Heather Johnston (center) and participants on a USIEA trip to Israel
by Richard Friedman
There I was.
To an outsider it may have seemed an unlikely place, but I felt at home. At a dinner gathering in Birmingham the other night, I was the only Jewish person among about 10 Christians. What brought us together was what we have in common: A love for Israel and support of the Jewish people.
After dinner, we adjourned to a sitting area to reflect. At the heart of our reflections was the connection each of us had as board members or staff to the Birmingham-based US Israel Education Association, an organization I work for in addition to my role as associate editor of Israel Insight magazine.
Upon retiring after 37 years as executive director of the Birmingham Jewish Federation, USIEA executive director Heather Johnston, a Biblically-inspired Christian who has devoted much of her adult life to supporting Israel, invited me to join her staff. Those involved with USIEA have mainly been Christians who feel Biblically-commanded to support Israel and the Jewish people.
God’s promise to Abraham in Genesis 12:3 is a driving force in the organization’s culture: “I will bless them that bless thee, and curse him that curseth thee…”
For years, Johnston has yearned for more Jewish support locally, regionally and nationally, and has wanted the mission of USIEA, which is to strengthen the US-Israel relationship through education, to be better understood by Jews in general. She’s had to overcome obstacles, including historic anxieties stemming from the unpleasant encounters Jews have had with Christianity over the centuries.
In addition to fundraising in general, my work for USIEA includes moving past the past and creating deeper ties between Jews and Christians biblically-inspired to support Israel, as well as developing funding support from the Jewish community.
As typically is the case when USIEA folks gather, Johnston set the stage for a spirited and spiritually-driven conversation. A dynamic Birmingham native who has had an international impact, Johnston has put USIEA on the map in Washington and Israel, especially in Judea and Samaria (also known as the West Bank).
Through her leadership, USIEA has served as an educational bridge between key Members of Congress and Jewish communities in Judea and Samaria. She has helped our nation’s top policy-makers better understand the realities on the ground and the importance of a strong Jewish presence — biblically, strategically, politically and militarily — in this disputed territory. She also has developed a close, working relationship with America’s ambassador to Israel, David Friedman, which has opened the door to USIEA having input into the Trump administration’s Middle East policies.
Johnston gave the group an analysis of the Trump peace plan and reflected on her most recent communication with the White House.
After she spoke, USIEA’s board chair Norm Schulz, a Christian leader from Seattle, asked each person to reflect on what has inspired them the past year as a result of their USIEA involvement. There were an array of perspectives, with most reflecting their deeply-held belief that God is at work today in the land of Israel as Jews from the four corners of the earth continue to return to and reclaim their Biblical homeland.
It was a powerful conversation, and then it became my turn. When I’m the only Jewish person in the room, I feel a responsibility to bring a Jewish perspective to the conversation — a perspective that in USIEA circles is always encouraged, welcomed and honored.
I shared a flashback that came to me while I was listening to the others speak: Being a young boy in the 1950s at my grandparents’ house where our extended family gathered on Sunday afternoons. I thought about my grandfather, who lost 11 brothers and sisters and virtually all of their offspring in the Holocaust. I thought about my grandmother, who lost four of her siblings and their families in the Holocaust. And then I heard their Polish-accented English ringing in my ears.
So I talked to the group about my grandparents, their Holocaust history, and the insular nature of American Jewish life in the 1950s, particularly among immigrant families. I suggested that if my grandparents were alive today, they would be unable to absorb the fact that there were Christians, such as those sitting in the room, who advocate for Israel and the Jewish people, and that I, their grown-up Jewish grandson, had such friends.
Though I kept most of my emotions inward, it was an overwhelming feeling. I found myself silently thanking USIEA and Johnston for inviting me into this unique organization; welcoming me as Jew, respecting me for who I am, and honoring my Judaism at every turn.
Yes, there are differences between Jews and Christians. Our faith narratives are not the same, and we have different pathways and thought-processes regarding God. But this does not negate what we have in common, or the overarching Judeo-Christian values that unite us. In matters of faith, I came to learn long ago that it’s not a case of right vs. wrong. It’s a case of which religious way of life is best for a particular person, and which path helps them lead a kinder, more fulfilling and spiritually-uplifting life.
Through my immersion in USIEA, I’ve also come to learn that despite the pre-sets that many of us Jews have about Christians, that they all don’t think alike, as my new friends remind me over and over.
I believe the rebirth of Israel in 1948 as a modern Jewish state was an act of God. I also believe that we, as Jews, performed a singular and historic act by climbing out of the ashes of the Nazi death camps and dedicating ourselves to reclaiming and redeeming our Biblical homeland. We did so, so that we as a Jewish people would always have a place of refuge, centrality and pride.
Equally remarkable is that we never envisioned that state as insular. We envisioned it as a full-fledged member of the fraternity of nations, always with an outstretched hand, willing to help friend or foe. And today the Jewish state, which stands on sacred land that God bequeathed to the Jewish people, is a light unto the nations, a country of dazzling and transformative achievements.
Though physically sitting during our after-dinner conversation, I stood tall; proud of my Judaism, proud of Israel, proud of my Christian friends — and proud to be part of USIEA, an organization my grandparents never could have imagined.