David Nekrutman: Connecting Christians

David Nekrutman, 45, is a charismatic man of many talents. An American-Israeli Orthodox Jewish theologian, he is a writer, public speaker and pro-Israel activist

Nekrutman with a Blessing Bethlehem delegation (photo credit: Courtesy)
Nekrutman with a Blessing Bethlehem delegation
(photo credit: Courtesy)
 David Nekrutman, 45, is a charismatic man of many talents. An American-Israeli Orthodox Jewish theologian, he is a writer, public speaker and pro-Israel activist. But perhaps most importantly, as executive director of Ohr Torah Stone's Center for Jewish-Christian Understanding and Cooperation (CJCUC), he is known as a key bridge-builder between Christians and Jews. Established in 2008 by Rabbi Shlomo Riskin in Efrat, the CJCUC is an educational institution at which Christians study the Hebrew Bible with Orthodox rabbis and educators as well as learn about the Hebraic roots of Christianity.
What is the Center for Jewish-Christian Understanding and Cooperation?
The Center for Jewish Christian understanding and cooperation which is under the auspices of Ohr Torah Stone, a Jewish educational network of 27 institutions, really focused on Jewish education; but since 2008 we began to interface for the very first time as an institution from the Orthodox Jewish community, to interact with Christians across denominations.
Was it easy to begin that process of interacting with Christians?
The answer is no because until January 2008, when we opened up our doors, the status quo on Jewish-Christian relations from the Orthodox Jewish side was not to religiously dialogue or actively cooperate with Christians on religious issues. So when we started in 2008, we had 26 pastors from the United States who inaugurated the center with the help of Bishop Robert Stearns from Eagles Wings, a longtime friend of mine, and right away we got criticized by our own people saying, “How can you change the status quo?”
But that is the gravitas of Rabbi Shlomo Riskin, the chief rabbi of Efrat who was the founder of the city of Efrat, the founder of Ohr Torah Stone, and the visionary behind the Center for Jewish-Christian Understanding and Cooperation. He heard about me and he hired me because I was involved in Jewish-Christian relations since the year 2000 with the Israel Consulate in New York. So this was a Divine interruption in my life, because I never thought I would get back into Jewish-Christian relations after working for the Israel Consulate in New York, and Rabbi Riskin was willing to put everything on the line for what God put in his heart – to open up the first institutional response from the Orthodox Jewish side to interact with Christians.
So you bring Jews and Christians together for different events and meetings?
Of course, we bring Jews and Christians together. I will give you an example that is not within the evangelical world, simply within the Catholic world. We worked with the World Jewish Congress and the Latin American Jewish Congress to bring priests and rabbis from Latin America to come to Israel to learn about Jewish-Christian relations here in Israel. If I were to specifically talk about the evangelical community, the spirit-filled movement, we had something called the Day to Praise, where we bring Christians into the synagogue to celebrate Israel’s Independence Day with Christians and Jews in the room singing Psalms 113 to 118. So here we are in a synagogue scenario, but Christians are joining us in our service for the same reason, with the same words on the same day.
Is it important for Christians to understand the Jewishness of the Bible and the Jewishness of Jesus?
I think if you don’t understand the Jewish interpretation of the Bible or the Jewishness of Jesus, not only are you missing something from your own faith but you are literally divorcing yourself from the roots that really give you the nutrients and the survival of who you are as a Christian. I don’t see how Christians can divorce from their Jewish roots. I mean they have done it, but I think to the detriment of their own walk with God.
Tell us about the Hebraic Bible studies you organize for Christians.
The model that we began with in 2008 to interface with Christians is through Bible study. We understood that Christians learned the Bible differently than Jews. The question was how can we interface with these two interpretive communities that seem to be at odds with one another, because we are actually using the same version and interpreting it in different ways, and this was the experiment. We’re trying to figure out how to do that, and because of my knowledge of Christianity and Christian interpretation of the Bible, I didn’t want a Christian to ever feel that they are compromising on their theology.
