Last October, Santa Barbara couples Dick and Nan Morrow and Chris and Gail Fischer spent a week in Beit Shemesh, Israel at the Levi Eshkol School to begin creating a relationship between Santa Barbara Christians and Jewish communities in Israel.
The Beit Shemesh Foundation is the leading nonprofit organization in the city and services needy schoolchildren with daily hot meals, school supplies, and playground developments. The Levi Eshkol School is a moderately sized school of 300, with at least 10 percent of students sponsored by the foundation. Beit Shemesh is located approximately 30 miles west of Jerusalem and has been the location of riots and terror alerts in the past year.
Rector Brian Cox of Christ the King Episcopal Church began speaking with the Keren Shemesh Foundation in Beit Shemesh, Israel four years ago to develop ties with the country as part of his ongoing humanitarian efforts in the Middle East. The Morrows and Fischers worked as part of Cox’s delegation and traveled to Israel to teach classes and sponsor meals for students in need.
The couples did not know what to expect when they decided to go on the trip, being the first Christian church delegation to visit the Jewish school. After the second day of activities, Gail Fischer was welcomed home by the host family’s grandmother, who spoke no English. She invited Gail to sit down on the couch, and said, “I love you.”
“We thought we were just going to be observers, but instead we fell in love,” Chris Fischer said.
The couples spent half-days from Sunday to Friday at Levi Eshkol from 8 a.m. to 12:30 p.m., working in teams to teach art, sports, and English, bonding with the children through dance and music. “It was like the 1950s in America. Their attitudes were so different, so loving,” Gail Fischer said.
The couples were in Beit Shemesh when two Palestinians stabbed a young ultra-Orthodox Jewish man outside a Beit Shemesh synagogue on October 22. While in the school, the children were protected by a gated entrance and guard. The Morrows and Fischers said the children of the school did not discuss the attacks amongst themselves, but news television was on “24/7,” said Chris Fischer.
“People were fearful. But they didn’t talk to us much about it. A little bit now and then. You got the sense, at least I got the sense, that the common people are just tired of it and wish it could be resolved,” Nan Morrow said.
Dick Morrow said all students must enlist in the military once they are done with high school — boys for three years and girls for two. According to Morrow, the students at Levi Eshkol did not have the plans on their radar, but they were aware of the rules.
“The experience of going into the military is kind of a turning point in a young person’s life, and it’s tremendously important. The military is where they do all their networking for the rest of their life — their partners and their friends and their spouses,” Dick Morrow said.
Cox has worked in the Middle East throughout his career and introduced the program to his congregation with the concept of faith-based reconciliation between Jews and Christians. Discussing Beit Shemesh and the surrounding areas, Cox said, “Both Israelis and Palestinians have kind of redefined normality, and when you go there you find most people are living fairly normal lives.”
Cox said the program with the Keren Shemesh Foundation points to steady growth in relationships between Jews and Christian across the world. “I think what’s unusual about what they’re doing is that it’s a reflection of the friendship that’s grown up between the Jewish and Christian communities,” Cox said. “You have cooperation on certain things, but this is a different expression of that. There’s no other congregation in Santa Barbara doing anything like this.”