Letter from Nes Ammim: Reflecting the Light to the Nations
Since 1963, some Christians have been working to fix the world, one volunteer at a time. Their unusual kibbutz promotes love of Israel to coreligionists in Europe.
A young woman is pushing a cleaning cart through the halls of a country guesthouse in northern Israel. She is cheerful, blond—and German. Not exactly the typical Israeli chambermaid. But Hannah Koch is cleaning rooms for a higher purpose.
Like the young German working in the garden and the older Dutch woman in charge of the dining room, as well as the receptionists, technical crew, office workers and archivists, Koch sees herself as an informal “ambassador-in-training” in the singular village of Nes Ammim (“a sign to the nations,” from Isaiah 11:10).
“People come here to learn about the people and the land of Israel, to live in a kibbutz-like Christian community and to understand what it is like to live as a minority,” says German-born Tati Weiss, combination public relations director and Hebrew teacher and one of eight paid staffers. “The idea is that people will go back and spread the idea of dialogue, tolerance, respect and mutual understanding between cultures and religions to their relatives, friends and connections in Europe.”
Nes Ammim was the dream of johan pilon, a physician who fought in the Dutch underground during World War II; he wanted to do something practical to repair Christian-Jewish relations. He and his wife, Stijn, lived in Nes Ammim since it was established in 1963, raising their five children here. The couple were buried in Nes Ammim after they died in 1975 and 2002, respectively.
A 1960 letter by the founding committee to the government outlining the idea for the kibbutz mentions “Christianity’s moral failure.” A sign in the community’s small museum announces that, “Nes Ammim is convinced that only a radical change on the part of Christians will ensure a new relationship with the people of Israel.”
“Pilon wanted to…show that all the bad things that happened in the past—that’s not what Christianity is about,” says Tamar Hollinger, the guesthouse receptionist. “[We] want to know more about our roots, which is Judaism.” Hollinger’s mother was so affected by her year in Israel as a volunteer in 1968 that she gave her Dutch children Hebrew names.
With its modest bungalows, community center, guesthouse, playgrounds and gardens, Nes Ammim looks like a typical small kibbutz. With palm trees swaying in the breeze and birds chirping in its vast gardens, this pastoral village between Akko and Nahariya has attracted thousands of young, mostly European Christians as volunteers, and even more Europeans and Israeli tourists.
On a recent visit there were 30 volunteers: German men doing their mandatory year of national service, interning hotel-management students, children of people who hid Jews during World War II or who fought in the resistance and others who are just curious about Israel. Some are second-generation Nes Ammimers. The maximum stay is seven years; some spend a few months, but most stay a year or two.
Like other enterprises that depend on foreign guests, Nes Ammim suffered a sharp drop in volunteers and visitors after the outbreak of the 2000 intifada. The numbers are rising but may never reach the peak of 200 during the 1970’s to late 1990’s. Because of falling profits, the village had to give up its famous rose hothouses and avocado orchards. In addition, a nearby garbage dump—built in the late 1990’s by neighboring Kibbutz Lohamei Hagetaot and slated for expansion—threatens the guesthouse’s existence.
Steps have been taken to alleviate the foul smell, says Weiss, “[but] the expansion plan is a bigger problem. We’re struggling against it. But the regional authority is very interested in having it there.” As the smaller party in the conflict, the kibbutz is inadvertently fulfilling its goal of experiencing minority status.
To make up for the loss of jobs and income, Nes Ammim rents apartments to students and families as well as to a drug-treatment center. Locals happily use the gardens and palm-lined pool area for weddings and bar mitzvas. Also using its facilities are Arab-Jewish dialogue groups; so far, 25 organizations have met here.
“It’s an extension of what Nes Ammim is about,” says Tietia Lijzenga, who is in charge of the initiative. “They feel comfortable here because it’s not Arab, it’s not Jewish—it’s European, a neutral ground for them.”
Besides working, the volunteers spend a good deal of time in the classroom learning about Israel, Judaism and Jewish-Christian relations. A three-day Holocaust field seminar is held at Kibbutz Lohamei Hagetaot, which was founded by survivors of the Warsaw Ghetto; it has a humanistic educational program and museum. To get a taste of Israel, there are also travel seminars to the Negev Desert and Jerusalem.
“We get to see beyond the [violent] TV pictures we get at home,” says Hannah Koch. “Here, we see…that it’s possible for Jews and Arabs to live together. The Arabs are poorer and much less educated than the Jews. The key, as I see it, is in putting more resources into their education. I think the bridge could be built through education.”
