And the Lord said unto Gustav...
By Sam Orbaum
GUSTAV SCHELLER is dying, yet he is content, for he has accomplished his Zionist dream of aliyah. Scheller did not resettle in Israel. But no one person in our time has so monumentally contributed to the Ingathering of the Exiles as this Christian gentleman. Like Moses and Herzl before him, he is resigned to ending his life in the Diaspora, after having led the Chosen People to their land.
In just eight years, he has brought 60,000 Jewish immigrants to Israel. That is fully 1% of the population. That is almost beyond belief. Scheller didn't merely bankroll the effort, he personally went to the forbidding "Land of the North," interpreted from the Bible as the former Soviet empire. Like a door-to-door salesman, he made them an offer they couldn't refuse: a new life, safe and prosperous, among their own.
A month ago, Scheller brought a shipload of Jews from Odessa - the 100th sailing of his Operation Exodus. Funded entirely by Christian Zionists worldwide, and staffed by Christian volunteers, Operation Exodus has spent $15 million to bring Jews home. Why? Because they love us. "Christians have no choice but to love the Jews. You have given us the Bible."
Scheller, a 70-year-old Swiss-born Briton, has been to Israel "60 or 70 times," and feels such a close kinship with the Jewish people he can take a good-natured jab at us and not be misunderstood. "The Lord touched my heart and gave me a love for your people. I'm grateful for that, because to be honest, not all your people are easy to love."
Operation Exodus was born during the Gulf war. Saddam Hussein picked a fight with the wrong people. We may have been stoic, but our Christian Zionist friends were absolutely riled. "In 1991 I gathered 120 Christians at the HolyLand Hotel to pray for the peace of Jerusalem and the protection of the land. You must remember, everybody was leaving the country at the time, we were the only crazy people who came. We had the most amazing conference; sometimes we sat in the sealed rooms with the gas masks on. It was during this time, with the Scud missiles falling, that I felt the Lord started speaking to me, saying you can help my people go home. I shared this with the conference, because they were all praying people. I was amazed - they spontaneously gave me $30,000 on the spot. "That was the birth of what we call Operation Exodus."
At first, he helped the Jewish Agency charter planes to bring Soviet immigrants, but inspired by Isaiah, and the Scriptural description of the Jews returning from the Land of the North by boat, he took it on himself. "But I thought, this is too big for me. A ship costs a lot of money, it's a huge responsibility. Would I get rights to take the ships into Soviet waters? Then one day, it very simply came to me that the Lord was saying Gustav, a ship is possible."
Scheller ventured into the inhospitable Soviet lands to build the structure of his program which now comprises 20 offices. "We have knocked on thousands and thousands of Jewish doors. We go to the most amazing places: in Kazakhstan we had no heating, and it was minus 35 degrees. We reach out to the far corners of Siberia. To Kyrghistan, Uzbekistan, to impossible locations. "We do not just arrange trips, we tell them 'You are Jews, your homeland is not Russia, it's Israel. We tell them why more Jews are going home now, not just because the Sochnut or we are doing a good job. They realize that anti-Semitism is again growing rapidly, and that many people are blaming the Jews for the economic breakdown. They feel the pressure and that encourages them to go home."
Guided by faith, girded by patience and resolve, Scheller and his flock of redeemers have withstood resistance from all sides. The Jew-ish Agency, he says, merely tolerates them. Cooperation from the foreign authorities? "You must be joking. We have battles all the time. If you want trouble, I suggest you join us. We come under attack from Christians, Jews and the authorities. But we have the most wonderful experiences." They've encountered opposition from the religious here, who are naturally suspicious, "But I can say our hands are clean. Every volunteer has to sign a dec-laration that they will not act in any way as missionaries, that our sole responsibility is to carry your people home."
The very objects of their affection are not always so willing to be rescued. Surely, what must a Jew - cowed by innate anti-Semitism - think when Christians beat a path to his re-mote home, avowing their love for him, compelling him to uproot and journey to Jerusalem? "When our people go to see the Jews, we bring them a tin of coffee or something, and we show them love, show them what the Scripture says about the ingathering of the people. But sometimes, we have to go back and keep trying."
With his workforce of 350, and a mandate from generous Christians, Scheller spends about $150,000 per sailing, helping many others arrive by air as well. The immigrants are first housed at reception camps for a few days before reaching Zion. Reflecting on the current controversy of non-Jews immigrating here, Scheller explains: "When we are not sure if they are Jews, we involve the Israeli consul who examines their documents. Many are turned down. Your Israeli consuls travel all over the Soviet Union, doing a difficult and splendid job. It is sometimes heartbreaking when they turn down ramifies who want to go. But we only deal with those we know are bona fide Jews." He is deeply pained by reports that have reached him of "Jews who wanted to make aliyah being killed."
Scheller won't say how much of his own wealth he has pumped into Operation Exodus. "That's between me and the Lord. I think it would be totally wrong to mention this. I haven't even told my wife." He defers the credit, saying, "all we've done is God's doing. I've just been a tool in His hand. "We have enjoyed God's protection, God's blessing, God's provision, day by day. Our workers have always returned well and healthy."
He has a few terse words of advice for our peace negotiators: "All the Jews must go home, so don't give the land away. It's yours." Scheller himself can not reach the Promised Land. It would take a miracle, he says. "Doctors say my cancer is terminal. But I have peace and I trust the Lord. There is no anxiety." What profound joy he must feel to see the prophecies coming true, and to be chosen to fulfill them. He has accomplished much. He is content.