TEL AVIV (JTA) — From the outside, HaOgen Cafe looks a lot like the many other espresso spots that line the streets of Tel Aviv.
Located just north of the central Dizengoff Square, it has floor-to-ceiling windows and a colorful chalkboard sidewalk easel that, on a recent weekday, advertised breakfast sandwiches and an upcoming acoustic concert. Inside, a crowd of 20- and 30-somethings sit at tables, typing away at laptops. It’s decorated with string lights and floor plants, with upbeat quotes and doodles scribbled in marker on the opaque windows in the back.
But HaOgen also offers something its neighborhood competitors do not — the gospel of Jesus Christ.
According to the website of Dugit, a Messianic Jewish organization based in Tel Aviv whose name means “small boat,” HaOgen is an “outreach coffee shop” that’s “staffed with evangelists ready to share the good news with every guest that comes in.”
“Thanks to this trendy location the ministry gained access to a whole new group of people in their city who are in great need of a Savior,” reads a 2019 blog post on the website of the Fellowship of Israel Related Ministries, a Messianic organization that describes HaOgen as a member of the fellowship.
The coffee shop’s deep ties to Dugit and Messianic Judaism, a movement that believes in the divinity of Jesus while claiming to practice Judaism, are not immediately detectable to patrons. A bookshelf at the back of the cafe is stocked with Hebrew copies of the New Testament and stacks of pamphlets about “the Messiah,” and the cafe’s logo is an anchor, a historical symbol of Christianity.
Yet no signage inside or outside indicates any ties between HaOgen and any organization or religious movement. Nor does the cafe’s website mention its affiliation with Dugit or any religious mission.
“I didn’t know it was owned by missionaries,” said Jessica Arnovitz, a Jewish American immigrant to Israel who lives near the cafe. “I’ve been before, and it’s a nice place.”
Messianic Judaism, some of whose followers were known in the past as “Jews for Jesus,” appears to be growing in Israel. Messianic Jews refer to Jesus as “Yeshua” and use Christian holy books, such as the New Testament, that have been translated to Hebrew. Messianic Jewish groups often have ties to explicitly Christian organizations, and none of the mainstream Jewish movements consider them Jewish. As with many mainstream Christian denominations, missionary work is part of Messianic practice.
Dugit’s executive director told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency that the cafe is not the site of efforts to proselytize to Jews. In fact, he said, Dugit does not directly run HaOgen — although he said it does own the space and pay the salary of the cafe’s manager, a man named Argo who is also the lead pastor of an Ethiopian Messianic congregation. Argo declined an interview request from the Jewish Telegraphic Agency.
“We are not trying to missionize anyone, bribe anyone, or do anything to people,” said Avi Mizrachi, who was born in Israel and is himself a pastor at a Messianic congregation in Tel Aviv. “We are Jews who love our country, serve our country in the army, and pay taxes. And we celebrate the Jewish holidays and feasts, and we believe in the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. And yes, we believe that Yeshua is the messiah.”
He added, “Now, if [customers] ask us what we believe, we tell them, but we don’t go and, as we call this, missionize people or, or convert people.”
Only proselytizing to minors without their parents’ consent and offering religious conversions in exchange for a material gift are barred by Israeli law. But there is a widely held misconception that missionary activity in the country is illegal, and the government has at times seemed open to advancing that reputation. In its 2010 International Religious Freedom Report, the U.S. State Department wrote that Israel has “taken a number of steps that encouraged the perception that proselytizing is against government policy,” such as detaining missionaries and citing “proselytism as a reason to deny student, work, and religious visa extensions.”
The idea that missionary work is illegal — and the associated idea that believers in Jesus face persecution because of their faith — leads many Messianics in Israel to mask their activities, according to Sarah Posner, a journalist and author who writes extensively on evangelical Christianity.
“[Messianics] really played up the idea that proselytizing to Jews is illegal in Israel,” Posner said. “It’s not as severe as they make it out to be, but they do play that up as evidence that they aren’t treated fairly. Elsewhere in the world, and especially in the United States, there aren’t those constraints at all, so they don’t have a reason to have a cafe that seems like it has nothing to do with religion and is just a place you can go get a coffee.”
Most Israelis who identify as Messianic have direct Jewish ancestry, “while in the United States, you’re more likely to encounter people who identify as Messianic Jews but are actually evangelical Christians,” Posner said, adding that many American evangelical Christian churches fundraise for Messianic congregations and missionary efforts in Israel.
The number of Messianic Jews in Israel has multiplied in recent decades, according to representatives of the community. As of 2017, Messianics in Israel number some 10,000 to 20,000, according to Yonatan Allon, managing editor of Kehila, a news website and media platform for Messianics in Israel. Representatives of the community attribute the growth partially to missionizing efforts and partially to immigration. There are Messianic congregations that reach out specifically to Russian-speaking as well as Ethiopian Israelis.
“In 1999, the number of believers in total was approximately 5,000,” Alec Goldberg, Israel Director of the Caspari Center, an evangelical organization in Israel, said in a 2019 Q&A on the center’s website. “Today, 5,000 is just the number of believers in Russian-speaking congregations in Israel. And of course, as observers of the Messianic scene in Israel are aware, the number of local ministries has also multiplied, with new initiatives constantly underway.”
Those initiatives include more than 70 Messianic congregations throughout Israel, according to Kehila, including one, Adonai Roi, run by Dugit and led by Mizrachi that’s a a seven-minute walk away from HaOgen.
In addition to the cafe and the Messianic congregation, Dugit’s website says it runs a prayer room in Tel Aviv, a charity for the poor and an annual conference for women. The website also says Dugit was involved in an evangelical TV station that Israel’s broadcasting authority shut down last year.
“The messaging of these Messianic groups is very evangelical,” Posner said. “For a lot of Israeli Jews, it’s an unfamiliar message, unless they have a lot of political connections with evangelical Christians who, as we know, are very interested in supporting Israel and supporting settlements.”
That’s unlikely to describe the typical customer of a Tel Aviv coffee shop, so some in Israel are working to alert potential HaOgen visitors to what their patronage supports.
Recently, two years after it opened, HaOgen caught the attention of Beyneynu, an Israeli organization that monitors missionary activity in the country. Founded last year by Shannon Nuszen, an American immigrant to Israel and former evangelical missionary who converted to Orthodox Judaism, the watchdog group made headlines earlier this year after it outed a family that had been actively involved in a haredi Orthodox Jerusalem community for several years but were actually Christian missionaries.
Nuszen declined an interview request, but the nonprofit wrote on Facebook last month that it had received tips regarding HaOgen Cafe’s Messianic mission. The post said that Beyneynu has “no objection to people of different faiths operating businesses in Tel Aviv” but wanted to alert potential customers to the cafe’s ties.
“People should know, however, that this eatery is not just another bohemian café. Rather, it is part of a well-funded, organized effort by evangelical donors to convert young, vulnerable Jews to Christianity,” the Facebook post said. “We’re simply asking for transparency and respect.”