NEWS | Anne Lim
Wednesday 20 January 2016
An Israeli evangelist is embarking on a four-month odyssey through Australia in a quest to sign up hundreds or even thousands of new hosts for his HIT (Hosting Israeli Travellers) travel club.
From Sydney to Canberra, Melbourne, Adelaide, Alice Springs, Darwin, Cooktown and Brisbane, Omri Jaakobovich will be holding meetings aimed at motivating Australian Christians to offer hospitality to Israeli backpackers either free or for a nominal charge.
Omri, 45, has already set up a network of almost 500 hosts from the top of the North Island of New Zealand to the tip of the South Island.
His aim is to bring Israeli travellers under the influence of evangelical Christians, who will provide a bed and a place to cook and wash, as a way of showing love to the Lord’s Chosen People and to “provoke them to jealousy” (Romans 11:11).
Thousands of Israelis travel to Australia and New Zealand as backpackers every year, usually after finishing their army service and before starting university. They spend an average of three months in New Zealand, going from one HIT host to another, which allows them to spend their hard-saved money on sky diving, rafting, bungy-jumping and swimming with dolphins rather than accommodation.
At its peak in 2004, the HIT network in New Zealand offered hospitality to 1800 Israeli backpackers. Numbers subsequently fell but are now climbing back to those earlier levels.
Omri set up the network in 2000 as an outreach to native-born Israelis after he accepted Jesus as God’s Messiah at a backpacker hostel in the Bay of Islands.
“We may not all be evangelists but we are all called to be able to give a reason for the hope that is within is and testify for the Lord when the opportunity presents itself and everything is always to the Jewish people first,” he told Eternity on a visit to Sydney this week.
Omri says there is no need to “Bible-bash” Israeli guests because it’s God’s job to convince them that Jesus is the Messiah.
“But you will see that at some point they will ask you ‘Why are you hosting us?’ It will give you an opportunity to tell them what their God has done for you. ‘Look, everything you see was given to me by the grace of your God and he commended me to bless you,’” he says.
“They respond to love and acceptance. And I never came across a better way to open up the doors for them to come to you asking why you’re doing this.”
Born and raised in secular kibbutz, 10 minutes drive southeast of Mt Carmel where Elijah slew the prophets of Baal, Omri was taught about Alexander the Great, Julius Caesar, Napoleon and Hitler, but when he travelled to New Zealand in 1997 he knew hardly anything about Jesus.
He was taken aback when the Dutch-born host of his backpacker hostel in Paihia, Bay of Islands, kept praising Omri as one of God’s Chosen People.
Like most Israelis, he was haunted by the 1995 assassination of then Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin by an Orthodox Jew in the name of God because he wanted to sign a peace treaty with Palestinians giving land back for peace.
So he challenged her: “What’s so chosen, what’s so better about us Jews? And I added that this is the first time in Jewish history that a Jew killed the chosen leader of the Jewish nation.
“Now her reply shocked me because she said: ‘But it’s not the first time in Jewish history that the Jews killed the chosen leader of the Jewish nation.’ I said ‘What are you talking about?’ She said ‘This is what you did to Yeshua.’
“In Israel nobody knows Yeshua by that name because the Pharisees and Sadducees put a curse on his name. They took the last letter from his name and call him Yeshu. It means in Hebrew ‘let his name be blotted out and never be remembered.’”
“When it clicked that she was “talking about this Yeshu guy … it was like a flash went before me and at that instant I knew four things:
“This Yeshu was a Jew.
“Like me he was born and raised in Israel.
“Even though I knew nothing about what he taught, I had heard that he gave the world the highest moral code and ethics.
“He influenced the world more than any human being ever who walked this earth.
“So that’s when the question came: ‘How come they told me absolutely nothing about him in Israel?’ And from there came the question: ‘Are they trying to hide something from me?’”
From his childhood, Omri had been plagued by the thought that one day he would die. “At the age of three, I understood for the first time that one day I will die. I understood this in my head but my heart refused to accept it – why, what’s the purpose? Nobody asked me if I wanted to be born. And I thought it would better never to be born than to be born and then to die.”