The way I represent a normal Bible study was what they would normally present in a Wednesday night Bible study at church. I didn’t quote a bunch of rabbis, which they have no clue who they are nor do they care about my rabbinic tradition in stating the names. We do it because we believe copyright infringement is a problem when you take someone’s idea and then you present it as your own. But for the purposes of trying to make a relationship in the fellowship with Christians, we realized we couldn’t do what Jews normally do when in the classroom and start teaching. He said, “We need to frame it in a way where Christians would easily digest what we’re saying, even though I borrow from everybody in my past history and my own revelation in scripture,” and that began a new road in how to interact with Christians in Bible study. We presented it in a way that it would normally just be what they got in a Wednesday night Bible study.
Is this the fulfillment of Zechariah 8:23: “Ten people from all languages and nations will take firm hold of one Jew by the hem of his robe.”
It is funny that you quote that verse because at the inauguration of the Center, we were scheduled to go to Efrat. We have a massive building – a Jewish donor gave a lot of money to show and demonstrate on the Jewish side that we really are serious about this relationship – but unfortunately, the snowfall of the century hit. This was back in February of 2008, and it closed down Efrat where the Center was located. We’re stuck in a hotel in Jerusalem for two days, we can’t get out, there is snow on the ground and Israelis don’t know what to do with snow, and we just decided to learn the Bible together. This is how it began. After the whole two days of learning the Bible, the pastors, the male pastors surround Rabbi Riskin, and they grab his jacket. I don’t know what is going on. This is very strange and then they quote Zechariah 8 verse 23, “We are grabbing your hem coat, rabbi! Show us the way!” At that moment we all knew that was something very special in the room, and this was the way to begin the relationship through Hebrew Bible text study.
Tell us about the Day to Praise.
Well, the Day to Praise began with me and 24 team members attending Oral Roberts University. Just last year in 2018 I received a master’s in Biblical literature. My thesis adviser is the great Dr. Brad Young, and I did my thesis on the Hebraic roots of the Holy Spirit. But in 2014 when I was sitting in the classroom, taking a class on how you are supposed to do your thesis as a practice paper, I chose Psalms 113 to 118. These Psalms are evoked on biblical holidays such as Passover, Pentecost, the feast of Tabernacles, Hanukkah – that was 22 centuries ago.
We invoke these Psalms in the last seven decades after the establishment of the State of Israel. The Chief Rabbinate understood the miracle in our modern day life, that we have a reborn Israel, Jews are now sovereign over their land and a way to praise God for that. Well, let’s look in our history – we always praise God with Psalms 113 to 118. So I did a paper on that, and then God put that on my heart. Well, these Psalms – which are also part of the Cannon of Christian scripture – can be used as a way to advance Jewish-Christian relations. So eventually came the day of praise where we invite Christians to celebrate Israel’s Independence Day by reciting these Psalms with us.
Now Jesus commanded Christians to love their enemy, but you are also doing that via “Blessing Bethlehem,” a charity fund-raising initiative that helps persecuted Christians living in the Palestinian city of Bethlehem and its surrounding areas.
That is also a divine interruption. I met Pastor Steven Khoury over a decade ago at a birthday bash in Jerusalem. A Pastor friend of mine just schlepped me across the room, put me in front of Pastor Steven Khorey and said ‘you guys need to meet.’ At that time we were struggling with the local Christian population, Christian Arab population. The residuals of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict were still felt, there was a lot of distrust, and we were not making any inroads with the local community.
So I focused my energies on the Western church. They are willing to come and willing to learn and the pastor said you and you need to meet, so out of honor with my friendship – this is Bishop Robert Sterns again – out of my honor for his friendship I decided that I will meet with Pastor Steven Khoury, and I said, ‘You know what, let’s meet in Jerusalem for coffee,’ and that’s it, I’m thinking 15 minutes tops. I don’t think anything is going to happen with this, and I apparently met my brother from another mother. Here he is, we have the same heart of what we wish to do between local Christians and local Israelis in building bridges of trust and actually cooperating with one another; and as you go into that community and understand the needs, we found that the biggest issue is putting food on the table and unfortunately there is no social welfare system in place in the Palestinian Authority. What can we do for our neighbor that is in the Holy Land?
So I want to make this very clear: covenant land comes with covenant responsibility. From the Jewish point of view, I am a steward for the third time in this land. I know what it means if we don’t carry out the covenant – that the land itself will throw me out. I have a faith community that is caught between religion and ethnicity. What is my mandate to help? The Bible commands me not only not to oppress those who are not part of my faith but commands me to love the stranger in the land.
