Seventh-day Adventists fit into the rhythms — and faiths — of Israeli life

First published in Religion News Service (RNS)

JERUSALEM — Like many religiously observant Israelis, Julio Mendez and his wife, Milagros, were frantically preparing for the Sabbath as sundown approached on a Friday in late March. As leaders of their religious community for the past 15 years, Milagros was in charge of Friday night dinner, coordinating a 20-person potluck featuring an assortment of salads, vegetarian lasagna, zucchini soup and home-baked desserts.

Speeding down Ma’ale HaShalom street at 4 p.m. in his white 2012 Toyota Corolla, Julio, 62, was paying a final visit to an ill friend before sundown.

The Mendezes are Sabbath observers, but they are not Jewish. They belong to a small Christian minority in Israel of Seventh-day Adventists, who number just 900 in the entire country — a tiny fraction even of Israel’s Christian population. Julio Mendez is the senior pastor of Jerusalem’s only Adventist church, on Abraham Lincoln Street in Jerusalem’s Old City center.

While in other countries the world’s 21 million Adventists stand out beyond their numbers for their Saturday services and their public evangelism, here in Israel the group can be easy to miss. Being an Adventist, for one thing, doesn’t preclude a believer from belonging to another faith.

In Haifa, Sergey Gregoriev is the Adventists’ senior pastor of northern Israel. Gregoriev also considers himself Jewish. “For me, being a Seventh-day Adventist is in harmony with my Jewish roots,” said Gregoriev, who arrived in Israel as part of the million-strong wave of Russian-speaking immigrants in the late 1980s and 1990s.

The Seventh-day Adventist Life and Hope Center on Ben Gurion Street in Haifa, Israel. Photo credit: Natacha Larnaud

Given the fluidity with other faiths, Adventist churches often reflect their converts’ native religions. The Jerusalem congregation, for instance, seems particularly Jewish.

“We do not encourage our community members to drive on the Sabbath, or engage in business matters,” said Mendez as he pulled up outside the church on Abraham Lincoln Street. On a wall was a gold plaque that read in Hebrew: “The international congregation of Sabbath-keeping Seventh-day Adventists in Jerusalem. Everyone is welcome.”

Inside, a Torah ark, covered by a blue velvet curtain emblazoned with two gilded menorahs, stood in the center of the room. The room looked like a standard synagogue, but in a telling sign that it wasn’t, a Hebrew copy of the New Testament rested on a rosewood stand in front of the Torah ark, left open to a passage from the Gospel of Mark about Jesus entering Jerusalem.

Julio Mendez has been the senior pastor of Jerusalem’s only Adventist church for the past 15 years. Photo credit: Jonathan Harounoff

The Torah ark, Mendez said, was brought to the church by Morocco-born Richard Elofer, himself a Jew, who became the president of the Adventist community after marrying an Adventist woman.

“If the Kotel is full and someone wants to celebrate their bar mitzvah with a Sefer Torah, they can come here free of charge,” Mendez said.

Two hours’ drive away in Nazareth, Wisam Ali, the chief Adventist pastor for the country’s Arabic-speaking community, was born into an influential Muslim family where his father was the head of his local tribe and his uncle the imam.

“My decision was the ultimate shame to my family. They even called a council to discuss the matter,” said Ali.

He is now working on building the country’s first Arabic-speaking Adventist church in Israel.

The Seventh-day Adventists originated in 19th-century upstate New York as an offshoot of the Millerites, who believed Christ’s second coming would occur in 1844. When it failed to materialize, a fact known as the Great Disappointment, the Adventist movement’s leaders claimed that Jesus had instead entered a heavenly sanctuary on the expected date and that his return to earth would be nonetheless imminent. Since then, the Adventist movement has continued to grow, with some 86,000 churches worldwide.

They believe the Bible to be infallible — their Saturday Sabbath reflects the Book of Genesis’ account that God rested on the seventh day.

“We have 28 fundamental beliefs in the Adventist Church, all found in the Old and New Testament,” said Mendez.

Core to the faith is tending to the body as God’s divine creation, which is why many Adventists follow healthy, plant-based diets, abstaining from alcohol, caffeine and smoking. Studies such as the Blue Zones projects have shown that Adventists live on average a decade longer than non-Adventists.

Engaging in same-sex relations is heavily discouraged. “We do not condemn homosexuals, but we always encourage them not to engage in homosexual acts,” Mendez said. “It is not the original plan, and we help our young members who have those tendencies through rehabilitation programs and counseling sessions.”

But the Adventist community in Israel remains relatively unknown to the public and has attracted little media attention, something the Mendezes are hoping to change. They have recently struck up strategic partnerships with local tour guides in Jerusalem in a bid to raise awareness of the city’s Adventist community.

The entrance to the Seventh-day Adventist Church on Abraham Lincoln Street in Jerusalem. Photo by Jonathan Harounoff

One guide, a regular visitor to the church, attracts large groups of Jewish travelers who have never heard of the Adventist community.

“Most people are shocked when they see us,” Julio Mendez said, “but I also say that if you believe in Jesus, you would also keep the Sabbath because Jesus and his disciples were all Sabbath keepers.”

“Many Israelis seem confused that we keep Shabbat,” said Milagros Mendez, as her husband nodded. “They assume that all Christians are Sunday keepers, but, for me, this is a chance to teach people that there are Christian Shabbat keepers, too.”

But sharing a Sabbath is a long way from sharing a faith, according to Joel Collick, a British-born Jewish Jerusalem resident. “Even though Adventists incorporate the Sabbath into their faith, I don’t know how well received they would be among Jewish communities in Israel because the fundamental theological differences are what would stand out more.”


