Bringing the Gospel to Israel Amid Covid-19

Posted on October 16, 2020


By John Theodor as told to David Ettinger

Note: One of my duties as staff writer here at Zion’s Hope (our ministry brings the Gospel to the Jewish people) is to interview via social media our missionary staff in Israel and ghost-write their stories for our magazine Zion’s Fire (circulation 65,000). This is the story I wrote for the May-June 2020 issue, and I thought you would find it interesting seeing how Christians in other countries cope with Covid-19. It’s obviously a much longer blog than what I normally post, but being a first-person account, it reads quickly!

John Theodor is the Zion’s Hope Foreign Field Director and is based in Jerusalem.

Growing Concerns
At the outset of 2020, our church congregation in Jerusalem had a vision and strategy for where we wanted to go. We were planning to increase our street evangelism, focus on the training of new leaders, and encourage the spiritual development of our young people.

Additionally, we began formulating our plans for the Servant’s Heart outreach program,[1] and researching the various projects we wanted to support. In February, David Rosenthal (Director of Operations at Zion’s Hope) and I were finalizing our Servant’s Heart projects. By early March, I had almost everything in place. The food (distributed to the needy) was ordered, those we ministered to were aware we would be visiting them, local partner ministries were ready to serve together, and I was excited about the (Servant’s Heart) team arriving.

But all along, I could see what was happening in China (related to Covid-19). I could see the events unfolding around the world. In the back of my mind I thought, This is all spreading quite quickly, and the threat of people being stopped from traveling is a reality. Despite this, to the very last minute, David and the Servant’s Heart team were hopeful and still planning to come. But a week before they were to arrive in Israel, they were forced to postpone their travel due to flight restrictions and a mandatory, 14-day quarantine for travelers arriving in Israel from the United States.

I remember telling my wife in early March, “If we can get through (on March 9 the Jewish holiday of) Purim and get to Passover (April 8-16), I think Israel is going to go into lockdown, cancel all school, and we’re going to see a shutdown of everything.”  

In other words, I was fairly confident the Israeli government would not shut down the nation until at least the Passover holidays were about to begin. With this in mind, I believed we had time to organize and prepare ourselves to help the poor and needy in the south of Israel with food and supplies for Passover and also order enough food for our congregation’s food pantry here in Jerusalem. We had planned a Purim celebration with our church, a Purim ministry program with our children, and a Purim evangelism campaign. We had everything in place.

And then the coronavirus epidemic hit and we had to cancel it all. The Ministry of Health immediately enforced restrictions on large gatherings.

Shut Down!
Then, following Purim and with restrictions already in place, the government said, “No more school. No more gatherings.” Everything stopped, and this caught us by surprise. I knew a total lockdown of the nation would eventually arrive, but not as quickly as it did. It began with no school, expanded to certain people not being allowed to work, and then to no one being permitted to leave the house except for medical reasons, food shopping, or essential workers. Period!

John Theodor, right, with his wife Alina, left, and an Israeli woman whom they serve.

And if you did leave the house, you couldn’t travel beyond 100 meters (109 yards, barely longer than the length of an American football field). That was difficult – really difficult! For some people, it wasn’t that much of a challenge as they could just take it easy, stay at home, and deal with it calmly. For me, however, I like to be out doing something for God, for my family … for somebody! It was really, really difficult for me, particularly that first week.

That same first week, our congregation didn’t meet, and we didn’t know what to do. Therefore, we (the church leaders) began preparing devotions in both Hebrew and English and posting them online, just so we could keep in touch with the congregation. We next set up a special WhatsApp (a social-media platform) system just for the leaders so we could communicate with everyone in our congregation.

One thing we couldn’t do was engage in direct, one-to-one street evangelism, so I told the other church leaders, “Let’s start posting more evangelistic videos on the Internet.” We posted “Why We Need a Messiah,” “The Death of the Messiah,” and “Five Facts You Need to Know About the New Testament.” The response was incredible as we had half-a-million views in three weeks! Plus viewers were ordering the New Testament we were offering for free.

That was one of the very encouraging things that has happened during the Covid-19 shutdown. We knew people were locked in their homes, were hungry for something to do, looking for entertainment, or searching for something meaningful. We are living in a false-news culture and we wanted to combat that with the truth of God’s Word. Therefore we sent out as much information as possible, which included posting online Bible lessons and devotions via our YouTube channel.     

Reaching Out
In the meantime, I was able to go out and buy food for those who were not permitted to leave their homes, particularly the elderly. I called in advance, found out what they needed, went shopping, and dropped it off at their front door. I would also deliver food-coupon cards to homes of those who could go out and shop, but were short on funds.

During this time, it was surreal driving around because the roads were so empty. If you’ve been to Jerusalem, you know how much traffic there is. My interactions with people were limited. For instance, when I would deliver the food-coupon cards, they would come to the window wearing their masks, open the window a sliver, and take the cards from me. They did this because of all the fear and anxiety created by this pandemic. The elderly were cautious, but very, very grateful.

It has been a difficult time in Israel. Many have lost their jobs and incomes, and as a result have not been able to pay their rent and electricity. As the church became aware of these issues, we would transfer money to these people’s accounts. Our secretary lived and worked in the office full-time so we could continue to operate. Whether our people needed food or money, we did our best to get it to them.

An outdoor public library in Jerusalem.

