discussed the matter with his congregation, and most agreed they should celebrate Succot. So they gathered leaves and branches and built little huts. “This was the beginning of our search,” he says.Later, he was shocked to discover that the original Christians were a sect of Judaism. This was followed by his finding out that many of the symbols of the Christmas and Easter celebrations grew out of pagan holidays and that it doesn’t say in the New Testament that Shabbat should be changed to Sunday. In light of this, the Shalom Congregation decided to hold its services on Saturday and started celebrating Pessah.“When I discovered that the Jewish holidays still apply, I started giving sermons,” Tsion continues. “Some people were uneasy. They left our church, but others joined in their place. In 2002, I realized that not only were the holidays still valid but all of the Torah. I wanted to serve God as best as possible. So I started studying the Torah and behaving accordingly. But I didn’t know about the Oral Law, only the Written Law.”AT THE same time, Tsion became the chairman of a Christian friends of Israel group, Beth Mevaseret, which included members from some 40 Evangelical and Pentecostal churches in Holland. With the outbreak of the second intifada, he began organizing trips to Israel.The Beth Mevaseret groups were coming to Israel every two to three months.During one of the trips in 2003, it was decided to meet Jewish settlers. “We read in the Dutch papers that Israeli settlers were some kind of criminals. I already knew that the bad things printed about Israel were not true. So I thought maybe these settlers are really good people, since they are badmouthed so much,” Tsion says.That was the group’s first contact with Orthodox Jews.“I was shocked,” Tsion says. “I found a love of God and obedience to Torah. I sensed the presence of God more than in my own church. ‘How is it,’ I asked myself, ‘that they don’t believe in the New Testament, yet they have this connection to God?’ I started to reread the Bible. I came to Ezekiel 33:18-20, where it is written that a person can return to righteousness even if godless. I realized that the Jews don’t need the Christian messiah. This raised a lot of questions. I started asking God to lead me to truth.”In 2003, when Tsion’s oldest son was born, he circumcised him in a brit mila performed by a liberal Jewish mohel.Tsion knew that he had Jewish ancestry.“I told the mohel that I was a Christian with Jewish ancestry and that the greatgrandfather of my grandfather, Shlomo Levy, was hanged in 1798 by the French for resisting Napoleon. But then I realized I wasn’t circumcised. So I too underwent circumcision. I felt such happiness. I told my church. There were some objections but other members also were circumcised.”In December 2003, Tsion took his group to Sussiya. He met ex-New Yorker Israel Feld, internal secretary of Sussiya, who introduced him to Yishye Tzur, a Bible teacher. “At once, I felt that both Feld and Tzur loved Hashem [God]. I wondered, ‘How can I feel so connected to them when they do not believe in the Christian messiah?’ When I met Tzur, I grabbed on to his tzitzit [ritual fringes] and told him I wanted to go with him because God is with him. I was still a believing Christian,” he says.“Aryel first came to see me with a group from Beth Mevaseret to learn Torah,” recalls Yishye Tzur. “But when they took hold of my tzitzit, I was shocked. One of the signs of the coming of the Messiah is when gentiles take hold of the tzitzit. But I still didn’t think they were serious. They were viewing the Bible through the lens of Christianity.”In February 2004, Tsion returned to Sussiya with his wife. He went back again for Pessah and for Shavuot – all the time with questions.“Yishye told me straight out that belief in the Christian messiah is considered by many Jews as idolatry. No one had been so honest with me,” Tsion recalls. “I had two terrible nights in which I couldn’t sleep. If I wanted to be honest, I had to follow the truth. I knew I would lose my job as pastor and head of Beth Mevaseret. I also knew I would probably lose most of my friends and maybe even my family. I said to myself, ‘If you know in your heart that this is the truth, then God will guide you.’ It was then that I decided to become Jewish. I came to Judaism because it was the direction of the truth. As soon as this was clear, I felt that a great weight had been lifted from me.”Tsion told his wife he was converting to Judaism. Her reaction was, “Are you crazy? For years you’ve been preaching about the Christian messiah, and now you want to leave?” His wife, Shlomit, 34, was with during all this time. “I saw the things he saw; but when he said he wanted to convert, it was no longer clear to me. To stop believing in Jesus is very difficult,” she explains.“I was raised a believing Christian and taught if you do not believe in Jesus, you go to hell,” she continues. “I was very afraid.What if Christianity is the truth? My whole world was being turned upside down. On one level, I understood that the New Testament was no longer valid for me. But then I thought, ‘What if the Old Testament is also not valid? What if there is no Hashem?’ I have always prayed. I could not live with nothingness, without faith,” she says.“Little by little, things began to fall into place,” Shlomit goes on. “As I looked further, I saw proof that Hashem exists in the continued existence of the Jewish people. I realized that I could no longer be a Christian. I faced two options – to become a Noahide [believer in the seven laws of Noah] or to convert to Judaism. Being a Noahide was not enough. It would be an empty life for me. So I decided to convert. And I have never regretted it.”Tsion told his congregation of his decision to convert. “I said I no longer believed in Christianity. There was a real uproar. Some members were afraid to leave Christianity, afraid they would go to hell. There were articles against me in Christian newspapers and on websites. But 70 percent of the members were with me.For them, it was a relief.”It took the Tsions a year to find a place to study Judaism. They finally went to Antwerp, finishing their conversion in Israel. In 2007, they made aliya.