Kingsway Records have just released the definitive album of Messianic praise by BARRY & BATYA SEGAL. Peter Bate caught up with Bary Segal while he was in the UK for Mission To London.
Exciting things are happening in the land of Israel. That's the message from Barry Segal, one of the pioneers of the Jewish Messianic movement in that country. What's more, the role played by indigenous praise and worship music in the growth of the Israeli church is tangibly real. Barry and his wife, Batya, have been at the forefront of the groundswell of such music for the past decade and their latest album, 'Sh'ma Yisrael', recorded and produced in England with the cream of British Christian musicians, is their most adventurous and acclaimed project to date. "The Messianic album of the 90s", as dubbed by enthusiastic Jewish reviewers, has at last gained a distribution deal with Kingsway and is now in Britain's bookstores.
I begin by asking Barry about the British connection. "The problem we faced," explains Barry in his native American accent, "is that in some of the things that have been done in Israel already amongst believers, people draw upon experienced musicians and to do that they have to go into the secular music market and basically get unbelievers to do the job. Our concern, and the reason why we came to do the music in England, was that we wanted to have dedicated believers behind their instruments. By staying in Israel we were not able to get the creative as well as the spiritual presence, and that was the reason that we came to England to do it."
To get experienced artists such as Dave Bainbridge, David Fitzgerald and Dave Clifton to adapt to Jewish musical patterns was a challenge both creatively and spiritually. "For all of them I think it was like an explosion of new experience and challenge because an artist in the west has a certain technical and creative approach to a piece of music. But the problem is for us in the land of Israel that there's an indigenous, middle-eastern sound that we're developing. We don't want to apply a strictly western approach to what we're doing in Israel; we want to keep it homegrown. So we had to really pray through this and sometimes we had to say, 'Hey, just think in a new dimension!'. Oftentimes we had to refer back to other popular Israeli artists and listen to the types of music that they were doing. Sometimes we didn't even fit to that pattern because we wanted to stay in praise and worship and not become so 'rocked out' that we lost the ability to uplift people. So there were those challenges constantly, but that's one of the wonderful things of working together and we were really thankful for the team of musicians as well as Martin Smith who produced us, for the sensitivity, the encouragement and the daring, pioneering spirit that we all had to move ahead on this."
'Sh'ma Yisrael' ('Hear O Israel') has already been well received in Israel. But the album represents only a small part of the pioneering work that the Segals have been involved with in Israel. However, such a work began with humble beginnings.
Following an amusing encounter with a Christian rhythm and blues guitarist, who would teach the teenage Barry the blues whilst playing along to Christian hymns and singing his testimony ("He was so good who would argue?"), Barry's dreams of becoming a rock star were brought to a halt following a dramatic meeting with God in the early 1970s. Barry recalls, "I was leaving a Jewish delicatessen one night at about 11.30, carrying a sandwich and a quart of milk in my arms, and it was as if someone bumped into me from the opposite direction and the things fell out of my arms but there was nobody there. I had this awesome sense that I was being closed in on and that the things that meant most to me didn't actually mean that much anymore. I began to weep and fell to my knees on the street corner and in the midst of this an audible voice spoke to me and said, 'Barry, you should have more faith than this.' I knew instantly that, by a revelation of the Holy Spirit to a Jewish person who had never read the New Testament or gone to church, it was Jesus, Yeshua, standing at the door of my heart waiting to come in. For the next half an hour I prayed and asked the Lord into my life and gave him back everything."
After developing a close association with renowned teacher Derek Prince, and having formed "a congregation of young people who had come out of a similar background as myself" in the States, Barry developed an increasing burden for the land of his forefathers and moved to Israel in 1981.
"When I came to Israel there was really only one Messianic, Hebrew speaking, congregation that existed in Jerusalem and probably not more than half a dozen in the country. So, having met my wife, Batya, in the first year I was there, who was a very strong songwriter of Messianic music herself, being born in Jerusalem, there was a growing burden as our friendship developed. A common vision began in which we both saw the opportunity to pioneer." Barry goes on, "In the mid 1980s we founded a congregation in my wife's apartment which later grew house to house and then eventually we rented a building. That congregation still exists today. We left about a year and a half ago and moved to the mountains of Jerusalem where we've had a burden to begin pioneering a new work. So now we have a new house group that is meeting in our home with the hope that eventually they'll be a new congregation planted."
