A different kind of mission

A Christian community in the Galilee offers young Europeans, mostly from Germany, the opportunity to live, work and experience Israel and Judaism from up close.

Nils Oertel 88 224 (photo credit: Diana Bletter)
Nils Oertel 88 224
(photo credit: Diana Bletter)
The first glass hothouses in all of Israel are gone. The avocado groves and fields are rented out to private farmers and there's no more carpentry shop. But the ideals and principles that sparked the founding of the Christian village of Nes Ammim ("Banner of the Nations"), located between Acre and Nahariya, remain. Nes Ammim was started in 1963 along the lines of a kibbutz. The country's first and only Christian kibbutz-style community consisted of European families who stayed in Israel for a year or two, living in modest houses, receiving modest salaries and eating in a communal dining room. Its European founding fathers established the agricultural settlement with the far-reaching goal of building a bridge between Jews and Christians after World War II. Most of the residents on Nes Ammim today are single and in their 20s. The 30-odd volunteers, who come from Germany, Holland and Switzerland, spend a year on Nes Ammim, living and working. They eat in the dining room and receive room and board. A core group of Israeli staff members runs the pastoral community as a non-profit organization. To compensate for the decline in agricultural revenues that has hit kibbutzim around the country, Nes Ammim focuses its resources on its successful guest house. The village also rents space to HaDerech ("The Way"), a nationally recognized drug and alcohol rehabilitation center. Another 20 Israelis live in Nes Ammim homes as private residents. "The community has changed over the years but its goal is still to improve Christian-Jewish relations," states Reverend Tati Weiss, head of the Nes Ammim studies department and public relations manager. "We want European Christians to come live in Israel for a long period to learn about Judaism and the country." Dutch gynecologist Johan Pilon, who fought in the Dutch underground in World War II, started the community on a sandy, empty plot of Galilee land and lived there until his death in 1975. He was moved by the awareness, according to Weiss, that the Holocaust was "facilitated by a centuries-long negative image of Jews and Judaism that has deeply wounded the Christian faith." Pilon wanted the community to help heal the wounds of history as well as bring it up-to-date with European technology. Pilon helped Nes Ammim build the first glass hothouses in the country and the community went on to export high quality cut flowers to Europe for many years. The community's 110 dunams were bought from a Druse sheikh in the nearby village of Abu Sinan. At first, its founders met with local resistance - and skepticism. A rabbi in a nearby Jewish moshav feared the group had come to missionize Jews. "The community always operated on the belief that Christianity did not come about to replace Judaism," explains Weiss. "[As part of Nes Ammim's founding principles] we acknowledge that Jesus of Nazareth lived and died as a Jew. The community is still here to understand the Jewish roots of Christianity." The founders were intent on proving their respect for the Jewish religion. Even today, all volunteers are still required to sign a statement that they are in Israel not to missionize Jews, but to study and understand Judaism. Eventually, the community won over the rabbi, who became a lifelong friend and supporter. Pilon and his wife, Stijn, resided in a school bus until they were able to build the first house. The school bus is still there and serves as part of the Nes Ammim museum (which also houses historical photographs, the family's china dishes, and even Pilon's rusty tools). At its heyday in the 1970s and 1980s, 140 adults and 60 children lived in Nes Ammim. There was a dramatic drop in volunteers during and immediately after the Second Intifada and families moved out. Today, interest in volunteering in Nes Ammim has increased. There is one family living in Nes Ammim for a year, Weiss said, and another family has expressed interest in coming. The community still relies on donations for investments and renovations but the guesthouse is successful and appeals to both Israeli and European tourists. The village also sponsors seminars on interfaith dialogue. The community's tenets are fundamentally Christian yet incorporate respect for Jewish traditions and sensitivity to Jewish concerns. A sense of holiness permeates the community chapel, with its tall ceilings and white walls, but there are no crucifixes or any other Christian icons. On Friday nights, there are services led by a pastor who is serving in Nes Ammim for a few months. (A search is underway for a pastor who can make