Spanish Jews Immigrate to Israel

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Thousands of Sephardites, descendants of Jews in Spain and Portugal, fled in 1492, after a royal decree ordered them to convert to Christianity or face imprisonment, torture and execution.

Today, many are returning -- not to Spain but to southern Israeli city of Beersheba, as the Bible foretells.

Fireworks lit the sky over the southern city of Beersheba as Israel celebrated its independence. Thousands of new immigrants joined the festivities, among them the Javier Montenegro family, which arrived from Argentina in 2003.

"The first thing we saw was a great number of Hispanics," Javier Montenegro of the Negev Bible Center recalled. "We found some 15,000 Hispanics, coming from the nations. The majority were Argentinean because of the crisis in Argentina."

For Bible scholars, the arrival of Hispanics in the Negev is the fulfillment of a phenomenon predicted by the prophet Obadiah.

"Obadiah 20, the prophecy that the Jews of Sephardim, of Spain, returning to the city of the Negev -- and Beersheba is the capital of the Negev -- of the desert...our forefathers passed through Spain, to Latin America, and we're returning in the purpose of God," Montenegro said. 

Yet the purpose of God for the Montenegro family was not that clear.

"We were led to a deep search for God," he said. "Many times I went to the desert to pray, to seek the Lord."

Montenegro is a Christian with a Jewish mother. He believed God wanted him to start a church in Beersheba, but found its spiritual climate "too cold."

"People didn't want to hear about the Lord, about Jesus, Yeshua (Hebrew).  So we felt like the only ones in the city who thought differently," he said.

After inviting people for a year, they established a small congregation. But as people came, another challenge reared its head: persecution.

"The religious Orthodox, they think that they are like the spiritual police of the country," Montenegro said.

The threat is real. In December 2005, a group of ultra-Orthodox Jews attacked a Messianic congregation there. And there were other incidents as well.

"In our neighborhood, the Orthodox rang the doorbells of all our neighbors and told them we were unwelcome people, that we were missionaries and we could change the way people think -- that we were dangerous to the children," Montenegro said.

But in spite of the opposition, the Hispanic congregation began to grow. Today, the Negev Bible Center is a community of some 80 people.

Many of those who gather here thought of returning to their homeland. Life is expensive in Israel and sometimes the work available to Hispanics is cleaning offices and buildings, which pays very little.

"So husband and wife both have to work many hours just to survive, and it's not enough.  So they can't have a car, there are a lot of limitations.  So we help with food, we try to help our brothers but there's not enough and there's so much need," he said.

Life in Beersheba is not only difficult financially. At times the threat of missiles launched by Palestinian Arabs in the Gaza Strip can make it dangerous.

"We're 25 miles from Gaza. We've started to receive missiles in the city," Montenegro said, adding that "every war that we've had has helped the Hispanics to turn to God." 

The congregation has plans to buy its own bunker that could hold up to 500 people. When the Code Red air raid siren goes off, residents have a few minutes to find shelter.

"So we need a place of refuge because the time of war is when we most want to be together as a family of the Lord, praying, worshiping the Lord," he said.

But when Montenegro thinks of the rest of Beersheba's population, he's moved by their spiritual need.

"A lot of people go to the synagogue services just out of tradition. But there are a lot of secular people who turn a deaf ear. There are a lot of atheists -- a lot of masons," he said. "In the newspapers you can see horoscopes, and palm readers, (and even) witches."

Although this congregation is small, it offers an answer to the confusion and spiritual apathy of Beersheba, calling its people to return to the God of the patriarchs, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, who centuries ago found life-giving water here in the desert. 

"We love this land. We've sold our house in Argentina. We've bought a house in Israel.  And we want to give our lives; we want to serve the Lord all the days the Lord gives us here," Montenegro said.

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Stan Jeter

Stan Jeter

CBN News Senior Producer

CBN News Senior Producer Stan Jeter specializes in Christian news and Latin American coverage.  He has lived and worked for many years in South and Central America, most recently developing the Spanish Christian news program, Mundo Cristiano.  Follow Stan on Twitter @StanJeterNews and "like" him at Facebook.com/StanJeterCBN.