So God has mandated that stewards of the land, Jewish people, need to help out those who are less fortunate. So what is the best thing I can do? So we started something called full voucher program. We worked with Rami Levi, a supermarket, one of the major franchises in Israel. We provided food vouchers at the beginning to people who are financially challenged, took them out from Bethlehem, provided transportation for them to go to the supermarket, then eventually as we have grown to know each other and there was a trust that was developed, we decided to transform this food voucher program to Blessing Bethlehem, where we are working within Bethlehem with Christians, buying the food from Christians, packaging it with Christians, and then sending it out to the people who are in need in Bethlehem.
Is it important today for Jews and Christians to have a strong bond, given what is happening in the world?
From my perspective, we as the Jewish people cannot be who we are without the nations. Psalm 117 – it’s part of the Psalms that we praise God with – says the nations will eventually praise God. Why do I have to wait for that moment? Why can’t I jump-start that moment? Why can’t we work together? Why do we have to celebrate Israel separately? Why can’t we come together in the mandate of holiness, sanctification, and the kingdom in the now separately? There is a moment in history right now that, unlike in any other period in history, Jews and Christians can actually work for the glory of God. Because that is the real purpose, that the world will know his name and his name will be one through the conduit of the Jewish people, the elected to be a light unto the other nations.
But the nations are also supposed to carry this mandate to bring God to the world. Now obviously there are differences between Judaism and Christianity, that is why one is a Christian and one is a Jew. I am not here to whitewash that in any way. But in the mystery of it all – because we are finite human beings dealing with God who is an infinite being, he is beyond time and space, beyond our comprehension – but in our ability to speak about God in our interaction with God, and if God is mandating that we need to work together, then I don’t know why I was picked or why I was selected to be part of Jewish-Christian relations but God put this in my heart and he has opened up many doors. It becomes our mandate to work with Christians because God said so, not because of political expedience.
Are you encouraged by Jewish-Christian relations today?
I am inspired by many of the Christians I interact with who are willing to overcome 1900 years of replacement theology, to walk in a calling that they do not fully understand yet, that they are willing to be a part of the process – even though they don’t know – [that] is in their own life. How can you not walk away inspired by that?
I wake up every morning to miracles. For example, you and I are talking today, but later on I am going to be meeting students from an initiative called Passages. These students, these Christian students who can spend their summer vacation doing something else decided that they are going to come to Israel and they are going to walk in the footsteps of Jesus. They are going to walk and learn from Jews and Israeli politicians about the complexity of this land. They don’t have to do it – of course I desire that they should – but from a practical human-being perspective, they should be enjoying their life back home, or going to missions somewhere else and help out the church. Why come here?
So you have to be willing to say, ‘Oh wow, that’s amazing!’ Whatever the dynamic is. And then I want to go even further and say for the Jewish people, all of a sudden to realize now the significance of the Christian support of Israel by the Orthodox Jewish community, which took years – years and years to finally realize the importance of it. And regardless of what you think of the president of the United States, his move of the embassy to Jerusalem was a game-changer, for many of the people in the crowd that were celebrating that event were from the Orthodox Jewish community. For the very first time they were waking up and saying, ‘Oh, this didn’t happen because of the Jewish advocacy on it. It happened because Christians made it happen.’ And that was a game-changer. So many now in the Orthodox Jewish community, thank God, are coming out of the woodwork and willing to work with Christians across the aisle.
How would you direct Christians to pray?
First, when we pray for Israel we pray for all the people in Israel. It’s not just a Jewish thing, it’s everybody living here. Remember the State of Israel has 20 percent of its citizens who are Muslim. I don’t wish harm on any of the Muslims. I hope that many Muslims will realize that the Jewish people really seek the welfare and their well being. I don’t wish any harm to my Palestinian neighbors, I want them to understand who the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob really is – he’s a loving God – and that the Jewish people really want peace.
So when you pray, you pray for peace in the entire region, whether it is under Israeli sovereignty or not, and especially your Christian brothers and sisters. I think many, especially in the United States, can’t come to terms with the fact that someone can be an Arab and a Christian at the same time. There has to be a switch in mindset that those who were the original Christians were the people who were indigenous to this land here and this region here, and that the development of Christianity came out from those movements that came here in the region. So prayer must not only be for the Jewish people. It must be for all peoples in the land, and we all seek not revenge against our enemies but a turn of a heart.
What is your website for people who would like to know more?