Tel Aviv is the cultural heart of Israel. Through it, we feel the pulse of the nation. The latest trends and fashions spring out of this city nestled on the shores of the Mediterranean Sea. While Tel Aviv is one of the newest cities in the region, it grew out of one of the oldest harbors in the world—Jaffa.
Modern Tel Aviv was founded in 1909 on the outskirts of Jaffa (Yafo in Hebrew) by the new immigrants who were streaming into Israel from Europe. The hope and aspiration of these pioneers was to develop a secular and modern state where Jewish people could determine lifestyles and expressions. On the shores of the Mediterranean, they were free from both the pressure of the religious Jewish community and the dictates of Gentile governments and authorities.
A distinctive, secular (non-religious) atmosphere permeates Tel Aviv, and yet the city is uniquely Jewish and Israeli. In contrast, Jerusalem stands as Israel’s religious center with deep Jewish, Christian, and Muslim traditions developed over the centuries. Jerusalem is where David, Solomon, Herod, and even Jesus left their unmistakable imprint.
Today, Chosen People Ministries has a vibrant ministry in Tel Aviv, especially among young adults. We have built on the work of generations of faithful believers who preached the good news to Tel Aviv. In this article, we outline the history of evangelism in Tel Aviv—and what ministry there looks like today.
Good News for Tel Aviv—Before the Modern State of Israel
Gush Dan—A Biblical Perspective
Unlike Jerusalem, Jaffa never had a religious or spiritual distinctive. Perhaps, like many famous port cities, the worldly nature of sailors and travelers molded the culture. Seafaring Philistines dominated and influenced ancient Jaffa. They ruled the region from the twelfth century BCE and vanished from the region by the sixth century BCE.
The area was so hostile to Israelite life the tribe of Dan, who inherited the coastal region, fled the area. Their inheritance was in the central plains and coast of Israel. It ran from the south by Ashkelon and north past Jaffa, including the lower hill country from Zorah to Eshtaol. In Judges 18, we find the tribe of Dan leaving the coastal region to find another inheritance in northern Israel because they were unable to take possession of their allotted portion.
Gush Dan is the region including and surrounding what is now Tel Aviv. It does not appear again in the Bible until the Book of Acts. In chapter 9, the apostle Peter went to Jaffa to heal a “disciple” named Tabitha (Acts 9:36–41). Beforehand, Peter healed a man, Aeneas, in the city of Lydia (current Lod). “It became known all over Joppa, and many believed in the Lord” (Acts 9:42).
Jaffa would be a neglected port for centuries to come. Herod the Great led the building of the port of Caesarea. It remained the main harbor until about the third century CE, when the northern port of Acco would be developed as a fishing center and port. Finally, the British expanded Haifa when it came under their control in the early 1900s. Today, Haifa is Israel’s main port of entry.
The Orchards of Jaffa Expand
However, in the late 1800s, Jewish exiles began to return to Israel. Their port of entry was Jaffa. With the influx of hundreds of Jewish people, Jaffa started to flourish and expand into the surrounding orchards. This growth led to the founding of cities Neve Tzedek and Ahuzat Bayit (incorporated into Tel Aviv in 1909).
With Jaffa’s population consisting primarily of Arab Muslims and Jewish people, the city had a minimal Christian presence and was certainly not the focus of any evangelistic outreaches or missionary efforts. German Lutherans built the Immanuel Church in 1904 to accommodate Germans coming to help build and expand what was then the Ottoman Empire.
There was not a single missionary among these Germans interested in evangelizing the Jewish and Muslim residents. They merely wanted to provide a religious community of other German and European ex-patriots living and working in Palestine.
Modern Missions around Tel Aviv Begins
Evangelism in the region did not revive until the 1870s when a group of Americans from Maine moved to Jaffa. Their intent was to establish a community with a spiritual concern for Jaffa. The ministry focused primarily on the end times and the return of Jesus. This community faced many hardships, and their impact was short-lived.
Before Israel declared independence in 1948, some missionaries and evangelists endeavored to proclaim the gospel throughout the land, including the Jaffa area. During this period, a handful of faithful witnesses for Jesus ministered here. Notable among them were Abram Pojak, Solomon Ostrovsky, Moshe Ben Meir, and Haim Joseph Haimoff.