On a personal level, I found wearing a mask very difficult. Of course the physical aspect of wearing a mask in the heat and humidity made it hard to breathe. But on an emotional basis, it made me feel that I and those I interacted with were invisible. When I talked with people, I couldn’t tell if they were happy or sad. When I said “Shalom” to someone, I couldn’t tell if they were smiling back at me or not. Most interactions were vague; it was difficult to gauge how people were feeling, because I could only see a small part of their faces.

But on the positive side, one thing I noticed was that people were saying “Shalom” (hello or goodbye) more often. I found this to be very encouraging. These days, as I am out and about, more and more people are saying “Shalom” to me. I can’t tell you how good this feels. I usually say “Shalom” to people I pass in the street, but most of them don’t return the greeting. Now, however, I walk out of my building and people are saying “Shalom” to me first!

Life During Lockdown
The first two months of the national shutdown were particularly tough, especially not being able to celebrate Purim corporately with our church congregation. The same held true for Passover. Rather, Israelis had to celebrate these festive holidays in their homes, either alone, or with their immediate families. Other events we weren’t able to celebrate together were Israel’s Independence Day and Jerusalem’s Independence Day.

Like many of our dear friends in America and Europe, the strict lockdown has left our family feeling isolated and detached from our extended family, community, and nation. Though I love being at home with my family, I also love having guests over at special times of the year. During the lockdown, this hasn’t been possible.

In recent days, the government has begun to loosen its restrictions. As we were allowed to slowly re-emerge from our homes, 100 meters became 500 meters, and we were allowed to return to work and to school. [Currently, as of October 16, 2020, stringent restrictions have returned to Israel; they are back down to 100 meters]. During this time, I kept in contact with our congregation, finding out what their needs were, and working to meet those needs.

I decided to visit the (outdoor) public libraries throughout Jerusalem (see picture above) and fill the shelves with New Testaments and other Christian books and literature. One day, right after I dropped off a New Testament, a religious Jewish man saw it, picked it up, walked away, and began reading it. I was very encouraged by that.    

Regarding our congregation, the government at first permitted only 10 people to meet in one place at one time, but that was later increased to 50 people. When that happened, we decided to restart our youth group. We launched it at the same time kids were going back to school. However, little did we know the virus had spread to several school kids and their teachers. As it turned out, one of my daughter’s classmates tested positive for the coronavirus (though she had no symptoms). This same girl attended our youth group, and the school was locked down. In all, the schools were open for two weeks before shutting down all over again.

Waiting more than 4 hours in a car take a Covid-19 test.

Furthermore, my daughter and wife had to be tested for the virus because they had been exposed to it. They had to wait 4½ hours in a car to do so, as they were trapped, it seemed, in an endless, sprawling line of cars. This was followed by a two-week isolation period in our apartment. (There are five of us, and we live in a small apartment home.) Not only that, but because my daughter’s classmate was also part of our church’s youth group, all of our church staff was required to go into isolation.

That two-week period was tough, but when it ended, I got back to filling the public libraries with Christian material, and also began distributing tracts again. It was the first time in more than three months I was able to hand out evangelistic Gospel tracts – and it felt great! [Unfortunately, as of October 16, 2020, all such activity has again been shut down.]  

Getting the Word Out
Despite some of the positive occurrences that have resulted from this pandemic, life has definitely not returned to normal, and I can’t picture it doing so for some time. Nothing in Jerusalem looks normal. Nothing in Jerusalem feels normal. People are still wearing masks on the streets as it is the law. Before we enter any property, our temperature is taken. That, too, is the law. We have to constantly wash our hands, and when we line up for anything we must keep our distance. Living in the city of God, Jerusalem is normally full, and buzzing with tourists. However, these days there are none, and it feels very surreal. I know these things are happening all over the world, and we are no exception, but it has definitely changed life here in Jerusalem as I have known it for so long. [John, born in raised in Sydney, Australia, has lived in Jerusalem for 30 years.]

More than anything, however, I hope that what is happening is causing people here in Israel to start searching for truth and that their hearts will be softened toward God. I’m hoping for people to start asking more questions – both in their own hearts and when speaking with Christian missionaries. With this in mind, I am exploring ways to increase my evangelism efforts. Primarily – because people are still in isolation, I’m focusing on digital content. Along these lines, our congregation and I are looking to produce a new video on the Resurrection. We’re diligently pushing ahead with this, and I believe it could be very impactful.

 I’m also looking to produce a 5-part series titled, “Jesus in the Old Covenant.” I believe this is a topic which will cause unbelievers to think seriously about Jesus as their Messiah. This series will be based on a book of the same name written by our senior pastor. We want to make this video available on YouTube, and turn the book into a PDF (digital file) so that everyone will have easy access to it (by downloading it). Furthermore, we know how important it is to make this book available in an audio format so that it may be listened to online.

Here in Israel, all of these various forms of media are vitally important as a large percentage of Israelis receive information through computers and phones. If people can access evangelical material digitally on their phones in private in their homes, they are much more likely to interact with it.

These are incredible times in which we are living, but through it all, the Lord is with those who serve Him. May His will be done – and may He receive all the glory!

You may learn more about Zion’s Hope here.

[1] A program where volunteers from the U.S. and other countries go to Israel and assist our missionaries in their ministry endeavors. (I’ve done it twice!)