A Pilgrim’s Progress, Toward Tourism

A Pilgrim’s Progress, Toward Tourism

Dutch-born TV producer left career behind to lead Christian visitors on tours of Old City walls.

Jerusalem — It’s a typical weekday morning at the Jaffa Gate, a de facto center of Israeli tourism. Outside the towering gate through the Old City walls, tourists and tour guides are gathering by 8:30 for scheduled excursions. Freelance guides, Jewish and Arab, approach stragglers and ask, “Do you need a guide?”

A few visitors circle around a middle-aged man, dressed in white shirt and tan slacks and a baseball cap, who stands near a stone bench, briefcase in hand. The group quickly grows to a few dozen men and women, from their 20s to their 50s, until the man in the baseball cap shouts, “Guys, there’s business to do — spiritual business.”

Whereupon Bart Repko, a Dutch graphic designer-turned television producer-turned Israeli guide leads the group up sets of winding staircases to the narrow pathways along the Old City walls — the ramparts that served as defensive posts for Jews two millennia ago. In the background is traffic noise, cranes helping to erect new buildings, and a view of the King David Hotel and other landmarks of contemporary Israel.

But Repko is guiding his group to the past.

In the shadows of the Tower of David, at the start of the morning, and of an Ethiopian Orthodox Church, two hours later, he lectures and cajoles, prances and jumps, points and shouts — and the members of the group (all are non-Jews; he calls them “watchmen.”) shout along, reading God’s prophetic promises to the Jewish people.

Repko, 62, gave up his successful TV career in his native Holland seven years ago to lead fellow non-Jews — he was raised as a Christian, was active in his church, calls himself a “believer” but eschews the term “Christian” (“because I know our history”) — along the walls of the capital of ancient Israel.

He was in Israel on assignment in 2006, he says, when his assignment was cancelled without notice; his TV show was cancelled; he was in tears. He heard a voice: “Bart, remove the camera from your shoulder … you have been observing the world, but from now on you will participate.”

He opened his Bible, turning to Isaiah 62:6, which states, “On your walls, O Jerusalem, I [God] have appointed watchmen; all day and all night, they shall never be silent.”

Never Be Silent (neverbesilent.org), the independent, unaffiliated organiation under whose auspices Repko takes groups along the Old City walls every morning except for Shabbat and Jewish holidays, was born.

The words “Never Be Silent” are printed on his cap.

He and his wife, Joki, who supports his efforts here, bought an apartment in southern Jerusalem, living here on tourist visas most of the year, returning to Holland every few months for a few days to comply with Israeli residence requirements.

Back in Israel, he has fashioned a unique career as a guide, an avocation for which he does not charge. His “tours” are free, except for the few shekels Jerusalem takes for entrance to the ramparts; voluntary donations support his work, he says.

The work of Repko — and of other tour guides in Israel who cater to the spiritual leanings of pro-Israel Christians — has a leveraging affect that increases his influence beyond the actual people who walk alongside him. Christian pilgrims from around the world constitute a disproportionate number of visitors here, and they return home and share with fellow believers what they have seen and learned at the country’s biblical venues.

By now Repko is a familiar face to the Old City’s tour guides and shopkeepers.

Repko peppers his sentences with “Baruch Hashem” and “Judea and Samaria” and other Hebrew expressions he’s picked up here.

Most of the people who join him are Dutch; many are German. This morning two young women from China come along. “Gentiles from all locations” come, some mornings as few as a dozen, sometimes as many as 120 people, Repko says.

Attracted by word-of-mouth publicity, they come rain or shine. Rain is fine. Especially for the Dutch, Repko says. “We love the rain.”

All come prepared with a Bible, or with a smartphone from which they read verses from Jewish scriptures.

“Let’s start proclaiming,” he declares.

He is assisted on his rounds by Albert DeHoop, a fellow Dutchman, who left his job in the insurance business last year. “We feel it is important to present the prophets’ words.”

DeHoop’s name, he points out, means “the hope” — the same meaning as “HaTikvah,” Israel’s national anthem.

Led by Repko and DeHoop, they shout out chapter and verse, and everyone reads along. “Daniel 9.” “Deuteronomy 33.” “Psalm 121.” All refer to God’s relationship with the Jewish people, and God’s promises to protect and defend them.

“Father, we remind you of your word,” Repko says, looking toward the cloudless sky. “Father, we give You no rest — keep your promise!”

“God,” Repko tells the group, “wants to be reminded.”

The folks around Repko seem familiar with the biblical words. “Many watchmen know these verses.”

Members of Repko’s group read verses in English, Dutch, German, and any number of other tongues. “It seems that Hashem understands quite a few languages.”

“Amos 9:11,” someone shouts. The verse contains God’s vow to “raise up” the “ruins” of Jerusalem.

“That’s one of our favorites,” Repko declares. “We have many favorite chapters. Almost all the prophets are our favorites.”

“Know your prophets, guys,” he advises.

Repko continues with Amos 9:12: “They upon whom my name is called may inherit the remnant of Edom and all the nations.” An End Days prophecy of Israel’s triumph.

“Don’t tell that to the Palestinians,” Repko says,

He’s unabashedly supportive of Israel, unabashedly critical of Israel’s hostile Arab neighbors. “We do not pray for our enemies,” he says. “It’s not politically correct. But it’s spiritually correct.”

All the readings are from Tanakh, Jewish scripture. Not a word from the New Testament. Not a mention of Jesus. Hardly a nod to the surrounding historical sites, although this is ostensibly a tour. No prayers. No political flags.

Repko calls his work spiritual tourism. “It’s a spiritual adventure.

“I’m not a tour guide,” he says. “I’m not a theologian.”

A morning with him sounds like an evangelist’s revival meeting — except that Repko is not an evangelist, not a missionary. He’s against preaching to Jews, against telling Jews to accept Jesus, against the belief that Christianity has supplanted Judaism, he says. “We do not need missionaries. I tell [Christian] people,’ ‘Stop missionizing.’”

Repko’s outspokenness “has earned him opponents within the Christian community,” a recent profile in The Jerusalem Post stated. “Churches find it difficult, what I am doing,” the article quoted Repko as saying, “because I am challenging them on the replacement theology, so I am a pain in the neck.”

“Many pro-Israel Christians have a hidden agenda” — to convert Jews, Repko says. He rejects that approach.

Repko “is authentic — I don’t [sense] a hidden agenda,” says Rabbi Chaim Eisen, a Brooklyn native who lives in Jerusalem and is founder of Yeshivath Sharashim (yeshivathsharashim.org), a “Web-based educational venture to engage users — both Jewish and gentile seekers of God and His word — in a deepening understanding of the Hebrew Bible and other religious classics.”

Rabbi Eisen, who says he has tried to “build bridges with Christian believers,” has gone on Repko’s tours. “He definitely has a sensitivity to the unique role of the Jewish people.”

Every morning, Repko berates Christianity, citing the Inquisition, the pogroms, the Holocaust, part of a litany of offenses committed “in the name of Christ, in the name of the Church.”

“Christian insanity,” he says. “This is our history, guys. Guys, we need to repent. We blew it for 2,000 years.”

“I like that he helps Christians face their guilt,” says Rabbi Reuven Tradburks, a Canadian-born Orthodox rabbi who met Repko a few years ago on a morning jog through the streets of Jerusalem and heard Repko’s story.

Two hours after Repko’s group met outside Jaffa Gate, the members descend another staircase and disperse through the streets of Jerusalem.

His work is done — until tomorrow morning at 8:45 at Jaffa Gate.