Leaders Begin as Disciples
If you ever have the chance to sit down for a chat with Shmuel Salway, you’re in for a treat. You could say he’s forty something going on 20, and that’s why young people in their teens and twenties flock to him.
Here is his story:
Shmuel’s parents both immigrated from India but had somewhat different backgrounds. Daisy’s family were very conservative Jews and arrived in Israel when she was only ten. David whose family was Jewish but not religious at all, arrived in Israel by himself in his 20’s. David and Daisy would eventually marry and have four children—three girls, and a boy. Early in their marriage, Daisy discovered a congregation in Jaffa called Beit Immanuel. There she came to know Yeshua, and David joined soon after. Though both came from conservative Jewish families, Daisy’s family took this decision the hardest, and never spoke to her again. Even when her father died and she brought her family to the funeral, no one would even look at them.
Shmuel grew up in this believing home, but his teen years brought with them the standard temptations and push back against what he’d always been told about God. During high school joining the field hockey team may have helped him be less involved in the party scene, but the weekend practices also gave him a good excuse to no longer attend the congregational meetings.
Shmuel did have some believing friends who kept inviting him to a youth group during the week, but even when he found time for that, he went more for the “after-party” experience. On one of those visits he sat in the back, as usual, waiting for the guest speaker to finish so he and his friends could all go out. But as the speaker shared his message, Shmuel had the awkward feeling that the speaker was talking just to him, and that the whole room knew it. Still, Shmuel decided he was stronger than whatever that feeling was and managed to resist the invitation at the end of the service to give his life to the Lord. But when the meeting was over, he told his friends he wasn’t feeling good and went home, crawled in his bed, and wept.
“I wake up in the morning and catch a ride to a two day youth camp I’d been invited to attend.” Shmuel says. “When I get there one of the youth leaders walks by me and blurts out, ‘What happened? You look different?’
I felt very awkward about what had just happened to me so I pulled him into a side room to tell him everything where no one would overhear us. He was really excited. We prayed together and he helped me understand what the Lord was doing in my heart. For the remainder of my high school career, I wouldn’t say I became the model child after that, but I definitely made efforts. In my mind, I had this understanding with God—I wouldn’t be too bad, and God would watch over me.
“Then came my army service,” Shmuel goes on. “The thing with the army is that even if you really love the Lord going in, your life is entirely run by the military. They schedule your every waking moment and run you ragged to turn you into a single-minded soldier. You may not encounter a believer for weeks or months at a time. You are in close quarters with mixed company 18-year-olds who are away from their parents for the first time ever. You must bond with them because you know you’re going to be on the battlefield together. Let’s just say feeding yourself spiritually with Bible reading, prayer and worship music doesn’t really happen easily.
“Later during my army service when my schedule freed up a bit, some of my youth leader’s friends asked me to join their youth trips because of my field medical training and ability to carry a weapon (a requirement for such field trips in Israel). One of these trips consisted of a week-long trek of young people backpacking from the Mediterranean Sea to the Sea of Galilee while learning about life and God along the way. I agreed and coordinated with my commanders to go during my days off.
“The funny thing was that I came there to help in case anything went wrong; I was not there to play any kind of spiritual role. Naturally, I befriended the kids because that’s just my personality. But as I would crack jokes and share my war stories from my time in Lebanon, the teens began to see me as the cool guy they could go to to ask life’s tough questions.
“I tried to get them to take their questions to the youth leaders because I didn’t care for how much their questions made me think about my own life. The whole trip they drilled me about whether it was ok to have an unbelieving boy/girlfriend and what about their father who died an unbeliever. Some of the answers I had to go study to figure out, but other questions I knew the answers—I just didn’t want to address them because I wasn’t living that way myself.
“After that trip I had a reckoning with myself. I found I really cared for these kids and wanted to be a good example for them. I studied the Scriptures at length so I would have solid answers for the next time they pelted me with questions. I wanted to be able to tell them what I knew deep down was true, and I couldn’t do it if I continued to live the way I was living.
“I’ve always loved the outdoors and wanted to see the world, so after the army I majored in geography and eventually got a job in security for Israel’s largest airline—El Al. This job gave me both free tickets to travel the world (and I did!) and eventually landed me a high-paying security job in New York City. I’m not an American citizen, but I’d always dreamed of living there for a time, so this job opportunity was a dream come true.
