Israel’s Second Underground Railroad

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Published: May 1, 2021 | Maoz Israel Reports

In the late 1800’s Jews began answering the call to return to their ancient homeland. Unfortunately for many, the way was blocked, first by the Turks and then by the British who controlled the land at that time. This resistance gave birth to a sort of “underground railroad” of boats landing in the dead of night near the seashores and overland treks through mountain ranges or deserts. As the story has been passed down, Ari’s mother, who was fleeing persecution in Russia, was on one of those boats that was turned away. She would, instead, settle in the United States and though she never lived to see it, her son would fulfill her dream of moving to the Promised Land.

In an ironic déjà vu, when Israel declared its independence, it would be Israeli rabbinical authorities who would stand in the way of some Jews trying to return to their homeland.

Early on, the Knesset passed a law establishing that any person who could verify just one Jewish grandparent would receive Israeli citizenship—as this was the standard by which Hitler identified Jews to be taken to concentration camps. This meant one need only be one-quarter Jewish to be eligible for Israeli citizenship. But later, at the insistence of the ultra-Orthodox, an amendment to the law was added: “and has not voluntarily changed his religion.”

It should be noted, however, that no one has ever heard of a Jew who has converted to Confucianism, Hinduism, Buddhism, pantheism, New Age, atheistic humanism, or the occult being refused entry to Israel because of his religion. This ruling targeted Jews who believe Yeshua is the Jewish Messiah. The law was designed to keep Messianic Jews out of Israel. How strange. Hitler didn’t make that distinction. A Jew who believed in Yeshua would have still been sent to the gas chambers.

This hostility towards the Jewish Rabbi, Yeshua, was why the second “underground railroad” developed in the late 1900’s. Without modern technology, our process of helping Jewish believers make aliyah was tedious, but today there are some tens of thousands of Israelis who believe in Yeshua as their Messiah. Many, if not most, are the fruit of the early Jewish believers who received citizenship and worked to build the Messianic Movement. If asked point blank, Jewish believers would never lie to the rabbinical authorities about their faith, but with a little coaching, we and a few other Israeli believers were able to help them maneuver wisely and with integrity through the pitfalls of the immigration process.

Ari and Shira Sorko-Ram in the 1980’s

Gary and Shirley

In the mid-1980’s, Gary and Shirley Beresford were two of the growing number of Jewish believers who attempted to answer the call to immigrate to Israel. Born and raised Jewish on all sides, the two became believers while living in Zimbabwe when they befriended a man and his wife, who were the only known Jewish believers in the whole country at the time. As the Beresfords studied their Bibles, they learned that in the latter days, Jewish people would return to their ancient home. They eventually began feeling the tug towards Israel, though Shirley was initially turned off by how primitive Israel was in comparison to Zimbabwe at the time!

Unfortunately, when they finally decided to make the move, one of their adult children opposed their faith and reported them to the Jewish Federation. This began the snowball that would turn into a landmark Supreme Court ruling against Jewish believers in Yeshua.

For centuries Jewish tradition has designated a person a Jew if his or her mother is Jewish, even though in Bible times, a Jew was known by his father’s identity. In a bizarre twist of irony, the Beresfords would be denied citizenship as Jewish believers because both had Jewish mothers. Had even one of their mothers been a Gentile, there would have been no rabbinical standing to say that as a Jew they had left the Jewish faith!

Ari (left) standing next to Shirley and Gary Beresford as they prepared for a congregational event in the Maoz Ministry Center

We Get Involved

When Gary and Shirley originally moved to Israel, they joined our congregation in Ramat Hasharon and Ari and I were closely involved with their case. “You need to fight this,” we told them. “Even Jews living in blatant sin are considered Jewish. If the rabbinical authorities get away with determining that believing in Yeshua the Messiah makes a Jew into a non-Jew, this could mean a complete shutdown of immigration of Messianic Jews whose only crime is their belief in a Jewish Messiah whom rabbinical leaders have hated for millennia.”

Without any legal status in the country, the Beresfords were in Israel as tourists only and forbidden to work, so we wrote about their case extensively and helped raise funds to cover their legal costs. Believers around the world rallied in prayer and support to keep them in Israel. Understanding the gravity of the situation, attorney Jay Sekulow tried to help us with advice at the time. This was bigger than just one couple; it was a challenge that had to be contested.

The united prayer momentum for the case by both locals and believers abroad was the greatest we had known, which is why it was so crushing when the ruling was passed down from the Supreme Court judges on Christmas Day, 1989 denying the Beresfords citizenship. However, Israel is not a country for the weak and we were determined to keep fighting on with them. We continued to finance the Beresfords’ court case with yet another appeal. But after nearly six years of court delays, on July 2, 1992, the Supreme Court ruled against the Beresfords’ request for citizenship for the final time.

The court then demanded $6,250 from the Beresfords and two other families who were also denied—because they lost the case! Our wonderful Maoz partners did not fail these Messianic pioneers, and we were able to pay in full.

But faith is a funny thing. And prayers that may seem unanswered do not go unheard. For the first time, there became a growing awareness about Messianic Jews in Israel. In addition, Christians all over the world were suddenly hearing about the unique identity of Jews who accepted Yeshua as Jews. The Beresfords received invitations from many countries to give their testimonies and explain Messianic Judaism.


