Pandemic puts a damper on Feast of the Tabernacles celebration, which normally brings thousands of pilgrims to Israel
During the violence of the Second Intifada, when most of the world stopped visiting Israel, thousands of Christians from dozens of countries still arrived to celebrate the Feast of Tabernacles with the International Christian Embassy Jerusalem.
In fact, for the past 40 years, nothing has prevented these Zionist pilgrims from joining the annual ICEJ festivities. Until now: This year, the novel coronavirus has achieved what violent uprisings, riots and rockets could not.
With Israel under a nationwide lockdown as the COVID-19 pandemic rages, everyone will be celebrating the weeklong Jewish holiday of Sukkot, also known as the Feast of Tabernacles, from home.
While the streets of Jerusalem are normally packed with pilgrims, tourists and locals for the holiday, which begins on Friday evening, this year − as in many places around the world − restaurants, stores and places of worship have been shuttered.
Under current regulations, Israelis are permitted to travel only up to about half a mile from home except for essential matters such as food and medicine, and foreign nationals have been banned from entering the country. So the ICEJ will mark its 40th anniversary in the only way it can: with a weeklong virtual celebration.
The ICEJ has decided to bring the holiday right into people’s living rooms and churches. Working together with major Christian TV networks such as TBN, Daystar and GOD TV, the organization will broadcast seven days of seminars, prayers and more – via both television and online.
“It’s a real shame that even in tough years − where there were wars, rockets, terror, bombings − our people always came,” David Parsons, vice president and senior spokesman of the ICEJ, told The Media Line.
It’s a real shame that even in tough years − where there were wars, rockets, terror, bombings − our people always came
“Even when other tourists and other visitors were canceling their hotels [or] their flights, our folks always came. They knew we can’t just be fair-weather friends,” he explained.
Then-prime minister Menachem Begin speaks to pilgrims attending the ICEJ’s 1982 Feast of Tabernacles gathering in Jerusalem. It took place during Israel’s first war in Lebanon, when tourism had dried up. (ICEJ)
Sukkot is one of the most important holidays on the Jewish calendar, commemorating the 40 years the Israelites spent wandering in the desert before entering the Promised Land.
“The Feast of Tabernacles is unique in that of the three pilgrimage feasts that God gave to Israel in the wilderness – Passover, Pentecost [Shavuot] and Tabernacles – it’s the one where the nations are also invited to come up and join the Jewish people here in Jerusalem to worship the God of the Bible,” Parsons noted.
The Feast of Tabernacles is unique in that of the three pilgrimage feasts that God gave to Israel in the wilderness – Passover, Pentecost [Shavuot] and Tabernacles – it’s the one where the nations are also invited to come up and join the Jewish people here in Jerusalem to worship the God of the Bible
One of the highlights of the holiday is undoubtedly the annual Jerusalem March, a staple in the city since 1955 and which decades ago was organized by the IDF as a kind of military parade. More and more civilians joined as the years went by, and it eventually came to represent a show of solidarity with the IDF and the State of Israel.
Over 2,500 Christians march through Jerusalem during the 2002 Feast of Tabernacles despite security warnings that a suicide bomber might target the annual parade. This occurred during the Second Intifada, when tourism to Israel again tanked – except for the pilgrims. (ICEJ)
For the past four decades, evangelical Christians from roughly 100 countries have joined in the colorful event, waving flags and handing out candy to children.
What a powerful, powerful feeling
“When they’re marching in the streets, it’s such a highlight to have that march and for Israelis to be standing on the sidelines, to be embraced and be told ‘we love you’ in times when the whole world is often against Israel,” Rabbi Shmuel Bowman, executive director of Operation Lifeshield and a certified Torah scribe, related to The Media Line.
“What a powerful, powerful feeling,” he said.
Originally from Toronto, Bowman moved to Israel in 1993 and has guided and educated hundreds of Christian pilgrims through the ICEJ for the past 14 years.
During these tours, he has taken them to visit Israeli communities near the Gaza border and shown them bomb shelters. As part of his work for Operation Lifeshield, a non-profit organization, Bowman has overseen the deployment of hundreds of bomb shelters in the area.
The campaign is reliant on donations, many of which come from Christian supporters of Israel.
“Israel’s greatest friends in the world are Christian Zionists,” Bowman stressed. “The ICEJ is the greatest of the greatest friends.”
Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu (gesturing) visits the ICEJ at Christmas 2016. (ICEJ)
Despite the difficulties brought about by the pandemic, Bowman sees a silver lining in hosting a virtual Sukkot event and believes it is much more accessible to families.
“This year everybody gets to sit in front of the computer or their phone and is able to experience it when they otherwise would not be able to,” he said. “So I think that amazingly, this year, the reach can be absolutely phenomenal and that everyone should be part of it.”