Shared Support for Israeli Youth Village Fosters Growing Jewish-Christian Bonds
JNS.org – Dr. Tim Shepherd raised his son Adam, a pre-law student at the University of North Texas, to become a devoted supporter of Israel. The Shepherds not only support Israel from their vantage point as Christian Zionists, but they also prioritize connecting fellow Christians to the Jewish community in order to foster deep, lasting friendships.
“We need to be best friends,” Tim Shepherd told JNS.org, detailing how he and his Jewish friends attend each other’s birthday parties, bar mitzvahs, weddings, and funerals.
Tim and Adam Shepherd are both supporters of the Bnai Zion Foundation, a century-old Jewish organization that funds Israeli humanitarian projects. Last month, Adam was among the Christian honorees at Bnai Zion’s Texas Region Spring Reception in Dallas. The event — a night to honor Jewish and Christian donors who have helped raise money to support the Ahava Village for Children and Youth in northern Israel, a Bnai Zion beneficiary — embodied an interfaith community of generosity and special kinship.
The Ahava Village, a residential center in Kiryat Bialik within Israel’s Haifa District, treats abused and at-risk children ages 6-18 who have been removed from their homes because of murder, sexual abuse, drug addiction, and neglect, and cannot be adequately supported through Israel’s foster care system. The village was founded more than 80 years ago.
At Ahava (which means love in Hebrew), the center tries to create a loving family environment for more than 250 child residents, with 15 married couples who each oversee 13 children in their own apartment on premises. The children also have access to therapeutic assistance from social workers, psychotherapists, and psychologists; education; and leisure activities. The goal is to provide a holistic approach to healing for the at-risk youths.
“It’s a wonderful working model. It’s very successful taking these kids and making great citizens—to educate them, clothe them, feed them, make them [feel] loved…and move [them] forward through life,” David Eisenberg, national president of Bnai Zion, told JNS.org at the Texas event.
Beyond treating the at-risk children, Ahava seeks to provide a functioning family environment within the context of specialized, one-on-one treatment, in addition to pet therapy, movement therapy, drama therapy, bibliotherapy, and writing therapy.
Yoav Apelboim, Ahava’s executive director for the past 20 years, said the village’s main goal “is to take those children that had a very hard experience in their life and their family background in the community…[and] support them, so we can empower them and they can empower themselves.”
Ahava is located less than two miles from an oil refinery, and the honorees of Bnai Zion’s Texas reception were central in ensuring that the village’s residents are protected through the creation of “safe rooms.”
“Our enemy is looking to bomb the refinery. We have bomb shelters underground, but today the missiles are going so quickly that you need a safe room to protect the children,” Apelboim told JNS.org.
“They have 28 seconds from the time the alarm goes off to get into the safe room,” Eisenberg said.
According to Cheryl Bier, executive vice president of Bnai Zion, evangelical Christian donors have been significant supporters of the endeavor to complete Ahava’s safe rooms. The village now has 18 such rooms. In addition to Adam Shepherd, Bnai Zion also honored Pastor Stephen Hayes of the Covenant Church in Carrollton, Texas, for his support of Ahava.
Bnai Zion is also supporting the creation of a forthcoming therapy center at Ahava, so that the children can receive treatment without disturbance and interruption.
“Right now, actually, they sit in bomb shelters that have walls that are paper thin, so when you’re trying to help one child, another child might be having a crying session…and it’s very disruptive,” said Eisenberg.
Danielle Levy, a social work intern at Ahava, manages a therapy group of siblings and needs to work outside because there are not enough rooms at the center. If she can’t find a “creative” place to work, she told JNS.org, the children lose their scheduled hour of therapy.
Prior to recognizing the contributions of five leaders in both the Jewish and Christian communities, Bnai Zion presented a video that captured the essence of the Ahava village, followed by a live auction to raise funds for the $2.2 million cost of constructing the therapy center.
Larry Strauss, board chairman of the Bnai Zion Texas Region, started the auction with a seemingly random question for the audience.
“Is there anybody here who met their girlfriend or spouse through JDate?” he asked.
Audience members smiled nervously, looking around and likely wondering where he was going with the question.
“The reason I say that — one of the people that went to Ahava as a youth is the founder and creator of JDate,” said Strauss, ending the suspense and earning a round of applause.
Strauss’s humor brought extra donations for Ahava, on top of each symbolic item auctioned such as “keys” for the special secure doors at the center and “hangers” for the closets.
The camaraderie was evident at Congregation Shaare Tefilla, the event’s venue, as many of the attendees gestured across the tables to friends they hadn’t seen in some time. Even those who met for the first time shared a passion that quickly broke down any perceived walls.
Within the synagogue, it was common to meet Christians who expressed their admiration for Ahava’s work and their support of other Israeli causes — against the backdrop of the friendships they have built with the Jewish community over the years.
Indeed, the Christian and Jewish communities of Dallas have significantly deepened their relationship during the last 30 years, attendees said. While a steady stream of Christian support of Israel in that city has always been evident through volunteerism, philanthropy, and advocacy, the Bnai Zion event provided an inside look at the behind-the-scenes teamwork between Christians and Jews to provide humanitarian assistance for a country that must constantly defend its own existence.
Several Christian ministries, such as Hayes’s Covenant Church, have made significant contributions to Ahava and Bnai Zion over the years.
“Covenant [Church] has always supported Jewish causes simply because we recognize as Christians that there would be no Christianity without the revelation of God that comes from the Jews,” said Ricky Texada, the pastor of Covenant Church’s Colleyville campus, told JNS.org.
Texada said local Jewish leaders introduced Covenant Church to Bnai Zion in 2010. That connection led to an invitation to Covenant leaders’ first Bnai Zion fundraiser, at which Covenant founder Pastor Mike Hayes stood up and introduced himself, expressing the church’s love for Israel and the Jewish people. The item up for auction that night was a thermal imaging X-ray machine worth $30,000, and Covenant Church purchased it — the first of its many donations to Bnai Zion-supported Israeli causes.
“After about a 15- or 20-minute standing ovation, tears, handshakes, something happened that was just absolutely spectacular,” Texada recalled. “From that moment on, we felt like that was a divine appointment from the Lord, and we really began to knit our hearts with the Jewish community….Since that time, we’ve supported not only Bnai Zion, but several Jewish organizations.”
Bnai Zion’s 2016 Texas Region event also honored Jewish leaders — Rivka Linksman Altman, Kim Hochschuler Kaliser, and Staci Shapiro Rubin — for their support of Israel and the Ahava Village. At the conclusion of the reception, honoree Adam Shepherd, who has written songs about Israel, was asked to sing the Shema prayer. He did so in nearly impeccable Hebrew, humming only one word that he forgot. Not surprisingly, the audience loved it.