Interview: Jim Showers and Roni Houbani
We’re all missing Israel! Travel restrictions have shut down much of the nation’s tourism, so not many people have been able to enjoy the beauty of the Holy Land this year. As hard as it is for those of us hoping to visit Israel, it’s even harder for people who make a living working in Israel’s tourism industry.
Roni Houbani is one of those people. After almost 30 years of leading tours in Israel, Roni is grappling with the current climate and gearing up to welcome people back for tours. During this hiatus, he has traveled to America and stopped in with Chris to discuss his career as a tour guide, how the pandemic has changed his work, and his friendships with evangelical Christians from his tours.
The Friends of Israel Executive Director Jim Showers joins Roni, his longtime friend, on the show to share his own insight as to the present and future relationships between Christians and Israelis. Their conversation is a much-anticipated update on what’s going on in Israel today!
If you’re interested in coming with us on one of our Up to Jerusalem tours, you can Learn More Here.
You can also check out this inspirational blog from one of our tour guests!
Steve Conover: Welcome to the Friends of Israel Today. I'm Steve Conover. With me is our host and teacher, Chris Katulka. I'd like to encourage you right at the outset to visit our website, foiradio.org to find out more information about the Friends of Israel Today. That's foiradio.org. There you'll also find our archive pages, and you can listen to six years' worth of Chris's teachings. One more time, that's foiradio.org.
Chris Katulka: We do so much at Friends of Israel, and one of the most exciting things that I think that we do is we get the chance to lead believers, Christians, over to the Holy Land to show them the places where Jesus walked, where the accounts of the Old Testament took place. It's really an amazing experience. I don't even like calling it a trip. I like to call it a pilgrimage, because it's more than just going to Disneyland. It's actually engaging with the Lord, while you're over there, in a very unique way.
That's why we're really excited to have a special guest with us in the studio. His name's Roni Houbani. He is a tour guide, an Israeli tour guide, that we use in Israel. He's a good friend with our executive director, Dr. Jim Showers. We've got them both in studio talking about what's going on in Israel, talking about where tourism's going to be in the next few years, especially with the pandemic, and really what Roni's been doing as we've been waiting for COVID-19 to clear up, something we've been praying for for a long time, because I know we're anxious to get back to Israel.
Steve Conover: First, in the news, Prime Minister Naftali Bennett recently called on the international community to act immediately against Iran, this after the International Atomic Energy Agency reported Iran has drastically increased its production of highly enriched uranium and refuses full inspection of its activities. Bennett is quoted saying, "I call for an appropriate and rapid international reaction to the severe actions of Iran. The IAEA report warns that the time to act is now."
Chris Katulka: Steve, this is my take on the situation. The Iran Deal was a failure from the beginning, and we're seeing that now. The JCPOA, as it was called, was never designed to change the real problem, and that's Iran. Iran didn't want to become a peace partner in the Middle East with other countries, the Sunni countries and Israel around them. Instead, the country had remained, even under the Iran Deal, an aggressor in the region, a sign that even if they lived up to the standards of the Iran Deal, they would've probably started uranium enrichment once the Deal sunset. I know Israel is prepared for the worst, but the question that we have to start asking ourselves is this: Are we ready for that?
Well, in the studio, we have two very special guests. The first is Dr. Jim Showers, executive director of the Friends of Israel Gospel Ministry. Jim, great to have you in the studio.
Jim Showers: Oh, it's wonderful to be with you, Chris.
Chris Katulka: I'm going to leave it to you, Jim, to introduce the special, special guest in the studio because of your friendship and the relationship that you have with him. I think we're going to have a great discussion today. Jim, I'll let you introduce our special guest.
Jim Showers: Well, thank you, Chris. With us today is Roni Houbani. He is one of the guides that we use in Israel. Roni and I have been working together for the better part of 10 years now doing tours in Israel. Guides are special people because I lead the tours, I do biblical teaching, but the guides, they know everything about Israel, about the history, about the land, about the topography. Throughout the tour, they're just constantly being asked questions, and they come up with the answers. It's an amazing profession to be in, guiding.
They go through extensive training. They have to pass a test, be able to get licensed. It's like two years of classes, two solid years of classes to learn everything from history to the cultures to the Bible and all that, to be able to guide.
Roni was coming to the U.S. Believe it or not, we can't go to Israel right now, Chris. You know that.
Chris Katulka: Yep.
