JERUSALEM, Israel – When the COVID pandemic initially struck Israel, many Christian businesses in the Holy Land almost went under.
Last Christmas, the pandemic kept most tourists out of places like Jerusalem’s Machne Yehuda market. This year, the number of visitors began to grow. But now with the omicron variant, Israel has shut its doors once again to the outside world.
“Many businesses are just closed and shut down. And many people started to find different [sources of] incomes. Four or five of my neighbors have left this small area,” said Zak Mishriky, owner of Zak’s Jerusalem Gifts.
The pandemic hit nearby Bethlehem too, a tourist town with few visitors.
“Because of the coronavirus we don’t see tourists in Bethlehem but we hope that next year things will be better and we will see again the American people in Bethlehem,” said Jamil Hosh, owner of Bethlehem Star Olive Wood Factory.
Zak Mishriky owns a third-generation gift shop in the Old City of Jerusalem. He says Christians in the Holy Land need support.
“It's very important because we understand that Christ the only solution for Jerusalem. And we need to have Christians in Jerusalem, you know, and to live here in Jerusalem so that we can interact with both sides and show them the hope and then talk about it,” said Mishriky.
When the pandemic hit last year, Mishriky went online with zak’sjerusalemgifts.com.
“I was able to see that online is the only hope … the only connection to reach the whole word from Jerusalem is only online,” he said.
From olive wood nativity sets to coins from the time of Jesus and anointing oil, Mishriky offers a wide range of Christmas gifts. He wants to provide gifts with meaning while supporting Christian brothers and sisters in the Holy Land.
“I do my best to make it all biblical, to make it all my gifts connected to the Bible, you know, and to connect it to the tradition and connect it to Christians from the Middle East,” said Mishriky.
Although the virus continues to be a concern, businesses are still helping merchants operate in the place it all began 2,000 years ago. That’s where Artza Box comes in, a Jewish company designed to bring the Holy Land to Christians in North America and founded when the pandemic shut down Israel.
“We thought, ‘how can we try and create something that supports the small Israeli businesses and charities and Israel, and at the same time builds this connection in this bridge to people in America, particularly Christians in America? And how can they experience Israel, the land of the Bible in a meaningful and a fun and an immersive way, and to really take you on a journey through the land?’” Said Founder Itai Schimmel.
An Artza Box subscription provides gifts from the Holy Land four times a year made locally by folks like Jamil Hosh. This month’s Artza box brings focuses on the towns connected with the birth of Jesus.
“We have Bethlehem, Jerusalem, Galilee and Nazareth and we've bought two products from each of those places. So, we thought it'd be very fitting and appropriate for Christmas. We celebrate the birth of Jesus. So how can we try and take the four cities and places that were most important to his life. And how can we take that and put it inside the box and deliver it for Christmas,” said Schimmel.
Like Christmas last year, Artza includes gifts from Jamil Hosh’s Bethlehem olive woodshop. New this year is a gift from Israeli artist Noa Attias.
"What I made for Artza was a home blessing for them... It’s a blessing of peace, peace onto your home. I think everyone today needs peace all over the world. That’s my blessing to every home," said Attias.
Since its founding, Artza has worked with 42 businesses in the land and eight charities. For Schimmel, it’s all part of the Jewish concept of “Tikun Olam” – healing the world.
“For me, my Tikun Olam is ‘how can I connect people to Israel?’ How can I bring the experience of the Holy Land to people’s home and at the same time, how can I connect small businesses here in Israel?’” he said.
Schimmel says the gift boxes bring the Holy Land to life.
“People open it and they share it with their families and they bring it to that church group. So, it's homeschool moms or it's people on date nights…people have really, really loved it and, and they get moved by this box. So, it's not just the gift box. It's kind of like this real experience, which touches people's hearts.”
Like Schimmel, Mishriky believes the times we are living in demand hope.
“We know the time is not easy and difficult and through our gifts and the things we supply to people is we try to bring hope … God has never left us. God has been faithful and he has no reason not to be faithful to us. So have hope. And Christmas should bring hope.”