Africa Night To Honor Israel An Unexpected Surprise

Last week, I attended an annual event that I have ignored, even scoffed at, in years past. What is the motivation, I wondered, for African churches in Minnesota to plan a night to celebrate and raise money for social service and security needs in Israel? People I respect have attended and even spoken at the event, but as I pondered the spectrum of cynical possibilities for its existence – everything from it being a front for proselytizing to positioning me as a pawn in an end-game of rapture that would bring about the second coming of their messiah – I never attended.

This year, however, was different. I have felt so utterly alone in our, without a doubt, Christian country, and so surrounded by hostility because of my minority status that no one but Jews acknowledge, that I decided that regardless of any misgivings, I could not miss “Africa Night to Honor Israel.”

I am someone who has never had complacency about the safety of the Jewish people around the world, understanding that we are just one too-far-right or too-far-left political leader away from being rounded up again; just one popular uprising away from any disgruntled group that has been taught or has chosen to make the Jewish people their scapegoat; Just one international airplane ride away from it being the flight in which my Jewishness might determine my fate. The Israeli necklace that I wear, my Hebrew name, the Jewish organizations that I frequent, or the kippah on my son’s head, are the symbols of pride and deep connection to my religious, cultural, historic, and familial roots, but I know that they are also the self-identifiers that put the safety of my family, and millions like us, at risk.

I’m not ashamed to say that I keep a bag onto which I have written “In case we have to flee,” and that I have memorized a short list of non-Jewish friends whom I feel certain would shelter us if we needed to hide. I am a generally positive, optimistic, and trusting person, but I know our history, and Jewish trauma is deeply etched into my DNA. With that world view, I am not only grappling with the deep pain of the pogrom that brutally took the lives of 1,400 of my family members, and counting, but not at all surprised by the backlash, in which mass murder committed against Jews has become a rallying cry for more mass murder against us. It was an inevitability that the ultimate in “gaslighting” has taken over the internet – that Jews are not only responsible for our own deaths, but for any Palestinians who die in response to us being attacked, for daring to exist and live in our ancient homeland. The feeling in my kishkas is all I need to remind me that we are safe only at the pleasure of whoever has power and sway – be it a government, a population, or an indoctrinated mindset intent on demonizing us.

I attended The Africa Night to Honor Israel with all of this swirling inside of me. It wasn’t that my skepticism had completely disappeared, it was that I was willing to put it aside in hopes that I could be in community with others who actually care if Israel survives another attempt at annihilation, and if I, and our tiny minority of just 16 million people world-wide, withstand this revival of normalized, deadly antisemitism spreading like wildfire.

I’ll begin with the end. Attending was the best thing I have done in the past month and likely one of the most soul-restoring events I have attended in years. Ebenezer Church was filled to the rafters, I estimate about 1,000 attendees, the majority dressed in beautiful, colorful African clothing, a true feast for the eyes during this grey and gloomy time. The security was tight but the atmosphere joyful. A large banquet hall was set with both kosher food and traditional African food prior to the start of the event. Then we took our seats in the sanctuary.

Ilan Sharon, the Jewish liaison to Christians United for Israel (CUFI), who has been building relationships and educating about Judaism and Israel within the Christian community for decades, began the program. Pastors representing several African churches participated in various ways. I was struck by how many of the religious leaders were women and by the array of churches in Minnesota that bring together people whose birth or ancestry is from different African countries – Liberia, South Africa, Kenya, Ethiopia, yet all joined together in common purpose this night.

An “America’s Got Talent” level choir sang the National Anthem and the South African Anthem, and then Cantor Fineblum from Temple of Aaron beautifully lead us in Hatikvah. Rev. Dr. Francis Tabla of Ebenezer Church emceed the evening with deep humility, a sincere love for Israel, and a delightful sense of humor. The room was filled with Israeli, African, and American flags waving in unison to the music that was interspersed between speakers. Hearing a chorus of African women and men singing “Oseh Shalom Bimromav,” (May God who caused peace to reign in the heavens, create peace for us and on all Israel) enveloped me in a sense of calm I had not felt since October 6th.

