An annual Christian event during the week-long Sukkot holiday, which starts Friday night, is being promoted heavily as an international gathering bringing fervent supporters of Israel to Jerusalem. As in previous years, the festival has raised concerns among anti-missionary activists.
The series of seminars, Christian worship, celebration and a march through Jerusalem is known as the Feast of Tabernacles, an English translation for Sukkot. It has been sponsored by the International Christian Embassy of Jerusalem, self-described as the world's largest Christian Zionist organization, since 1980. The ICEJ calls its celebration, which is slated for October 2-8 this year, "the vanguard event within Israel for the worldwide Christian Zionist movement."
Regularly attended by tens of thousands of Christians from around the world, it is said to be "Israel's largest annual tourism event." Hundreds of similar events inspired by the ICEJ Feast of Tabernacles take place outside Israel as well during the week of celebrations.
In Israel, the program includes "opportunities... for the pilgrims to demonstrate, in practical ways, their love for the people of Israel and to pray for the peace of Jerusalem." Daily seminars will be followed by regular evening prayers for Christians. Delegations are slated to start their Israel tour with a concert and worship at the Ein Gedi nature reserve and national park, along the shores of the Dead Sea. Afterwards, the groups will ascend to Jerusalem for "a week of dynamic worship and anointed Bible teachings."
A special evening is also set aside for Israeli guests, which the ICEJ says is "attended by thousands of people from this land, many being Soviet Jewish immigrants."
A high point of the ICEJ's Feast of Tabernacles is the Jerusalem March, which will be held on Tuesday, October 6. The Municipality of Jerusalem hosts the march and is responsible for its security and functional aspects. The marchers are slated to set out from modern Jerusalem's Sacher Park and proceed to the New Gate of the Old City.
All the ICEJ events and worship services are noted for their colorful costumes, music and dance.
The ICEJ promotional material sent to prospective participants in the 2009 event says, "We believe that celebrating the Feast each year honours the Lord in anticipation of the fulfillment of the words spoken by Zechariah (14:16) when 'the nations... shall come up from year to year to worship the King, the Lord of hosts, and to keep the Feast of Tabernacles'."
A 'Full-Blown Jesus Fest'
The annual ICEJ Jerusalem event has not been without controversy.
In 2007 the Chief Rabbinate decided to proscribe Jewish participation in the Feast and related events, saying: "It is forbidden for any Jew to take part in the gatherings in the Binyanei HaUmah Jerusalem Convention Center and in the marches taking place during the Sukkot holiday, because the information we have states that some of the bodies gathering there are active, among other things, in attempting to convert us from our faith."
The grassroots anti-missionary group Jewish Israel calls the Feast of Tabernacles "a full-blown Jesus Fest for its evangelical participants - and that presents the Jewish State with a very real problem." Acknowledging that it "mesmerizes Israelis, fills our hotels and brings in tourist dollars," Jewish Israel claims that the "Feast of the Tabernacles is not primarily a pro-Israel event. Rather, it is a Christ-centered pilgrimage with an emphasis on Christian 'praise and worship' and the eschatological theme of the second coming of Jesus."
In apparent confirmation of Jewish Israel observations, the above-referenced ICEJ's promotional material concludes by saying, "Ministering at the Feast will test you in many ways - spiritually, physically, and financially - and the rewards Jesus promised hold true - you will also 'reap what you sow' for His Kingdom! ...As you minister to those who come up from the nations to celebrate the Feast, the blessing you bestow will in turn flow out to the ends of the earth!"
More seriously, perhaps, Jewish Israel claims that "known missionaries and messianic personalities are an integral part of the ICEJ Feast programming." Among these, according to the anti-missionary group, is Christine Darg of the Heichal Shlomo worship convocation imbroglio.
Furthermore, "Seminars are being held for 'local believers' and the 'Young Generation of Messianic Believers in Israel'," according to Jewish Israel investigators.
Noting that an increasing number of Israeli public, private, religious and secular institutions are involved in some way in the ICEJ festival, Jewish Israel asks: "Can the Jewish State welcome evangelizing Christian Pilgrims and allow them to worship here without contravening the halacha [Jewish Law] and compromising our very souls?"
Despite the Chief Rabbinate's opposition, at least two well-known rabbis are slated to take part in events during the ICEJ Feast of Tabernacles. The Chief Rabbi of Efrat, Rabbi Shlomo Riskin, is listed as a participant in the Day of Prayer for the Peace of Jerusalem on October 4, which, Jewish Israel notes, is to be "co-chaired by Robert Stearns and missionary Jack Hayford - both great proponents of "messianic Judaism" in Israel." The following day, Rabbi Riskin is the featured speaker at a sukkah reception at the ICEJ headquarters.
In addition, Rabbi Raphael Shore, formerly of Yeshivat Aish HaTorah and the current director of the anti-Jihad Clarion Fund, is also scheduled to address the delegates during the ICEJ Feast.
'We Emphasize: No Proselytizing'
In a brief exchange with Israel National News regarding some of the concerns raised by aspects of the ICEJ Feast of Tabernacles, event administrator Charles Lourens explained that "ministering" in the ICEJ promotional material refers to volunteering. "Ministering," he said, would include such things as volunteering with organizational and coordination issues.
Lourens was emphatic that "ministering" is not proselytizing in any way. "We understand the sensitivity," he said, adding, "In fact, we make it very clear to our delegates" to avoid such behavior.
When asked if Israeli "messianic congregations" - those professing belief in Jesus alongside Jewish ritual observance - will be taking a leading role in the ICEJ Feast of Tabernacles events, Lourens replied that they are not. If Israeli "messianic congregations" are there, he said, then they will come as delegates much like the visitors from overseas. He said there would be no such church leaders involved as organizers or leaders of the ICEJ Feast events.