Jim Showers: But Israel can come to us.
Chris Katulka: That's right.
Jim Showers: Roni was making a trip to the U.S., and I said, "Roni, you have to come by. We want to talk," so here he is.
Chris Katulka: Roni Houbani, great to have you on the program.
Roni Houbani: Thank you for having me.
Chris Katulka: Yeah, this is great. Jim, actually, I have a question right away, and it's this. You get asked questions a lot. Do you have a favorite question that you get asked, like an out of the box question? I know people are asking you stuff all the time when they're touring the land.
Roni Houbani: Well, how do you know so much?
Chris Katulka: Is that what they say?
Roni Houbani: How do you know so much? To go back to what Jim was saying, I don't call my profession a profession. I've just been blessed, knowing this country very much and loving this country very much. When you turn the hobby into a profession, you can only do it the best way.
Chris Katulka: Yes.
Roni Houbani: I love this country. I love sharing the love that I have for this country, and I had to become a tour guide.
Chris Katulka: That's fantastic.
Roni Houbani: This is the best way to share the love and the knowledge.
Chris Katulka: That's amazing. Tell me. You're in the states. Are you touring the states yourself or are you all around?
Roni Houbani: I've been all around. I've been touring. I've been meeting people. I've been speaking at different locations to people, more to promote tourists to Israel than talking about myself, just trying to get the business back in the saddle after COVID.
Chris Katulka: Now, Roni, you and I actually met briefly once, because I was on a tour with Tito, and we crossed paths at one point and we shook hands. Jim knows you very well. I think I had heard Jim, since 2013, has been using you as a tour guide. I think I once heard somebody say that you enjoy leading evangelical Christians through Israel.
Chris Katulka: Now, you can lead a lot of groups. You can lead Catholic groups. You can lead Jewish groups. There are people who just come over for basic tours to Israel. Why do you like leading evangelical Christians as an Israeli?
Roni Houbani: I did all the above.
Chris Katulka: All the above, yes.
Roni Houbani: It's just a question of chemistry, I believe, between people. My first group of evangelical Christians, or what later would know they were evangelical Christians, I believe that there was much more in common, take the thing that they believe, the way they would believe and the way I would believe, because through these evangelical Christian groups I've been guiding the last 25 years out of the 30, they have helped me building faith, not through kissing walls or touching stones or you know what I'm talking about.
Chris Katulka: Yes.
Roni Houbani: It's physical things that are not necessarily the right thing to do or worshiping things that they're not supposed to.
Chris Katulka: Friends of Israel's been leading trips to Israel since 1977, Jim. We've been bringing groups over for a long time.
Jim Showers: Yes.
Chris Katulka: I actually think since airline travel was able to get a bunch of people on to get them over there and they had hotels, we've been wanting to bring people there. Roni talked about the importance of, really, it's not just the kissing of the stones. It's not just the buildings. Roni, you had even mentioned earlier, and I hope we bring it up a little bit later, the idea of not that building and the location, but the message that matters, the message of Jesus that matters.
Roni Houbani: Absolutely.
Chris Katulka: Jim, why is it important for evangelical Christians, you believe, to get to Israel at least one point in their life?
Jim Showers: Well, part of understanding the Bible is understanding the land. You can't disconnect the land from the Bible. So much of the Bible that you read, it takes place in that land. It's not just the people. It's the people. It's the land. It's the faith. It all goes together.
People come to me on our tours all the time, toward the end of the tour, and tell me how they will never read their Bible the same after seeing Israel. I'm not just talking about pastors or Bible teachers. It's the everyday Christian, who gets to see the land in a unique way.
One of the things we do when we're in Israel is to help people get a better understanding of what the Bible teaches. For example, you oftentimes read about locations in the Bible, but if you haven't been there to see it, you don't really understand it. Take Caesarea Maritime, for example, Chris. Caesarea Maritime, you read, for example, Peter goes there, right?
Chris Katulka: Mm-hmm (affirmative)
Jim Showers: He has a vision. He's down in Jaffa.
Chris Katulka: Jaffa, yeah.
Roni Houbani: Jaffa.