Volunteers also learn about the Druze and Baha’i, about Islam, Hebrew and the Bible. Christian services are held on Saturday nights because volunteers work on Sunday just as all Israelis do. A guest pastor lives here six months out of the year.
On a sunny afternoon last fall, nine volunteers sat around tables pushed into a horseshoe shape in a book-lined room in Nes Ammim’s starkly beautiful House of Prayer and Study to learn Hebrew. There is no cross on the building. “A cross can be difficult for some to see,” says Weiss. “In the name of the cross, a lot of terrible things were done.”
After four years at Nes Ammim, Brigitte Bach, her tan face framed by a pageboy haircut, speaks Hebrew well enough to carry on a phone conversation with an Israeli friend.
Originally a farmer and teacher in Gstaad in the Swiss Alps, Bach, 44, fell in love with Israel when she visited her sister, who was volunteering in a children’s home in Kiryat Gat.
“I was fascinated by the nature, the desert, the sea and with the open-minded, direct, warm people,” she recalls. After attending an ulpan and volunteering on a kibbutz, she wanted to remain longer in Israel and discovered that Nes Ammim was looking for a volunteer gardener-teacher, “a dream job” for her, she says.
Today, Bach looks at both Judaism and Christianity with new understanding. “When you grow up as a Christian, you think the New Testament is everything,” she says. “But here you see it’s small and the Old Testament is the basis, not the other way around. You go back to basic questions and start to think again about things from a different point of view. Most people say it strengthens their beliefs. I would say it deepened them. But I also feel closer to Judaism. I feel I have a broader perspective now. I feel I have a task to open doors for [other] people to think about things.”
Lijzenga, 28, a graduate student in history from the Netherlands, spent a year at Nes Ammim seven years ago and has returned for another stint. “You learn the way you live at home is not the only way you can live,” she says. “It’s a very intense way of life [here]. You get to know people from different backgrounds. You see what’s behind the outer appearance. And you find you do have things in common and friendships form.”
Some Nes Ammimers have made the ultimate sacrifice. One became a border policeman and was killed on duty; another, who converted to Judaism, was killed serving in the Army.
Like many germans, ines scha-fer, 33, came to Nes Ammim as part of a process of dealing with post-Holocaust guilt. “It’s not something I can hide from,” she says. “It’s my people and I’m part of that. The question is how to deal with that.” The walls inside Schafer’s modest bungalow are covered with nature photographs she took of Israel. She has spent two years at the kibbutz and the love she feels for Israel is palpable. “There are still streams of anti-Semitic thinking [in Europe],” says Schafer. “Taking responsibility means doing something about that: To learn about Judaism and Israel. To speak with people when I go home. To talk about why the situation here is as it is, that there isn’t a bad side and a good side. To say how difficult it is. How many streams there are within Israel and just to bring this situation closer to European[s].”
Discussions of Christian guilt and responsibility take place here, and Yom Hashoah and Kristallnacht are commemorated.
But explaining Israel to Europeans is no small task.
“People in our church are saying, ‘What about the government of Israel?’” says Reverend Co Kooman, a visiting pastor of the Dutch Reform Church. “‘Why do you support them? Don’t you see the suffering of the Palestinians?’ They don’t separate between their feelings about the Israeli government and their feelings about the Jews. Jews have a problem in Europe because they are identified with the policies of the Israeli government.”
Although he is committed to the Nes Ammim idea and has visited once a year for the last four years, Kooman is not optimistic about the kibbutz’s impact in today’s Europe.
“Jewish-Christian rapprochement was fashionable in some circles in the 80’s and 90’s,” he says. “In our own church, it’s not going as well as it did before.”
Also, although they have pledged never to do missionary activity—in fact, it is against their principles—and despite local rabbis and kashrut inspectors who vouch for them, one ultra-Orthodox antimissionary organization continues to harass them, claiming their very existence is missionary activity. The group, Lev L’Achim recently stood at the gates with leaflets warning Jews away. Nes Ammim had to call the police and is now taking legal action.
“They don’t want the volunteers to have contact with Jews—but that’s the whole idea of Nes Ammim,” says an exasperated Weiss. Nes Ammim is a modest contribution to a greater awareness and understanding of the complexities of the modern Israeli struggle. Although the enterprise may not be achieving all its objectives, it is a bastion of idealism in Israel and a beacon of light in the darkness of European anti-Semitism and anti-Israel sentiment.