“I was on a plane at JFK airport in New York about to take off to deliver top-secret documents to Israeli embassies in South America, when 9/11 happened. I watched the smoke rise from the towers from the plane window and I quickly understood we wouldn’t be flying anywhere that day. I quickly drove back into Manhattan and I remember the smell of smoke throughout the whole city. But I made my way through the many blockades that had been set up to return the documents to a safe location.
“Three things stuck with me about that day. First, almost immediately after news of the attack spread, my phone began to ring off the hook. All my family and friends from Israel were calling to make sure I was okay, and this made me realize how important my connection with Israel was. Second, I processed how important my job in security was for the protection of people against very real threats like this. I was proud of the role that Israeli security plays in protecting against so many other attacks around the world. And third, I considered how fleeting life was and how quickly it could be taken from you. I realized I wanted my life’s work to have some eternal significance and I needed to be in Israel to do that.
“After three years in NYC working with diplomats and other high-level security officials, my contract was up. I knew it was time for me to go back to Israel, and not just to Israel but into ministry work. All this time I knew I was called to ministry, and I knew what kind of not-high-paying-job life that would be. I could only ignore the call for so long. My friends told me I was crazy to turn down another five-year contract in New York. Such an extension was unheard of. But who can put a price on the satisfaction that comes with following God?
“When I returned to Israel, I was immediately offered a security job with Israel’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs. I visited several congregations and felt the most at home in the Hebrew speaking Tel Aviv congregation where Ari Sorko-Ram was pastoring at the time. Begrudgingly, I realized the Lord was calling me to a different congregation where He knew I would be of best service to Him.
“After a few visits to this congregation the pastor told me their youth pastor had just left and he had an opening for a part-time minimum wage ($4.50/hr at the time) youth pastor. I was simultaneously insulted to be offered such a low rate, and yet still felt I was supposed to do it. It came down to a fleece I set before the Lord. I sat next to the phone and told God I had two solid job offers. I would choose whomever called me first.
“Almost instantly, the pastor called. I took the job; luckily, I had savings to live on.
“When I started, our congregation’s youth were pretty uninterested in anything spiritual, and really, how fun is it to gather with a handful of kids every week? I knew our youth and the youth from Ari’s congregation would benefit from a collective gathering. So we took over a recently abandoned basement, and invited all the believing youth in the city to that neutral location. It took some work to turn it into a presentable youth hangout on a shoestring budget, but we did it.
“When the place was ready, we announced our first gathering. The first person to walk in was one of the youth leaders from Ari’s congregation. Her name was Suzie, and she had come early to help. I was in a very focused spiritual time of my life, so I made a point to be curt with her so there would be no mistaking I was not personally available nor interested in any way. She, in turn, remembers me as being quite a snob.
“As we’d hoped, Tel Aviv’s believing youth loved the idea of doing things together, so we as youth leaders from the different congregations spent time together strengthening our relationships. One of those times several of us were at a coffee shop and at some point, all the guys got up to leave as they had things they had planned to do and so I was left alone with Suzie. I couldn’t come up with an honest reason why I needed to leave, so I stayed. We sat and talked—well, she talked, and I sat there fascinated by her life’s story.
“The next day I told my friend about the experience. Everyone knows me as a guy who always has something to say, so he responded, “If you found a girl who can keep you so captivated you were left without words—she’s the one!” The next time he saw us at a birthday party talking, he took a picture and gave it to us as a memorabilia for our future family album. At that point I decided I should take this seriously and spend time praying about my future with her. I expected to spend weeks in prayer about this but within a few hours the answer was so clear that I knew the Lord was in it.
“After we married, Suzie and I continued to serve in my congregation. I became a deacon, and then an associate pastor. We also constantly had teens and young adults over to our home and helped lead various youth and young adult camps throughout the year. Because of the mandatory army service, youth ministry here is very unique. Pre-army, in-service and post-army young people have vastly different spiritual needs and schedules. Therefore, activities must be tailored to them.
Where Needed Most
“After 14 years of service, we were given the opportunity to move from the busy life of Tel Aviv to a quiet believing community about 15 minutes outside of Jerusalem. By this time, we had young kids and the timing seemed right. We not only moved, but also decided to take a sabbatical to strengthen our family and seek the Lord about our next step. I had offers from all over the place, but none of them had that “Yes!” you get when something is from the Lord. I didn’t want to have to travel; I wanted to stay close to my family and invest my time in young people.