Jim Showers: He's down in Jaffa. He has this vision that God gives to him of the sheet coming down, unclean, and so forth. He ends up there in Cornelius's house, and he shares the Gospel with Cornelius, his family, and friends. Cornelius is so excited about this, he invites all of his friends in. He wants them all to hear what Peter has to say, and many come to faith in Jesus Christ through that. It is from there that the Gospel... This is the main entrance into Israel during the New Testament times. Under the Roman Empire, this was the main port in and out of the country, so the significance of bringing the Gospel to Caesarea Maritime is that this is the launching point from which the Gospel is going to go out to the world, right?
Chris Katulka: Yep.
Jim Showers: How do you and I come to be blessed by the Gospel today in the heritage that we've inherited? It's because of what Peter did to go to that city. We go there. We talk about that. We sit in the actual amphitheater that was there in the days of Peter, and we talk about that. Those kinds of connections, going to Jerusalem...
We did the Jerusalem in Prophecy Conference this summer. If you go to Jerusalem, you get what Jerusalem's about that you don't get just from reading the Bible. The location, the geography, the fact that you have to go up to get to Jerusalem... It doesn't matter what direction you approach from, you're going up. God's teaching an important lesson that when you come up to meet with Me, because Jerusalem is the City of God. It's the one place on earth God said, "I will build My House and I will reside in." When you go up to Jerusalem, you're going up to meet with God.
It communicates to us, as humans, we're below God. We go up to meet with Him. He doesn't come down to us, right? There's all that that goes on, that you just leave the land with such an appreciation for what the Bible teaches and says. You'll never get that from just studying the Word unless you go to the land of Israel.
Chris Katulka: If you've been listening, you'll hear the fun that you'll have if you get a chance to go on one of our trips, the two of these guys. It's just... You'll be able to follow them around and get a great experience of what Israel is all about. We're going to direct you to how you can sign up to go on a tour.
Now, Roni, when we come back, I want to ask you a few questions, because I'm sure a lot of people are driving around listening. They're listening on the podcast and they're going, "I'd like to go to Israel, but COVID, Chris, COVID, COVID, COVID." I know COVID's on your mind. I know the pandemic's on our mind here. I want to help bring a little clarity to what's going on in Israel and maybe some optimism about how the tour industry is going to open back up, and so when we come back, we're going to talk more about that. Everyone, be sure to stick around. (singing)
Welcome back, everybody. We have Roni Houbani, our beloved tour guide that we use in Israel with our Up To Jerusalem Tours. We have Dr. Jim Showers, the executive director of Friends of Israel, in the studio. We're talking about Israel. We're talking about touring Israel. We've been doing it since 1977.
Roni, I know a lot of people are probably thinking, "Pandemic, Chris. How am I going to get over there? It's on my bucket list to get to the Holy Land." What's going on in Israel right now, when it comes to the pandemic? Do you have any optimism that they'll be opening up soon?
Roni Houbani: We were born to be optimistic and think positive. As we talk, right now the borders of Israel are closed. You cannot come to Israel. Those that can come to Israel are mainly for family issues and a few businessmen, because the show must go on. In some businesses, you need to have this physical meeting and not just over Zoom or camera, but you have to be fully vaccinated. As we talk today, you have to be fully vaccinated to be able to come to Israel.
Chris Katulka: Yes.
Roni Houbani: I'm an Israeli. I'm fully vaccinated. I will go home, and as we talk today, I will have to be quarantined for one week at home until I get all these different tests done.
Chris Katulka: You have to do all the tests, too, right? You have to get a test before you get on the plane-
Roni Houbani: You have to do all the tests. There is no-
Chris Katulka: Get a test when you get off the plane.
Roni Houbani: There is no discount for anybody, so at least 72 hours before I fly back home, I will have to have a test. I will have a test in the Tel Aviv Airport before I go home and quarantine for one week, unless I take another three tests, different tests in the hospital.
As for tourism, they say, "Well, we have this big question mark." Big question mark, because some groups that I know of, some people I met, one of the members of family is not fully vaccinated, or the church for whatever reason, or the group for whatever reason do not believe in vaccines, so as we talk right now, they will not be able to come to the country. It would be ridiculous to come and to be two weeks in quarantine before starting your tour.
We want to be optimistic. All the people that I've met here are really dying to come to Israel. We just need to be able to do it.
Chris Katulka: Tourism was at an all-time high.
Roni Houbani: It was, yeah.
Chris Katulka: Record breaking entering into 2020.
Roni Houbani: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Chris Katulka: My prayer is that, as soon as it becomes viable for tourism, and hopefully as those restrictions begin to loosen up, it's just going to flood in again. People will be coming from all over.