Suddenly, Omri realised that his host’s faith was based on her belief that Jesus of Nazareth was raised from the dead.
“I wasn’t sure if he was the Messiah or not or whether there was life after death or not. I didn’t even know if there was God or not. But one thing I knew was that, if there was God who made all these things, then it wouldn’t be too complicated for him to raise someone from the dead, would it? In an instant I realised that if what this woman is telling me is true, this may be the key to unlock this mystery I had since I was a kid: why was I born if one day I had to die? If Yeshua has been raised from the dead, maybe I can be raised from the dead too.”
In an instant he realised that this might be true, so he went to Auckland to extend his visa for nine months. In Auckland he met an Israeli backpacker who had an Old Testament in his luggage.
When Omri read the Old Testament prophecies, he saw “Yeshua” in every page.
“It was reading the Old Testament that convinced me beyond any doubt that Yeshua is indeed the promised Jewish Messiah.”
At that stage Omri thought he was the only Jewish believer because he didn’t know of any others.
Back in the hostel, believers started to come to meet the Israeli who was interested in the gospel. One read 2 Corinthians 3:14 to him, which says that only when Jews turn to Christ will the veil be lifted from their eyes.
“There was no voice from heaven but I realised right then and there that I needed to tell my people. None of my family or friends are believers. I just never heard that the Messiah has come, but he has. How can you keep it to yourself? So every Israeli who came to the hostel, I would share with them,” he recalls.
“The guy who gave me the Bible four months later came to faith too.
“As a young believer you don’t have great knowledge but you have great zeal and sometimes it does the job!”
Two years later, while arranging a tour of New Zealand by Israeli evangelist Jacob Damkani, Omri had the idea that as they travelled around they could ask if people would like to host Israelis in their homes.
“So this is what we did. At the end of each meeting we asked people to host Israelis and it was just amazing because as we flew out of Christchurch, I had a list of about 350 names, evangelical Christians who believe God has not forsaken his people, which he foreknew, because it’s understood that part of the way for them to show the faithfulness to the one and true and only God is by standing with his people Israel, show them love, mercy, friendship and, when the opportunity presents itself, even share the gospel with them.”
With the launch of HIT International at the end of 2014, the network now extends to the USA, the Netherlands, Germany and Peru.
But Australia is at the forefront of Omri’s plans because Australia and New Zealand are the main English-speaking countries that Israelis travel through as backpackers. They visit the US, Canada and Europe on business or honeymoon or for a ski trip, not as backpackers.
On the website he is upfront about the fact that the network offers “an opportunity to learn more about the host’s faith”.
But it highlights the home-away-from home experience and how much money travellers can save.
It runs like a travel club, with a $30 annual membership fee that pays for the website, as well as providing discounts on bungy jumping and other popular activities.
“The first thing is to create the situation where they want to come,” he says.
“If it’s a missionary network, 50 per cent of them won’t come, so you can’t witness to people if they don’t come.
“So we created a network that creates the atmosphere for Israelis to want to come to your home and once they are in your home you can witness to them.”
On Omri’s first tour of Australia last year, about 140 hosts were signed up. On this tour he is aiming for at least 500 but would love 1000 or even 2000.
“Probably 80 to 90 per cent of Israelis who go to New Zealand go to Australia as well. In New Zealand it’s so established that all of them use it there. What’s powerful is that they go from one to the other to the other, and the impact builds after three months. So if we are able to create a similar network in Australia as well, we’re talking about six months of influence.”
How often hosts take guests is entirely at their discretion. It could be as little as two groups a year. A $5 per person per night cover charge is advised, although some hosts refuse to take anything.
“Our hosts are not obliged to provide them anything outside of a bed, or couch or mattress, or place to pitch a tent, shower/toilet and a kitchen to cook in. On top of that you can provide meals, internet, laundry, tours, but you are not obliged. But you don’t need to entertain them; just make yourself available whenever possible.”
Omri believes it is no coincidence that the HIT network started in New Zealand.
He says Christchurch, where he landed first, is as far as it is possible to go from Jerusalem.
“The gospel started from Jerusalem, reached to the ends of the earth literally and now from the end of the earth it is actually coming back,” he says.