“One day I was sitting in our front yard praying and asking God to plug me in “where needed most.” As I was out there a guy walked by wearing a Lech Lecha t-shirt. Lech Lecha is the phrase God used when He told Abraham to leave his father’s household and go to a place He would show him. It is also the name of an intensive three-month discipleship program for post-army young Israelis (both Jews and Arabs).
“When he asked what I was up to, I told him I was on sabbatical. He told me he had headed up Lech Lecha for 17 years and would soon need a sabbatical. He wanted to train someone to take his place well before he left and wanted to know if I would pray about it. As soon as I began praying about it, I knew the “Yes!” answer was coming.
“Lech Lecha is a beautifully well-rounded program. The first month we begin with the foundation and focus on the heart and relationship with the Lord. The second month we have teachers and pastors from all over the country bring in-depth insight to the Scriptures and basic theology. The teachings aren’t just spiritual; we cover practical things such as time management, proper handling of finances, and identifying and working on their strengths and weaknesses. The third month is sort of a what do you do with what you’ve learned? We offer them opportunities to practice and develop their spiritual gifts and some local ministries provide opportunities for volunteering.
“This whole discipleship program is taking place as we travel to and fro across the land just as Abraham did. Some of the participants have shared how they have been healed from emotional and even mental disorders and look forward to helping others heal as well. Others share how, for the first time, their relationship with God is based on their own faith and not simply an association stemming from their upbringing. The testimonies are as different as the individuals who attend, but by the end of the program, we love to send them out knowing they will be well-rooted in both the land and their calling to be a light to the nations—and to their own people, as well.”
I (Shani) have known of Orthodox Jews my whole life. They generally didn’t care for us Jewish believers, but occasionally my parents would have some over to talk to us about the Jewishness of Yeshua and all that entailed.
But my first up-close and personal friendship with an orthodox girl left its mark on me to this day. She grew up ultra-Orthodox in a community so strict, even family members of the opposite sex were not allowed to be in a room with each other alone once they reached a certain age. She told me when teens her age rebelled, they would eat pork or look in store windows, which was forbidden. One day, after she herself looked into store windows on her way home, she was confronted at school by her principal who held up photos their team had taken of her looking into the store windows.
One day as she lay in bed frustrated, she heard an audible voice tell her, “Go find the Messianic Jews.” She had no idea what that was, and told herself if that was the Almighty, she’d give Him one week to show her who that was or she’d assume she’d imagined it all.
Exactly one week later she was reading an ultra-Orthodox newspaper her family subscribed to and saw an article warning against Messianic Jews with a specific address of a ministry center. She would eventually go there and receive the Lord. When her family heard what she’d done, they had her beaten. She was beaten so badly her hearing was permanently damaged.
It was during this time I came to know her. She was sincere in her belief, but years of growing up studying in Orthodox circles meant there was much to unlearn in terms of who God was and what He expected from us. Kobi and I were in the U.S. at the time when she was sent to a Bible school to be discipled. It was hard for her to adapt with the language barrier and American culture, and the people who tried to help her couldn’t fathom the religious world she’d come from. I watched her struggle on so many levels, theologically, emotionally and also relationally. During her time at the Bible school, her location was discovered by Orthodox Jews and she was coerced back into the religious community and was married off before she could change her mind. We lost her.
Occasionally, I have received messages from her telling me how unhappy and trapped she felt, and then the line would go silent again.
This is, in part, why we feel so passionate about the importance of having intensive discipleship programs available in Israel. Israelis coming from both very secular or deeply religious backgrounds have much to unlearn and many family dynamics that come with their decision to follow Yeshua. And when I think of someone who so genuinely wanted the Lord but simply could not get past her personal struggles, all I can wonder is what could have been if she had had access to a program like Lech Lecha, in a land and language familiar to her.
The Lech Lecha program has several cycles every year with about a dozen participants each cycle. Amazingly this cycle has almost two dozen applicants! Somehow the current difficult circumstances have caused more young people than ever to want to clear their schedule and go deep with the Lord.
We don’t want Lech Lecha to have to turn anyone down for lack of budget and you can have a say in the matter! Our goal is to raise $20,000 to help with the cost of this next session of training and teaching.
Will you help us? Leaders start out as disciples, and together we can make Israel’s future leaders strong today!
For the generations to come,
Ari and Shira Sorko-Ram
Kobi and Shani Ferguson