In Tel Aviv, Jews join with Muslims in vigil mourning New Zealand dead

As published in Religion News Service (RNS)

TEL AVIV — Dozens gathered outside the New Zealand embassy in Tel Aviv Sunday night for a somber candlelight vigil to commemorate the victims of Friday’s (March 15) mass shootings at two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand.

“We are a small, bright light at the end of a dark tunnel,” Sheikh Abdallah Nimr Badr said of the event, which was organized by Tag Meir, an all-volunteer Jewish organization dedicated to ending extremist violence in Israel, in collaboration with local Muslim leaders and Israeli-Arab college students at Al-Qasemi Academy.

“We must eradicate this sort of behavior if we are going to live in peace. I hope one day we will be able to walk in the streets feeling safe and free of fear,” Sheikh Badr added.

Other local Muslim and Jewish leaders recited prayers of healing and solidarity in Hebrew and Arabic, while nine Muslim students from Al-Qasemi Academy in Haifa held placards in silence, letting photographs of the slain victims and messages reading “Stop Islamophobia” speak for themselves.

Men participate in a small vigil outside the New Zealand embassy in Tel Aviv, Israel, on March 17, 2019. Photo courtesy of Natacha Larnaud

The vigil was part of an overwhelming interfaith response to the attack during Friday prayers, which left at least 50 worshippers dead and dozens more injured. In New Zealand, several synagogues were closed on the Sabbath in solidarity with the Muslim community, and in Pittsburgh, the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh set up a fund for the victims of the mosque attacks, similar to last October’s crowdfunding campaign “Muslims Unite for Pittsburgh Synagogue,” which raised hundreds of thousands of dollars for families affected by the Tree of Life massacre.

In a meeting with Muslim community leaders in Wellington, New Zealand, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern confirmed that Friday’s attack was the deadliest in the country’s history, adding that investigators were racing to identify the victims of the shooting spree so that they can be buried as quickly as possible, in accordance with Muslim burial tradition.

“When fanatics make the most noise, our voice is silenced,” warned Rabbi Esteban Gottfried, director of the Beit Tefilah Israeli community in Tel Aviv. Midway through his televised speech, Gottfried encouraged the crowd to sing an altered version of the popular song, “Oseh Shalom,” (“A Prayer for Peace”), adding Ishmael, a reference to the biblical patriarch in Muslim tradition and first son of Abraham, to Hu Ya’aseh shalom aleynu v’al kol Israel v’Ishmael (he will make peace for us and for all Israel and Ishmael).


Thanking God for the big things – and the little ones – at a Harlem church

At the Ephesus Seventh-Day Adventist Church on Lenox Avenue and 123rd Street, the ground was shaking as Pastor Lawrence Brown paced to the crimson-red podium on the stage, armed with his iPad and Bible app. The subway train passing underneath the church caused the rumble, but Alvaro Stewart, a Costa-Rican builder next to me, said that the ground-breaking sound effects made the service “more biblical.” Brown wore a black turtleneck sweater and blue jeans to complete the modern look. The elevated stage was lined with a stunning arrangement of nine oval pots of artificial flowers, alternating red and white, with a U.S. flag on each end.

Stewart had just eaten dinner with the pastor, a meal consistent with the Adventist belief of maintaining a healthy body, mind and spirit. Meat, alcohol and coffee were off the menu, which is why, combined with a day of rest on Saturdays, “we live on average five to 10 years longer than non-Adventists worldwide,” Stewart adds.

Thirteen members of the predominantly African-American community showed up to the Wednesday evening service, far from the 1,300 regulars who fill the spired, two-story Harlem church every Sabbath.

(Photo courtesy of Renee Nixon Simmons)

“Anywhere with Jesus I can safely go,” Brown began chanting, as a West African pianist to the left of the stage played a rendition of the eponymous hymn. “Anywhere with Jesus I am not alone,” everyone answered.

Following the song, Brown thanked the devoted dozen for attending the service in spite of the arctic cold and invited personal testimonies from the crowd. “Would anyone like to talk about the goodness of the Lord?” Brown asked. Customarily, congregants would in two or three minutes explore their relationship with the Almighty by offering examples of the ways God changed their life that day or week. They would thank the Lord for giving them the fortitude to overcome challenges threatening to distract or derail them.

The room was quiet.

Senses were heightened as an ambulance’s colorful, shrieking siren suddenly illuminated the stained-glass windows. The ground shook again, almost in frustration to the group’s momentary reticence. But in the far-right corner of the church, by a book-sized locked gold box inscribed with the words “offering,” an elderly woman aged 74 rose and shouted, “Thank you, Jesus.”

“I lost my wallet today,” she said.

Amen

“But I did not lose my soul. Peace, and bless the Lord.”

Amen, Amen

Then, a middle-aged, olive-skinned man from California, with a scarlet-red scarf draped over his white jumper, got up and thanked the Lord for his spiritual family at this church. “I’ve been away for a few months and it’s great to be home again,” he said.

Amen

Next, a young woman stood up in the front row by the wooden charity basket and thanked God for what he did to her that morning. “I was with my sister until late the night before, maybe 1:30 a.m.,” she said. “And our Savior woke me up at 6:00 a.m. this morning so that I could help my sister who had no heat or hot water in her apartment. My sister and I prayed together, and the Lord revived her water.”

Amen

And as Brown was about to gesture to the pianist to begin playing the hymn “When We All Get to Heaven,”  his personal favorite, an elderly man in a cream suit and tie gently got out of his seat with the help of his granddaughter. “I am happy to say that I just turned 90,” he said, his voice raspy. “But thanks to Jesus, I can walk and I can jump, and I hope we continue this fellowship.”