Normally at this time of year, Bethlehem is abuzz: pilgrims start trickling into the city, lights adorn the ancient buildings, and preparations for the annual celebration in Manger Square are finalized.
“Christmas has always illuminated Bethlehem with its blessings and extravagant spirit. It is a joyful occasion full of peace and love with Christmas lights brightening the home of Jesus,” said Chris Nissan, an owner of the Bethlehem New Store on Manger Street in Bethlehem. “Christmas parades always manage to give life to Bethlehem as we all gather as one, celebrating the birth of Jesus.”
But this year will be a very different Christmas in Bethlehem for people like my friend Chris.
At a time when there is particular focus on the unique history of Bethlehem, I also wanted to ensure Bethlehem in present day does not get overlooked. As we celebrate the holidays this year, it’s important to keep in mind how difficult this season will be for the citizens of Bethlehem today.
“Bethlehem, my little city, is very sad these days,” said Jamil Hosh, owner of the Bethlehem Star Olive Wood factory, which has been selling hand-made olive wood goods since 1971. “There are 11,000 beds for tourists in Bethlehem, and now there is not a single tourist in the city. We all live from the tourist business – most of the people in Bethlehem are without any income.”
Tourists are largely unable to enter the city due to COVID restrictions, which not only means a lot less holiday cheer, it means a lot less business for local merchants who have been struggling over the past nine months.
“We have been forced to close all our businesses for so many months now, and send all our employees home. We feel they are our responsibility, but we were left with no choice, which has drastically and negatively impacted the business,” said Nissan. “In fact, Bethlehem generally depends on tourism to a point where Bethlehem with no tourists is like a tank of fish with no water.”
Recognizing the hardship the coronavirus has brought to merchants in Bethlehem, those of us at Artza – a new direct-to-consumer company – are trying to help, both here and in other parts of the Holy Land.
Artza, which is Hebrew for “toward the land,” offers a quarterly subscription box delivering a mix of artisanal food, hand-crafted gifts and content specifically geared toward Christians across America. Through December we are featuring a box filled with items from artisans in and around Bethlehem, offering a much-needed boost to local small businesses. The idea is to deliver an assortment of gifts that people will not find anywhere else, all while supporting local small businesses and strengthening peoples’ connection to the Land of the Bible.
When we came up with the idea for Artza, the pandemic was in its early days and you could already see the devastation the lack of tourism was causing small businesses here. We feel so blessed to be able to connect our customers in America with small businesses in the Holy Land. Our members are providing a lifeline to small businesses here at an incredibly difficult period, and I know neither we nor the artisans we work with take that support for granted.
“The Artza order was able to help and support so many Christian families over here, as well as the company itself,” said Georges. “We are very thankful for keeping us on your mind and constantly supporting us. We are highly grateful for any kind of purchase, small or large.”
Hosh agreed, as a large order of Christmas tree ornaments are en route to folks back in America. “This order helped me a lot to keep my factory open, running and supporting me and my fifteen workers who work in the factory.”
I also asked Chris if he had a message to deliver to American tourists, and he was nothing short of gracious: “You are deeply missed over here, especially during this Christmas period. We are hoping to see all of you very soon in the Holy Land. You are always in our prayers, always wishing you health, happiness, and success; and of course, a blessed Christmas and a happy new year.”
I look forward to the day when pilgrims can safely return to Holy Land. In the meantime, say a prayer for those in Israel – and every other struggling community – that need some extra help right now, and find creative ways to lend support by whatever means you have.
Dorian Schimmel immigrated to Israel ten years ago and is one of the founders of Artza, a new direct to consumer company delivering a taste of the Holy Land to Christians across America.