By Murray Farber
Murray Farber is a retired reporter and editor living in Fresno.
Reading Arthur Frommer’s online tour guide of Israel, you will find a reference to “the beautiful horticultural community of Nes Ammim, populated by Christians from many nations.” Say what? Christians?
Yes! And it is a wonderful story, as I learned when I visited there in 1974 and met Christine Pilon; but the community may now have a cloudy future in today’s troubled times. I still remember Mrs. Pilon’s deeply religious outlook as a member of the Dutch Reformed Church and her benevolent smile, as well as a lean attractive appearance that made her look less than her actual fifties. As we walked the grounds of this 275-acre collective community, (similar to a kibbutz) 15 miles north of Haifa, we were surrounded by magnificent flowers.
She explained that after World War II, her husband Johan, a Dutch physician, wondered how the Holocaust could have happened in the middle of Christianity. As a child, she had thought about the Crusaders as heroes, rather than as marauders who killed Jews as they traversed Europe. So the Pilons dedicated themselves to persuading Christians to right the wrongs done to Jews.
To show their solidarity with Israel, they moved to the land to launch an experiment that would foster interfaith dialogue. With private donations, they bought land from a Druse sheikh in the early 1960s and brought in volunteer workers from Europe. Initially, they encountered opposition from rabbis who feared they were missionaries seeking to convert Jews, and it took a Knesset investigation to confirm that their goal was to improve interfaith relations. Eventually, the rabbi for the region, who originally urged demonstrations against them, became a visitor and lecturer at Nes Ammim, a name taken from the Book of Isaiah and translated as a sign or as a banner for nations.
With encouragement from the Ben Gurion government, Nes Ammim raised roses that were flown daily to markets in Europe, in order to support the kibbutz. At that time, Mrs. Pilon said, they were sending up to 18,000 roses a day. The volunteer workers were originally Dutch, Swiss and English, mostly 25 to 35 years old, who would stay for one to five years before returning to Europe as “ambassadors” to describe their experiences in Israel. In deference to the neighboring Kibbutz Lohamei Hagettaot, comprised of Holocaust survivors, Nes Ammim did not welcome German Christians. Then in 1968 a German theologian visited and he was followed by a German who had smuggled food to Jewish partisans in a forest. The doors were then opened to young Germans.
On the day I visited, the community was preparing for its day of rest – Saturday, not Sunday, in harmony with its Jewish surroundings. They lit Shabbat candles, as Jews do, and held their church service on Saturday afternoon. Sunday was a workday.
Mr. Pilon had passed away before I got to Nes Ammim and Mrs. Pilon died about five years ago, but Nes Ammim carried on their ideals as a center for interfaith seminars and study. Today, the agricultural business has declined, but Nes Ammim has increased its tourist business, complete with synagogue, kosher kitchen and a museum for Jewish-Christian relations. However there has been a decline in the number of volunteers as the European media, especially in Holland, portray Israel as an oppressor.
Some 30 years have passed since we talked and I still hope Mrs. Pilon’s dream community will continue to live as “a symbol of Christianity’s solidarity with the people of Israel.”