What’s it like to be a Jew in a room of 4,000 people, nearly all of them evangelical Christians? If it’s the Christians United for Israel (CUFI) annual conference, it’s pretty fantastic. A cross between a pep rally for G-d and a big group hug for Jews and the nation of Israel, the gathering is an uplifting event.
In many ways, I felt like I was among “my people.” And I say that as a practicing Jew who grew up in New York — the epicenter of the Torah Belt, if you will — surrounded by Jews and Catholics. Not until I traded Boston for Austin after college in 2000 did I begin to meet significant numbers of evangelicals.
That transition was hugely educational. Through many close friendships, I learned two important lessons: First, my evangelical friends and I have a tremendous amount in common, as people who care deeply about, and want to live according to, our faiths. Second, contrary to stereotypes I’d heard growing up in the Northeast, my evangelical friends have always respected my religious observance.
For example, I’ll never forget the evangelical boss who passionately defended my right to take off and observe Passover, when another colleague questioned the timing of my “vacation.” So, while I was technically an outsider at this conference, I felt very welcome.
‘I Love the Jews!’
The best part of visiting CUFI was not only seeing that their members (who number 3.1 million) genuinely care, but also that they love Jews and support Israel — without caveats. That’s particularly meaningful at a time when Israel’s experiencing terrorist attacks, the Boycott Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement has gathered strength on American college campuses, and outright expressions of anti-Semitism have multiplied in American culture at large.
As David Brog, CUFI’s (Jewish) founding executive director, told the crowd at one point, “We’re not here because it’s easy or popular. We’re here because we are stubborn people who believe in a G-d and a Book that tells us we have to be here.”
I suspect there may be rumblings from some of my fellow Jews at this point. So, after Rabbi Shlomo Riskin, the chief rabbi of Efrat, Israel, addressed the crowd, I asked about his storied first meeting with Pastor John Hagee, CUFI’s founder and national chairman.
Indeed, it’s “exactly true.” Rabbi Riskin confirmed he had asked whether Pastor Hagee only loved Jews so that he could convert us.
“‘No!,’ replied Pastor Hagee, ‘I love you because of Genesis 12:3. G-d says, I will bless those who bless thee, and those who curse thee, I shall curse.’ And Pastor Hagee said, ‘Rabbi, I want to be blessed, that’s why I love the Jews!’” Hagee has since impressed Riskin with his sincerity and dedication: “I have great respect for Pastor Hagee and CUFI. They are among the best friends Israel has, and I’m very grateful as a resident of Israel and as a rabbi in Israel.”
Hagee’s message of being blessed through Israel and Jews was woven throughout the event. In fact, the products showcased during a presentation about Israeli technological innovations — including ReWalk, which helps those with spinal cord injuries walk again — were explained as examples of the world’s being materially blessed through Israel.
The audience sat in rapt attention throughout, listening respectfully to speakers and periodically raising their hands in agreement. CUFI clearly attracts a dedicated crowd.
A Sense of Urgency about the Middle East
During an interview, Brog told me this year’s conference included 5,000 attendees, representing all 50 states and all but 40 congressional districts. For the majority, it’s a financial sacrifice to attend. Some “have cancelled family vacations or sold cars, because they want to come to DC at least once to stand for Israel.” Brog believes Israel was always important to evangelicals, but that 9/11 made Israel “the most prominent and urgent issue.”
It was clear across various speakers’ remarks that a deeply felt kinship with Israel goes beyond the biblical connection. The increase in domestic terrorism and widespread persecution of Christians in the Middle East have fostered a strong sense of solidarity. As Hagee explained to the crowd, “Israel’s enemies are our enemies…and that enemy is radical Islam.”
That feeling of a shared struggle echoed beyond the presentations. Outside the convention hall, organizers had assembled a display contrasting anti-Semitism in the 1930s and today, including a sample “Israeli Apartheid wall” like those displayed annually on many American college campuses.
CUFI also erected a standing memorial to all the Israeli Defense Force members lost in Operation Protective Edge, with names and biographical information. Most amazingly, there was a lengthy Remembrance Wall for Terrorism Around the World, dating back to the start of the Second Intifada. Seeing the seemingly endless list of atrocities all in one place felt overwhelming. There were photos and biographical information about all of the victims, many of them Israeli men, women, and children. It was difficult to read. But the fact that remembering all of the individual lives lost was important to the Christians at this event was an incredibly moving gesture for this Jew.
This is what friends look like. May CUFI and its members go from strength to strength.