There were recorded messages from the Midwest Consul General of Israel and Rep. Dean Phillips. Prayers were said for the over 240 captives in Gaza and for the State of Israel, in Hebrew and English. 93-year-old former Sen. Rudy Boschwitz, who had been instrumental in the airlifts of 14,500 Ethiopian Jews to Israel in 1991, spoke briefly, noting that the only time that Black people have been “taken out” of Africa with love and to save their lives was by Israel, a true yet mostly forgotten fact. JCRC Executive Director Steve Hunegs, always so knowledgeable and eloquent, spoke, Rabbi Marcus Rubenstein offered a prayer, CUFI representatives affirmed the group’s deep connections to Jews and Israel, and Jewish Federation CEOs, Jim Cohen and Ted Flaum, the former just back from a solidarity mission to Israel, expressed gratitude to the churches and shared ways to help Israel.

Having lived the first 18 years of my life in a town in which we were the only Jewishly identified family, my childhood encounters with evangelical Christians included too frequent pronouncements of, “You’re going to hell,” “You’re not allowed to play with my daughter,” and “You killed Christ.” I have many friends from a wide range of Christian denominations who adhere to a very different, loving, and inclusive religious philosophy, but my ‘spidey sense’ for potentially dangerous rhetoric – from both poles of the political spectrum and from some folks who consider themselves “religious,” is not buried too deep below the surface.  It was, therefore, a surprise to me that the words that I found to be most affirming and comforting were those of the African pastors, as well as from Living Word mega-church pastor, Mac Hammond, who gave the keynote address.

It was Pastor Hammond who invited Rev. Tabla from Ebenezer Church on his first trip to Israel that sparked his connection and commitment to being in deep relationship with the Jewish community. Since then, the local African churches have taken hundreds of local congregants to the holy land, which has drawn them closer to Israel and to their Jewish neighbors.

Of course, their relationship to Israel is rooted in their Christianity, Jesus, and messianic-era aspirations, but this is the first time that I heard another reason for their commitment to Israel. I actually could feel tension releasing from my body when Pastor Hammond explained that many Church leaders have misread the scriptures and have erroneously adopted “replacement theology,” which is the idea that Christianity replaces Judaism as God’s true religion. Paraphrasing from my notes, he said: The Christian bible is clear that the covenant between the Jews and God is everlasting. God gave the land to the Children of Israel. Anyone who says otherwise is choosing to not read it honestly. Christianity could not exist without Judaism. Jews are the tree and Christianity are the branches grafted onto their tree. Jesus and all of Christianity’s founders were Jews. If you want to do God’s work, it is incumbent upon Christians to treat Jews with respect and support. To do anything other than that would be a “slap in God’s face.”

And then he offered suggestion for how to support Israel and the wellbeing of the Jewish community, including: to be more vocal than all of the antisemitic voices in order to drown them out, to not vote anyone into office unless they understand the role and necessity for supporting Israel, and to contribute to the needs in Israel right now.

This all put a little metaphorical Band-Aid on the gaping wound in my broken heart, but what happened next actually provided the joy that we Jews are always told that we must balance with our sadness and tragedy. A teen youth group performed a dance to “Hinei Ma Tov” (How good it is to sit together) that was a mix of Israeli steps and African dance. Youth group leaders have very little time to address their own programming, teach leadership skills, and instill values and knowledge in their teens, so the hours that they devoted to creating this beautiful display of love for the Jewish community was very moving.

The night ended with the announcement that $25,000 had been raised for the Israel Emergency Fund, and with the choir leading “By the Rivers of Babylon” and songs with refrains that inspired everyone to get on their feet and dance. I walked out feeling just a little bit more hopeful that there is still some sanity in our world, that there are people of different faiths who value Judaism, the Jewish community, and our ancient ties to the land of Israel, and that, should I ever need to hide, the people at Ebenezer and other African Churches would open their door to me and the rest of our community.