Israeli believers staged a protest in front of the prime minister’s office for the Beresfords. On that same day, Hamas activists held a protest on one side of the street and religious Jews were on the other side demanding the Golan Heights remain part of Israel. Though journalists had arrived to cover the land controversy, Israeli believers found themselves in between the two camps and thus ended up being covered by the media literally around the world.

Answered Prayer–God’s Way

Perhaps some prayers are answered immediately and miraculously, while others are answered in completely different ways, other than as expected. Even though we lost their case, by the time the ruling came down against the Beresfords, Israel had its hands full with nearly a million Russian Jews who were flooding the land. (Not a few of them had recently been born again in massive revival meetings in Russia!)

This influx meant the clerks who used to busy themselves researching each individual’s personal beliefs were too busy to do anything but try to document the tsunami of Russian immigrants swarming in through Israel’s gates. Within months of the landmark decision against the legitimacy of Yeshua as a Jewish belief, many Messianic Jews from the west were also succeeding in receiving their citizenship. In fact, at one point, so many believers were getting citizenship we had to search everywhere to find locals to come alongside and help them assimilate.

One of those people who applied was Michael (not his real name) and his family. A high-profile Messianic leader arrived first to apply for citizenship and was supposed to return with the rest of his family within an allotted time. He and his wife Sarah (not her real name) had planned the momentous return trip to receive their citizenship. However, just days before the flight, Michael broke his leg and couldn’t make the trip.

This was their one chance for the family to receive citizenship, as they did not have unlimited funds to come back and start the process over again. So, Sarah came alone. Of course, if Israel is anything, it is a country with an endless supply of obstacles. So, though Sarah pushed through and flew on her own, upon arrival, she was sorely disappointed to find out all government offices had gone on an extended strike.

Sarah and I prayed earnestly. We decided to go to the office of immigration anyway. We arrived at 6 a.m. to be at the front of the line at the 34-story Shalom Towers, then the tallest building, not only in Tel Aviv, but in the entire Middle East. The immigration offices were there, but the news had informed the public they were only taking emergency cases.

A million Russians flooded Israel within a few short years when the USSR fell. Their coming marked a turning part in many areas of Israel’s culture and development. Credit: National Library of Israel

Even at that early hour, large crowds were forming outside the building, undeterred by the declared strike. Every so often a guard at the building’s front door let a few at a time enter the building. We got in.

When we finally made it to the right floor, a tight mob of about 50 people were already swarming the locked door. Every five minutes or so, a guard would open the door. The people would shout out their requests and the guard would point at them in the chaos and say, “No! You can’t enter! We are on strike!” and lock the door. And the scene would repeat.

In those days Israel knew nothing about queues so I stretched my elbows and feet out as far as possible to keep newcomers from trying to crowd in front of us. Slowly, we inched up to the front of the mob. The door opened. We spoke in English! “Emergency!” (A broken leg is an emergency, right?) “My friend is here to get her citizenship. Her husband broke his leg and couldn’t come so it’s an emergency!” Then I stuck my foot in the doorway.

The guard looked at us and let us in. We were ushered to several different people and eventually found ourselves in front of a clerk who began searching for Sarah’s application in a messy mass of papers spread across his desk. If he couldn’t find the papers, there would be no way to get the stamp of approval.

Then suddenly Sarah watched as a paper sort of flew up into his hand as he was sorting. She looked and there was no window open, but a puff of wind had seemingly moved it—and it was her application.

The clerk looked at the paper, and said, “We can’t process this. You are supposed to have your children with you so they can be sworn in….” But then his phone rang while another clerk with a ream of papers entered the doorway. As our clerk was talking to this man and also on the telephone, he absent-mindedly signed the paper and handed it to Sarah.

When we took the signed papers to the final official, the lady asked, “Where are your children?” Sarah answered, “I was told I didn’t have to bring them.” She answered, “Do you have your husband’s ID?” When the official looked at his picture, she said with a smile, “Oh yes! I remember your husband! He was a very happy man!” As we walked out of Shalom Towers, I turned to my friend and said, “Whew! That was the opening of the Red Sea!” Another born-again Jewish family reached Israel!

This was just one of many miracles like this at that time. Over the next few years, the Lord allowed a stream of fine Messianic leaders and young Jewish believers into the land—who would help build the foundation of the Messianic movement that today is alive and growing.

Ari and Shira in the 1980’s were always dreaming of the future.

Time heals many things, and the son who turned in the Beresfords has since apologized. And just to prove the many prayers for the Beresfords not only brought answers for others, a few years later the Beresfords reapplied and were quickly and quietly granted citizenship in the land of their ancestors—the land of their Messiah.

For sure, challenges still remain for immigrating Jews who call Yeshua their Lord, but in private, the government, the army and local residents have begun to appreciate the loyal, law-abiding and hardworking nature of Israel’s Jewish followers of Yeshua.

Even in Ezra and Nehemiah’s day, when the Jews returned to Israel, decades passed between the time the first pioneers arrived until Jerusalem would be completely restored and the people returned to their ancient Scriptures and practices.

As Ari and I looked back at the decades we had now spent in Israel, we could honestly say, there was a long way to go, but solid progress was being made. God’s Kingdom was advancing, and He was using us, His servants, to push forward. But when it came to some of the best and worst days of our lives – they were still ahead of us. We were just getting started.