Israel – the homeland of Jesus of Nazareth. Most of His life – birth, ministry, crucifixion – happened right here. Wherever you turn, you find remnants of eras past, bearing silent witness to the beginnings of Christianity. Though of the three Abrahamic religions, the Christian population in Israel is the smallest, Israel is indeed home to thriving pockets of Christians. Scattered throughout Israel, especially in the northern section, the Galilee, are small enclaves of Christians, some even living in their own Christian villages. To lead a Christian life in the land of its birth is truly a unique experience. And, in fact, Israel is the only Middle Eastern country in which the Christian population is actually growing.
The kibbutz of Nes Ammim is one such Christian village. Located in the Western Galilee, near the city of Nahariya, Nes Ammim was created in the wake of the Holocaust. Christians in Europe, horrified by the atrocities of the war, decided to do more than offer sympathy. They wanted to lend a hand in building a homeland for the Jewish people. In the early 1960s, the movement settled in Israel. Like inhabitants of all of the early kibbutzim, the first few years were filled with hard physical labor, as they built the land, literally. They planted avocado orchards, and started a thriving flower industry. Nes Ammim became a popular spot for Christian pilgrims to volunteer, whether for a few weeks, a few months, or even longer. A youth hostel and guesthouse sprung up. But the Intifadas hit the Christian tourism industry hard, and the numbers of guests to Nes Ammim dwindled. The flower industry, too, was hit by rising production costs and withered.
However, the Christian community of Nes Ammim did not simply close up shop. Today, Nes Ammim is synonymous with reflection and peace, offering a neutral arena for dialogue between Jews and Arabs. The volunteers at Nes Ammim facilitate constructive talks between the two sides, and many of them then return to their own homelands as ambassadors for peace. Nes Ammim also runs a guesthouse, which offers modern amenities, as well as guided tours, access to local sites, and a Museum of Jewish-Christian Relations. Come as a guest or stay to volunteer – it’s a once-in-a-lifetime experience for the Christian traveler.
Shfar’am, also known by its Arabic name, Shefa-Amr, is another, predominately Arab, village in the Galilee which is home to a large Christian community. Located northeast of Haifa, Shfar’am is mentioned in the Talmud and was once the seat of Sanhedrin (the Jewish high court). Today, the population consists of Druze, Christian, and Muslim residents. There are many fascinating Christian sites in Shfar’am, including an ancient Crusader fort. Byzantine tombs indicate a strong Christian presence here in the 5th and 6th centuries, and on the entrance to the graves are inscriptions which mention Jesus. Another highlight of Shfar’am is an ancient synagogue, recently renovated. St. Jacob’s Church was an active church in the 4th century; now, it is it the site of the Sisters of Nazareth Convent. And the Greek-Catholic community of Shfar’am still prays at St. Peter and St. Paul’s Church.
In addition to the Christian holy sites, Shfar’am is famous for its mastic-flavored ice cream. (Mastic is a member of the pistachio family). It is also home to the Bet al-Musica Conservatory. The conservatory offers courses in various instruments, and holds concerts and performances throughout the year. There is also the yearly “Fort Festival,” an event which draws people from all over as Arab children compete in a singing contest. The Nakhleh Coffee Company, the leading coffee producer in the Arab world, is based in Shfar’am. More cafes are opening up, drawing tourists and locals alike.
Of course, no mention of Christian communities in the Galilee would be complete without talking about Nazareth. After spending some time in the city proper and visiting the churches, spend a day in “Nazareth Village,” – as its website says, “The Nazareth that Jesus Knew.” The village is a full-scale, authentic reproduction of life in a 1st century Holy Land village. Visit 1st century homes, synagogues, olive presses, and more, all based on archaeological evidence.
Many of the north’s large cities, like Nazareth, Haifa, and Tiberias, have sizable Christian presences. Visit the Scot’s Hotel in Tiberias, run by the Church of Scotland. Haifa is home to a Maronite church, a Carmelite church, and St. Mary’s Greek Orthodox Parish Church, in addition to the Stella Maris Carmelite Monastery.
While touring the Holy Land, make sure to visit the villages and enclaves of fellow Christians, to see first-hand that Christianity, a strong presence in the land hundreds of years ago, is still a vibrant – and growing – presence today.