“It wasn’t easy,” Tsion says. “All our good friends left us. Many in our congregation saw Judaism as a heavy burden and couldn’t convert. There were real problems with family members. My mother found our conversion very difficult to accept. She now speaks with me but still thinks I am going to hell. But we have a relationship. My sister even visited us here. My brother told me, ‘I see now that you are at peace, so this must be good for you.’” Today, Tsion is associate director of international relations for Beit Moriah in Beersheba, a nonprofit organization that promotes Jewish education and values and provides for the needy.Together with Tzur, he works closely with the Har Tsion Institute (www.hartsion.org), an Orthodox Jewish organization offering educational programs in Israel for non-Jews interested in learning more about the Jewish faith. He runs the Shalom Center (www.shalom-center.org), a Jewish information center that provides lessons and information about Judaism, Israel, Zionism, conversion and aliya, as well as trips to Israel.Shlomit, who was a dental assistant in Holland, now fills in for the regular dental assistant in Sussiya and is a babysitter for her neighbors.“Living in Israel is proof for me that God exists,” Tsion avers.“The Jewish people are here. He is fulfilling His promises to them. So many miracles have occurred.”THE FORMER members of the congregation also have compelling stories of their journeys to Judaism. Of the six, one member declined to be interviewed. Two others, Shlomit’s parents, arrived in Sussiya as this article was going to press.Baruch Shlomo Ben-Israel, a 64-year-old pensioner from Antwerp, started out studying to become a Catholic priest. He left the Catholic Church to become a Pentecostal preacher and finally found his way to Tsion’s Shalom Congregation and from there to Judaism.“I feel my soul belongs in Israel, and I have reached the end of my search,” he says.Sarah Eliezer, a retired 74-year-old school supervisor, was a hidden child during World War II, not because she was Jewish (the family belonged to the Dutch Reformed Church) but because her father and oldest brother were Resistance members. In September 1944, they were betrayed to the Nazis by a neighbor in their Dutch town. The whole family – Sarah’s parents, three brothers and two sisters – all went into hiding. Eight-year-old Sarah and an older sister were sent to live with strangers and given new identities. The pair remained in hiding until January 1945. “I followed a long, short road to Judaism. But I have chosen the richest life in the world – Torah,” she notes.South Africans Johan and Ronel Brink and their three children went to Sussiya via Tsion and his Shalom Center website.Originally in the Dutch Reformed Church, their journey started 14 years ago when Ronel, to her husband’s astonishment, burned their Christmas tree.“I discovered it was a pagan symbol,” she recalls. After reading in the Torah that the covenant is everlasting, the family started celebrating Jewish festivals. In 2009, they traveled to Israel and met their first rabbi. “We asked many questions,” Johan says. “It was an amazing experience. We knew then we would become Jewish.”They applied to the South African Beit Din for conversion. It was also at this point that they heard about Tsion and his website.The Brinks are still in the process of converting.“We came to Sussiya because it is the type of community we envisioned – Orthodox and Zionist. It is amazing how wonderfully we have been embraced,” Ronel says.Perhaps the most compelling story is that of 33-year-old Simcha Barak. He has been deaf since he fell ill at six months old.He told his story in Dutch to Tsion, who translated into English.Barak lived with his paternal aunt and uncle, who were devout Christians. In 2000, he joined the Shalom Congregation.“I immediately felt a connection with him,” says Tsion.“Because he is deaf, he didn’t always understand the sermons. I would explain them to him afterwards. I also would help him with other things.”As Tsion moved closer to Judaism, Barak followed. When Tsion was circumcised, Barak underwent circumcision. And when Tsion decided to convert, Barak decided to convert.But because Barak is deaf, he is considered a shoteh, someone not capable of understanding Torah and therefore could not convert.“Nevertheless, Simcha felt in his heart that he was Jewish,” says Tsion. “At some point, he decided he should visit Auschwitz.When he returned, he said being there had triggered a memory of a photo in his maternal grandmother’s home of a woman wearing a yellow star. But he didn’t know how to contact his grandmother. After his mother died, his father’s family broke off all contact with her.”After two months of searching, Tsion and Barak located his grandmother. “We went together to see her,” Tsion relates. “And when we entered, we saw the photo of the woman with the yellow star. I asked, ‘Who is that woman?’ And the grandmother replied, ‘My mother. My grandparents were gassed at Auschwitz.’” Barak was Jewish according to Halacha and didn’t need to convert.Tsion helped him get all the relevant documents, and the Dutch Rabbinate certified him Jewish.After Tsion made aliya, Barak followed. Today, he works in construction and has a full life, often traveling to Jerusalem, where he belongs to a club for the hearing impaired.Why has Sussiya absorbed these converts? “I was the first person in Sussiya to meet Aryel,” recalls Israel Feld. “I had never encountered someone like him, and I have met many people from different backgrounds. It was a little frightening because I found someone who is extremely charismatic but not like the dynamic Jewish leaders I met. His greatness is in his simple and authentic message. It makes a deep and lasting impression. He is so in touch with his faith. He connects us with the fact that God is in charge of the world. Even if things do not turn out the way we want, it is for the best. This is a refreshing, reassuring message for today,” he says.“But maybe most important,” Feld continues, “is that he showed me what converts have to offer. We, who were born Jewish, have an admission ticket no matter our level of observance.People like Aryel infuse into Judaism things we have forgotten or do not emphasize.