JERUSALEM (JTA) — Every Friday night, Scott and Theresa Johnson host Jewish Shabbat dinners for lone Israeli soldiers. The meal begins after sundown, preceded by the Kiddush blessing over the wine and singing of "Shalom Aleichem," the traditional Hebrew song greeting the Sabbath.
There’s one catch, however, made evident by the Christmas cards hanging in the kitchen: The Johnsons are not Jewish.
Why did this American couple leave the comforts of home and family in the small Smokey Mountains town of Seymour, Tenn., to serve young men and women in a faraway foreign army?
The Johnsons say it’s because they believe that God has called them to help the Jewish people. Like many evangelical Christians, they say restoring a Jewish state is a prerequisite for what they believe will be the second coming of Jesus.
To do their part the Johnsons, who are both in their 50s and now live in Jerusalem, last year served more than 3,000 meals — including 600 pounds of Scott’s spicy chicken wings — to "lone soldiers," the term applied to young men and women who have immigrated to Israel to serve in the army and have no family there. An estimated 5,000 lone Jewish soldiers are in the Israel Defense Forces.
"We believe it is a desire that God himself has imparted unto us," Scott Johnson said on a recent Friday night. "Jeremiah says there is a time when God will beckon or whistle; he’ll raise a banner. He’s going to call to the gentiles and tell them to carry his daughters home and bring his sons home on their backs."
Israelis historically have been wary of Christian groups inside the country, worrying their aim is to convert Jews to Christianity. But given evangelicals’ staunch political support for Israel in recent years, many Israeli politicians now welcome them.
"I think why there is there such a strong connection between Jews and Christians, especially at the political level in Israel is, we saw during the intifada that one by one, the nations of the world were turning against us," said Joshua Reinstein, director of the Israeli Knesset’s Christian Allies Caucus. "But Christians stood their ground and stood up next to us."
Former IDF tank commander Albert Lima Berman, 24, who hails from Brazil, says the Johnsons’ work is not politically or religiously motivated.
"They’ve been here for 10 years helping Israel and helping Jews — I’ve never seen them trying to convert anybody," he said. "The most important thing Scott is doing here is not about international politics or support of Israel. It is giving a home to people that deserve it … because they are putting their lives on the line at a very tender age."
Most soldiers, Berman says, return to a welcoming family on weekends and holidays. "He’s got to have a good meal and he’s going out with his friends. And he’s being a kid again — he’s being 18 or 19 years old again for that weekend until he has to come back.
"For a lone soldier, it’s a little bit different," said Berman, who sits on the board of Ha Miflaht, the organization founded by the Johnsons to support their efforts. The Johnsons’ U.S.-based nonprofit, Servants to Christ, also supports the couple’s efforts.
Christians comprise just 2 percent of Israel’s population — approximately 154,000 people in a land of 7.6 million. Although there is no official count on how many Christians consider themselves evangelical, some like the Johnsons offer social services and financial assistance to Israelis. Evangelical tourism provides the country with an economic boost: About 1.8 million tourists last year were Christian pilgrims, according to the Ministry of Tourism.
The Johnsons started Ha Miflaht — Hebrew for "the refuge" — in 2005. Scott Johnson, an ordained minister in the Church of God, and his wife had first come to Israel in 2000 to volunteer for the International Christian Embassy in Jerusalem. He recalled meeting an American lone soldier from Colorado who, with no place to go for Shabbat, had planned to sleep in a park one Friday evening.
"I was appalled that a man offering his life for the country was going to sleep in a park and not having anything to eat," Johnson said. He invited the young man to dinner.
Thus a weekly ritual began, with that soldier soon bringing his friends, leading the couple eventually to start Miflaht.
"Miflaht is sort of like a refuge, but it’s more than a refuge; it is a place that you can run to in a time of danger when you are going to lose your life," Johnson said. "It’s a place that you can trust."
Any given Friday night can find 20 to 30 lone soldiers at the Johnsons’ home for Shabbat dinner. Some of the soldiers refer to the couple as mama and papa.
Oved Ben Yosef, 20, whose family originates from Yemen, ended up at Miflaht after his haredi Orthodox parents rejected him for joining the military. He hasn’t spoken with his parents in more than a year, but he says he’s found surrogates in the Johnsons. On weekends when he’s not on military duty, Ben Yosef stays in their guest room.
"There is some much love, like they don’t care where you are from," he said. "They just want to help me, help the lone soldiers to provide a home and to provide a family. It’s like a really great place to be."
The Johnsons acknowledge that they miss their 13 grandchildren — the couple spends one month a year back in Tennessee — but believe their work is best done by serving the Israeli army.
"The battle rages continually all around Israel on all of its borders and inside of it," Johnson said, with Theresa quickly adding, "My answer is that God has plans for us here. This is the path he has set for us, so we have to follow it to the best of our ability."