From the outside, the HaOgen Cafe looks a lot like the many other espresso cafes that line the streets of Tel Aviv.
Located just north of central Dizengoff Square, it features floor-to-ceiling windows and a colorful chalkboard sidewalk easel that one recent weekday heralded breakfast sandwiches and an upcoming acoustic concert. Inside, a crowd of 20 and 30 are seated at tables, typing on laptops. It’s decorated with fairy lights and floor plants, with upbeat quotes and scribbles scribbled in marker on the blackout windows at the back.
But HaOgen also offers something that its neighborhood competitors don’t: the gospel of Jesus Christ.
According to the website of Dugit, a Tel Aviv-based Messianic Jewish organization whose name means “little boat,” HaOgen is a “neighborhood café” that “has evangelists ready to share the good news with every guest who enters.” .
“Through this hip location, the ministry has had access to a whole new group of people in their city who are in dire need of a Savior,” read a 2019 blog post on the Fellowship of Israel Related Ministries, a messianic organization that describes HaOgen as a member of the fellowship.
The café’s deep connections to Dugit and Messianic Judaism, a movement that believes in the divinity of Jesus while claiming to practice Judaism, are not immediately detectable by customers. A shelf at the back of the cafe is stocked with Hebrew copies of the New Testament and stacks of “Messiah” brochures, and the cafe’s logo is an anchor, a historical symbol of Christianity.
Yet, no signage inside or outside indicates any links between HaOgen and any religious organization or movement. The cafe’s website also does not mention its affiliation with Dugit or any religious mission.
“I didn’t know it belonged to missionaries,” said Jessica Arnovitz, an American Jewish immigrant to Israel who lives near the cafe. “I’ve been there before and it’s a nice place.
Messianic Judaism, some adherents of which were known in the past as “Jews for Jesus”, appears to be developing in Israel. Messianic Jewish groups often have ties to explicitly Christian organizations, and none of the mainstream Jewish movements consider them Jewish. As with many traditional Christian denominations, missionary work is part of Messianic practice.
Dugit’s executive director told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency that the cafe was not the place for efforts to proselytize Jews. In fact, he said, Dugit does not run HaOgen directly – although he said he owns the space and pays the salary of the cafe manager, a man named Argo who is also the senior pastor of ‘an Ethiopian messianic congregation. Argo refused an interview request from the Jewish Telegraphic Agency.
“We are not trying to mission anyone, bribe anyone or do anything to people,” said Avi Mizrachi, who was born in Israel and himself pastor in a Messianic congregation. in Tel Aviv. “We are Jews who love our country, serve our country in the military and pay taxes. And we celebrate the Jewish feasts and festivals, 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 it, put people on missions or, or convert people.
Through this hip location, the ministry had access to a whole new group of people in their city who are in dire need of a Savior.
Only proselytizing minors without their parents’ consent and offering religious conversions in exchange for a material gift are prohibited 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 this reputation. In its 2010 report on international religious freedom, the US State Department wrote that Israel has “taken a number of steps that have encouraged the perception that proselytizing is against government policy,” such as detention of missionaries and the invocation of “proselytism as a reason for denying students, work, and religious visa extensions.”
The idea that missionary work is illegal – and the associated idea that believers in Jesus face persecution for their faith – leads many messianics in Israel to hide their activities, according to Sarah Posner, journalist and author who writes extensively on evangelical Christianity.
“[Messianics] really played on the idea that proselytizing against Jews is illegal in Israel, ”Posner said. “It’s not as bad as they claim, but they are proving that they are not being treated fairly. Elsewhere in the world, and especially in the United States, there are no such constraints at all, so they have no reason to have a cafe that seems to have nothing to do with religion and is just a place where you can go to have a coffee.
Most Israelis who identify as Messianic have direct Jewish ancestry, “whereas in the United States you are more likely to meet people who identify as Messianic Jews but are in fact evangelical Christians,” he said. 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 community representatives. Today, Messianics in Israel number 10,000 to 20,000, according to Yonatan Allon, editor-in-chief of Kehila, an umbrella organization of the Messianics in Israel. Community representatives attribute the growth in part to missionary efforts and in part to immigration. There are Messianic congregations that cater specifically to Russian-speaking Israelis as well as Ethiopian Israelis.
“In 1999, the total number of believers was around 5,000,” said Alec Goldberg, Israeli director of the Caspari Center, an evangelical organization in Israel, in a 2019 Q&A on the centre’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 know, the number of local ministries has also multiplied, with new initiatives constantly underway.
These initiatives include more than 70 Messianic congregations across Israel, according to Kehila, including one, Adonai Roi, led by Dugit and led by Mizrachi who is a seven-minute walk from HaOgen.
In addition to the cafe and the Messianic congregation, Dugit’s website says he runs a prayer room in Tel Aviv, a charity for the poor, and an annual conference for women. The website also states that Dugit was involved in an evangelical television station that the Israel Broadcasting Authority shut down last year.
“The message of these messianic groups is very evangelical,” Posner said. “For many Israeli Jews, this is an unknown message, unless they have a lot of political ties to evangelical Christians who, as we know, are very interested in supporting Israel and the settlements.
This is unlikely to describe the typical client of a Tel Aviv cafe, so some in Israel go to great lengths to alert potential visitors to HaOgen 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 watch group made headlines earlier this year after revealing a family who were actively involved in an Orthodox Haredi community of Jerusalem for several years, but were in fact Christian missionaries.
Nuszen declined an interview request, but the nonprofit wrote on Facebook last month that it had received advice regarding HaOgen Cafe’s messianic mission. The post said Beyneynu had “no objection to people of different faiths running businesses in Tel Aviv” but wanted to alert potential customers to the cafe’s ties.
“People should know, however, that this restaurant is not just another bohemian cafe. Rather, it is part of a well-funded and organized effort by evangelical donors to convert vulnerable young Jews to Christianity, ”the Facebook post said. “We are simply asking for transparency and respect.