a one-year commitment.) Volunteers light candles and recite the blessings, only with slight modifications. The kiddush over the wine, in which Jews say that God blesses "us," is changed to read, "that God blesses His people and commanded 'them.'" "We have our Christian service on Saturday night, which is the bridge between the Jewish sabbath and the Christian one," says Brigitte Bach, Nes Ammim's gardener and German teacher. "On the Jewish sabbath, we take a day off, and Sunday is the start of the work week as it is for the rest of Israel." Many of the young volunteers are from Germany and come to Nes Ammim as an alternative to serving in the German army. Nils Oertel-Meschede, 22, has been at Nes Ammim since August 2007. He said that the German army offers conscripts the option of volunteering with programs all over the world. Currently, more than 1,000 Germans are volunteering in Israel, more than in any other country. "I didn't want to be in the German army," Oertel-Meschede explained. "I wanted to learn new things and meet new people." He said that in addition to carpentry work he has done for the community, he has also met with Arab and Jewish high school students in nearby towns, studies Jewish culture and Hebrew, and has visited other German youth who are volunteering in Hebron. "Before I got here, I was pretty neutral about the [Israeli-Palestinian] conflict," he says. "People who volunteer in Nes Ammim are very pro-Israel. But then I went to Hebron and saw what the IDF is doing there. I'm starting to ask questions." He believes that the German media is pro-Israel and when he returns, he says he'll "tell a little about what's happening to the Palestinians." Although Oertel-Meschede's father is a Christian pastor, he says he is not very religious and was not motivated to come to Israel because of Germany's responsibility for the Holocaust. "Frankly, I was so sick of hearing about the Holocaust in Germany," he said. "In school, they talked too much about it. That was all we learned in history. I never even heard about the Vietnam War." But for former Nes Ammim volunteer Rouven Strauss, now 21, the Holocaust was the motivating factor. "My generation cannot be found guilty for the terrible occurrence of the past," Strauss says. "But I felt, and still feel, a responsibility for recollecting, dealing with the past and commemorating in the future." His feelings were echoed by Julius Steinberg, now 20, who stayed at Nes Ammim in 2007. "I wanted to do something for the relationship between Germans and Israelis (especially Jews)," he said. "I wanted to show that Germans can also be different from what Israelis learn in history lessons. And I wanted to show that we have an interest in Israel and the Jewish people." Recognizing the historic connection between Germans and Israelis is also important to Israelis who come in contact with the German volunteers. Nahariya resident Aviv Borenstein, now serving in the IDF, said she once had Friday night dinner with Steinberg and Strauss at a friend's house on a nearby moshav. "At first I was very uncomfortable," Borenstein recounts. "I thought, 'I'm a granddaughter of Holocaust survivors and they are grandsons of Germans who were alive during the Holocaust… But then I realized that they were giving up their friends and family to come to Israel to volunteer for a year, and I found that very admirable." On a recent sunny afternoon, a visitor to Nes Ammim found Timo Schulze Grachtrup, 22, cleaning the swimming pool and getting it ready for the season. Another volunteer, Ruth Poesiat from Holland, 21, was excited to report that she had just received a promotion of sorts: instead of washing dishes in the kitchen of the guest house, she would be working in the Nes Ammim gardens with Bach. Poesiat said that after she received her nursing degree in Holland, she decided to go abroad. She heard about Nes Ammim through a friend of her mother's, who had been there 20 years earlier. She said she likes the atmosphere in Nes Ammim so much that she has signed on for another year. "This work is great, I love it, and I'm learning new things all the time," she said. Volunteers are paid NIS 380 a month in addition to their free room and board. They eat their meals together in the communal dining room. "This year was difficult because they got the kitchen ready for [Pessah] a full week before the holiday, so all we ate was matzot," Schulze-Grachtrup said with a good-natured laugh. Strauss, now a student in computer science at the University of Munich, said his year in Israel had changed him profoundly. "I got to know incredibly interesting people from Israel and from all over the world," Strauss says. "I found friends of different nations, faiths and mentalities, saw the most beautiful and exciting places in my life. In short: I fell in love with Israel."