Due to the efforts of Barry, Batya and other Messianic Jews, and by the grace of God, the Church appears to be growing quicker than ever in Israel. "In a similar way to the way that synagogues are established across the neighbourhoods and cities of Israel, there is tremendous opportunity for the planting of new congregations throughout Jerusalem. So now in Jerusalem today there are 4,000 Messianic Jewish believers and approximately 12 Hebrew, Russian or Ethiopian speaking Messianic Jewish congregations or home fellowships in just that city, let alone 40 in the whole country. I don't know if it would be a fair comparison, but you could say that whereas in many 'Christian' nations of Europe or even in America, Islam is so forceful in its pioneering attempts, the one glorious testimony we can say in Israel is that we're planting Messianic congregations."
With his own rhythm and blues background and Batya's songwriting abilities, Barry has been quick to observe the importance of music in the strengthening of the Church in Israel. "In many ways music cuts through the barriers of culture and reaches into hearts, you could say like a spiritual missile. Praise and worship music carries its own power and of course we believe the driving power behind Christian or Messianic music is the Holy Spirit. As much as we can yield our lives to the Lord to be used, we can be an instrument for the Holy Spirit to reach out to people's lives whether it be through outreach or through building up the body of believers. So, in the last 15 years of the development of Israeli Messianic life, probably one of the significant signs of our cultural identity has been the creativity and the flood of praise and worship that has come from the indigenous body in the land so that now we have our own identifiable music. In many countries you'll find a company's praise and worship publishing of music suddenly translated into Hebrew. But in Israel there's an identifiable, separate, cultural, creative rise and flood of, not just a few, but hundreds of songs that have come into the body of the land so that there's no shortage of material. Most of those songs are widely sung from congregation to congregation so it's a very encouraging and healthy sign I think, when the Holy Spirit is at work and we can see God's hand in this, especially in the area of music."
A testimony to the strength of such music is the interest shown in 'Sh'ma Yisrael' by those outside the Church. Barry is enthusiastic about an "open door of communication" created with a well-known Israeli producer who approached Batya after listening to, and being moved by, the album. "A lot of the earlier successful popular writers of Hebrew music drew their songs from biblical passages. My wife's background is Yemenite by heritage and a lot of the leading songwriters and musicians in Israel today are from the same background. It has been said that most of the Yemenites were from the tribe of the Levites, that they had a tremendous musical heritage and that they came to Israel with a very strong belief that the Messiah would be coming soon. We feel all the more as Messianic Jewish believers that we know the Messiah is coming! So we would love to be able to see this music enter into the general market."
Israel, however, is not the only nation on the heart of the Segals. Barry and Batya have already completed a tour of a number of churches in both Britain and America this year. Following the release of two more traditionally conservative Israeli produced albums in the 80s, 'Sh'ma Yisrael' represents the first major attempt to familiarise the west with the Segal's brand of Messianic Jewish music.
Despite the fact that much of the album is recorded in Hebrew, Barry is not afraid that western worshippers will be unable to relate to the music. "We're having a lot of great response and interaction with the churches everywhere we go," Barry explains. "It's not just like singing in any foreign language but people are singing in the real language of the Bible so in actual fact the surprise has been that there's been a lot of acceptance here in the west. When there was originally a tension of whether or not to put more English on the album several people came up to us in the UK, as well as in the United States, and said, 'Don't be ridiculous, we can buy an English tape any day of the week but we can't get a Hebrew indigenous tape like this!'"
With two more albums on the drawing board and a tour of Europe already lined up for next summer, Barry and Batya are going to be busy. Yet, in the midst of such activity Barry feels that they have a timely message to share. "I would like to encourage my brothers and sisters in the UK and Europe to keep an on-the-ground focus that God is moving in this hour in tremendous ways. People need to be exhorted to stay in the narrow way and to never depart from the light of God's Word or also from his prophetic word so that we can get through the coming years together as a people. I would say one other thing also, to really remind people, like Psalm 122 verse 6 says, to pray for the peace of Jerusalem. We believe that praying for the peace of Jerusalem is in effect praying for the coming of Yeshua the Messiah."The opinions expressed in this article are not necessarily those held by Cross Rhythms. Any expressed views were accurate at the time of publishing but may or may not reflect the views of the individuals concerned at a later date.