Jewish Agency confronted over partnership with evangelicals accused of missionary activity

“Whether these volunteers are missionizing to olim or just doing the gardening, we should not be partnering with Messianics,” said Shannon Nuszen, founder and director of Beyneynu.

By Judy Lash Balint, JNS

In a strongly worded letter dated Dec. 6, leaders of Beyneynu, an Israeli nonprofit group dedicated to “good relations,” calls for the Jewish Agency for Israel (JAFI) to investigate and put an end to their partnership with Return Ministries, a Canadian Christian group they say has an openly missionary agenda.

Return Ministries, headed by Dean Bye, runs the Aliyah Return Center operating at JAFI’s Bikat Kinarot educational complex in the Jordan Valley. The goal of the center is to assist with the absorption of new immigrants, including lone soldiers in the Israel Defense Forces.

The letter, sent to JAFI chairman Isaac Herzog and members of the JAFI Board of Governors, includes a link to video footage of Aliyah Return Center leaders who laud the partnership with JAFI.

“What’s really amazing is that there’s this partnership with the Jewish Agency with the Aliyah Return Center that’s headed in this country by a Messianic Jew,” exclaims Bye in the video. The center is run by his son-in-law, Chaim Malespin, a self-proclaimed Messianic Jew.

The Return Ministries website states: “Return Ministries is honored to facilitate this huge multi-million-dollar project in which nations are being exhorted to serve alongside Christians and the Jewish Agency for Israel in fundraising, restoring the older buildings and preparing the Bikat Kinarot Center to receive and settle more and more Olim. Our prayer is that this will be the first of many International Christian ‘Return Teaching Centers’ established in the land of Israel.”

Natan Sharansky, who served as chairman of the Jewish Agency between 2009 and 2018 when cooperation with Return Ministries was initiated, told JNS that he was unaware of the agreement with the Canadian Christian group. “Any missionary activity is of course, absolutely unacceptable,” he said.

Sharansky noted that during his term, there was “very positive cooperation with Christian organizations all over the world. I don’t see anything bad in it.”

He said he was particularly grateful for the assistance of Christian volunteers who were on the ground in Ukraine when hostilities with Russia broke out in 2014 and Jewish Agency emissaries were in short supply. More than 30,000 Ukrainians made aliyah between 2014 and 2018.

‘Grave mistake happened here’

The partnership of Return Ministries and JAFI appears to be a magnet for other missionary groups to operate in northern Israel near the iconic Kibbutz Degania.

In a recent issue of Laborers with Christ News, the directors—a Christian couple living in Beit Zera, a kibbutz adjacent to Bikat Kinarot—write: “The ministry of the ARC located in Beit Zera is likened to a busy, buzzing beehive. In fact, we haven’t seen a busier ministry in all our years of missionary service.”

Shannon Nuszen, founder and director of Beyneynu, and Rabbi Tovia Singer, its outreach Judaism director, assert in their letter that “a partnership between the Jewish Agency and any segment of the Messianic movement is a slap in the face to Jewish communities that have been struggling for decades to defend the integrity of Jewish identity in the face of messianic/missionary efforts.”

Nuszen told JNS: “Essentially, what we have here is a partnership that legitimates Messianics. No Diaspora community would allow that. For some reason, this grave mistake has happened here in Israel.”

JAFI officials declined JNS requests for an interview. However, it sent a written response to the Beyneynu letter that says that the formal agreement with Return Ministries is “to provide volunteers and to assist with construction, maintenance and landscaping work.” The contractual framework stipulates that any kind of missionary activity is strictly prohibited.

The JAFI statement goes on to explain that Return Ministries has no involvement with any JAFI programming. “The Jewish Agency will make no compromise on allowing any missionary activity.” Responding to the Beyneynu allegations of missionary intent on the part of Return Ministries, JAFI stated: “… they do raise grave questions and concerns for us concerning our relationship with Return Ministries. We are examining the allegations and intend to take firm action if they are found to be correct.”

After reading the JAFI statement, Nuszen told JNS, “Whether these volunteers are missionizing to olim or just doing the gardening, we should not be partnering with Messianics. I assure you we are on the same side with regard to safeguarding the Jewish future, and we would be happy to help the Jewish Agency address this serious matter.”