JERUSALEM — More than two decades ago, Barry Siegal had a religious experience that changed his life forever.

“I had a supernatural encounter with the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob while walking through the streets of the suburb where I lived,” recalled Siegal, 46, a resident of Mevasseret Zion, just outside Jerusalem. “I heard an audible voice speak to me very clearly, and instantly I knew that Yeshua is the messiah of the Jews and the gentiles.”

Siegal, who was raised as a Conservative Jew, said, “I immediately read the Bible from Genesis through the Book of Revelation. I became convinced that Israel is the focus of God's plan for the end of the age and that I was called to immigrate to Israel, the land of my forefathers, and live in the city of Jerusalem.”

Since moving to Israel from the United States in 1981, Siegal has worked hard to share his vision and love of Israel with non-Jews. He has traveled the world, sharing his faith with Christians of all denominations. Many of the people he encounters contribute generously to Joseph's Storehouse, the humanitarian organization Siegal founded, which distributes food, clothing and medical supplies to the Holy Land's needy Jews and Christian Arabs.

Siegal views his humanitarian work as an outgrowth of his faith as a Jewish believer in Christ, or Messianic Jew. Unlike the handful of Israeli Jews who have converted to Christianity, Messianic Jews (also known as Hebrew Christians) cling tightly to their Jewish identity while maintaining that Jesus is the Messiah.

Today, there are approximately 5,000 Messianic Jews in Israel, which is home to some 5 million Jews, 1 million Muslims and about 100,000 Christians.

Private to the point of paranoia just a few years ago, many of the estimated 70 Messianic Jewish congregations operating in churches, meeting halls and private homes throughout the country have become much more visible in recent years.

In most cases, the congregations include both Jewish and Christian rituals in their services. The service in Jerusalem's Christchurch, for example, is performed completely in Hebrew and incorporates both the Old and New Testaments. The centerpiece is a menorah (a candelabra with seven branches) resting on a tallit (a Jewish prayer shawl).

Rabbi Ron Kronish, director of ICCI, says that modern Judaism views the concept of Jews who believe in Jesus as a complete contradiction.

“What was true in the first century doesn't hold in the 21st century,” says Kronish, referring to the fact that Christ's first disciples were Jews (as was Jesus himself). “For modern-day Jews, being a Jew and believing that Jesus is the messiah is incompatible.”

Father Michael McGarry, rector of the Tanture Ecumenical Institute in Jerusalem, said that Catholics are less likely to hold onto their Jewish identity. “If a Jew converts to Catholicism, he is no longer a Jew,” he said.

Peacemakers?

While Hebrew Christians are a controversial presence in the Holy Land, their presence can transcend the religious differences they exacerbate.

Salim Munayer, the academic dean of the Bethlehem Bible College, said Messianic Jews are also playing a part in healing wounds between the Holy Land's war-torn Jewish and Arab communities.

He is director of Musalaha, an organization that promotes reconciliation between Israeli and Palestinian believers, and insists that finding common ground is now more important than ever before.

Referring to the ongoing spiral of Israeli-Palestinian violence that has gripped the region in recent months, Munayer says, “there is a broken relationship because of wars and everything that is happening now. But these communities have a better chance at reconciliation than other Israelis and Palestinians.”

Munayer, a Christian Arab citizen of Israel, says that the two communities “are very small minorities among their own people, and they love their people and the land. But at the same time, we both have a common Biblical understanding of reconciliation. We have the same core faith and ritual experience that unite us. Our challenge is finding how to express our loyalty to our own people while fulfilling our spiritual calling.”

With Munayer's guidance, each year several hundred Jewish and Arab Christian believers (including some Catholics) spend five days camping out in the desert, getting to know and to rely on one another for the most basic of things.

“They cook together, live together, ride camels together. The desert is viewed as neutral territory. It forces people to cooperate. We work on getting rid of prejudices and stereotypes. Once they get home, where they once again experience pressure from their respective communities, we encourage the participants to do follow-up projects as a mixed group: collecting trash in an Arab village, distributing toys together. They visit refugess camps and meet Palestinian and Israeli victims of violence.”

Although just a small group, Munayer prays that these Jewish and Christian believers will somehow lead the way toward peace.

“If they don't do it,” he says, “who will?”

Michelle Chabin writes from Jerusalem.