In Haifa, Safed, and Jerusalem there are more documented efforts of well-intentioned missionaries and social concern for the Jewish and Arab people who lived in the land. However, there was no concerted effort to reach out to the Jaffa region. This lack partially came from a desire not to upset the local Jewish and Muslim communities, which were under Ottoman rule.
Good News for Tel Aviv in Modern Israel
A New State—A New Day
After the declaration of the State of Israel on May 14, 1948, the situation changed dramatically. First, the foreign mission agencies and church missions in Israel evacuated all their personnel for protection. This “Operation Mercy” was intended to protect these church workers and missionaries from the expected onslaught of hostile Arabs forces. While Israel’s War of Independence was harsh and caused many casualties, the Arab forces did not prevail or overrun the new State of Israel. However, it resulted in a depletion of the number of Messianic Jewish people and evangelical Christians. The Messianic community had to be rebuilt from almost nothing. The situation is best described by Gershon Nerel in a positive light:
But after Operation Mercy, one observes a new tendency developing, growing numbers of Messianic Jews endeavored to establish themselves as autonomous entities. They formed their own agendas in the field of organization and management as well as in the area of shaping their distinctive biblical exegesis and interpretations.
The 1950–70s saw little evangelism and missionary outreach in the Tel Aviv area. This concern among the Christian community at Immanuel Church and Beit Immanuel, a guest house, was to help in the absorption of immigrants and meet their needs. Life in Israel was very basic in those early years.
Ministry in Tel Aviv Bears Fruit
Only in the 1970–80s did a vibrant and unique Messianic community in the Tel Aviv area begin to develop. As young Israelis began to find faith in Jesus (Yeshua) and as Israelis returned home from travels abroad with a new faith, there was suddenly new life springing up in Tel Aviv.
By the mid 1980s, this movement of young Israeli men and women coming to believe in Yeshua reached a critical mass and had all the makings of a revival. It was friends telling friends about Yeshua and many coming to believe. At Beit Immanuel in those years, some seasoned and committed missionaries dedicated themselves to disciple these new believers. The guesthouse had places for people to stay while in transition, study the Scriptures, and develop new Messianic forms of worship.
One of the new believers was a young man, Yakov Damkani, who transformed his zeal for Yeshua into a dynamic evangelistic effort. His and others’ efforts turned Beit Immanuel into a center for discipleship and evangelism. It continued into the 1990s. The end result was several new congregations and ministries, including Dugit Coffee Shop and Kehilat Ma’ayan. From this group of new Messianic Israeli believers emerged a new generation of leaders, teachers, and artists.
One of our staff families immigrated to Israel in 1994. They were deeply involved in evangelistic outreaches and efforts to fuel this movement of the Spirit. During those years, people regularly went out on the streets of Tel Aviv to hand out creatively written gospel tracts, perform dramatic skits, and play music. The venues were street corners, the beach boardwalk, parks, and festivals—all part of the vibrant Tel Aviv culture.
Twenty-First Century Ministry in Tel Aviv
In Tel Aviv, nothing remains the same for long. By mid-2005, the scene had changed. A lot of outreach and response was happening on social media. The carefree openness of the 80s and 90s had changed—and is still changing. Most of the efforts of the local congregations and ministries these days focus on providing for the social needs of the community. We offer special services to the homeless, the lonely, and the needy in Tel Aviv. There are art galleries featuring local artists, cafés with live music open to the public, and lectures intended to foster community cooperation.
The Tel Aviv-Jaffa area is ever-growing, changing, and needing expressions of love and compassion. What is going on today will be different in the next year or two because one fact we know about this region is it is always changing. Still, the needs of the diverse population are always present. As we consider the Tel Aviv area, we recall the words of Yeshua and His concern for the people of Israel in His day: “Come to me, all who are weary and heavy-laden, and I will give you rest” (Matthew 11:28).
Published on May 11, 2023.
Header photo by Faruk Kaymak on Unsplash.
 Gershon Nerel, “Operation Mercy on the Eve of the Establishment of the State of Israel,” Mishkan 59 (2009): 28.
 Nerel, “Operation Mercy,” 29. See also Richard Harvey, Mapping Messianic Jewish Theology (London: Paternoster, 2009).