Roni Houbani: It might flood in again. There'll probably be some chaos.
Chris Katulka: Yes.
Roni Houbani: Because everybody will want to come at the same time, right?
Chris Katulka: Yes.
Roni Houbani: There will be some chaos, but once we can get over this chaos, I believe it will come back big-time. It will come back very, very big, and we'll get back to a normal life where we were two years ago, and this will be just another page of history.
Chris Katulka: Another page of history.
Roni Houbani: That's what we'll mention to our grandkids.
Chris Katulka: That's right.
Roni Houbani: In 2020, we had… (Roni and Chris laugh)
Chris Katulka: Jim, I want to ask you. We know over here... Roni lives in Israel, but over here, we're dealing with the issue of Christian support for Israel all the time. We've been looking at stats that have been coming out. Some of the numbers aren't that pleasing.
We see that young evangelicals, the support is dwindling in some way. I'm interested to know. Do you believe that when a Christian goes to Israel that they kind of become a Christian Zionist once their feet touch down in the land, that maybe they get a better picture of what it's like to go to the Holy Land, what it means based upon the Scriptures, God's plan for Israel and the Jewish people?
Jim Showers: Great question, Chris, because our perceptions of things are formed out of what inputs we get. If all you get is inputs on Israel from the mainstream media, from the Internet, social media, and so forth, and so many people attend churches today and don't really get teaching on Israel, don't know the importance of the role that Israel plays, they can easily adopt a perception that Israel is a big bully and that Israel doesn't treat the Arabs fairly and is trying to get rid of them, so they can have all the land for themselves.
Going to Israel and just seeing both sides and beginning to understand the challenge Israel has to live in a land that God gave to them by covenant, and God says that covenant is a forever covenant. Forever, to me, means that as long as this world exists, that land is given to Israel. It does change. We've seen this over and over again.
We've seen, for example, on ORIGINS, our young adult volunteer trip, we've seen people go over, who weren't really gung-ho about Israel, but they thought the trip sounded like a great opportunity to go and help, and they come back just strongly Zionist in their convictions, strongly supporting Israel. Some people don't know what Zionism means. Zionism simply means that you believe Israel has a right to live in the land and govern itself as a country. If that's what you believe, then you're a Zionist.
Chris Katulka: That's right.
Jim Showers: If you're a Christian, that makes you a Christian Zionist, because our understanding of that comes out of the Word of God. It comes out of the promises that God made. For those that believe those promises no longer apply, our whole salvation is tied up in the promises God made to Israel. If those promises don't apply to Israel, our salvation is worthless, right?
Chris Katulka: That's right.
Jim Showers: It's a very, very important thing. We are seeing consistently in polls that are being done over the last 10-15 years about support for Israel, while overall support for Israel amongst evangelicals is still very high, the younger generations are not nearly as supportive of Israel as the older. Younger generations have a real passion for social justice, and so with the information that's coming to them, they quickly size up that the Arabs are the victims and Israel is the aggressor, when in reality it's the other way around.
Chris Katulka: That's right. Once you see it in person, you get a better understanding of what's going on, on the ground.
Jim Showers: Yes.
Chris Katulka: Can I just say, too, for our listeners, maybe it's on your bucket list, and you're listening right now, and you're thinking, "Man, I've always wanted to go to the Holy Land," there's no better people to go with than the Friends of Israel. There's no better people to go with, or tour guide to go with, than Roni Houbani, who's here with us right now. You can already hear Dr. Showers' passion about making sure people put their feet in the Holy Land to see what's going on.
Let me encourage you, too. Maybe it's something on your bucket list. We believe you're going to get over there. We believe things will open back up again. We are confident it will happen, but at the same time, you know what? Don't just go yourself. Maybe you have some grandkids that are old enough to go. You should bring them along, so that their feet can touch down in the Holy Land.
Maybe you've got some kids that are older, teenage kids, 20 years old. This would be a great opportunity for a family trip. We've seen that happen on our tours, where families-
Jim Showers: Many times.
Chris Katulka: Yeah, where families come over. A great opportunity to raise up the next generation of people who love and support Israel and the Jewish people. Roni, thanks for joining us.
Roni Houbani: Thanks for having me.
Chris Katulka: This is fantastic. I know you're going to be going home soon to get some Turkish coffee and some hummus and pita. I'm excited for you. I'm jealous of you, actually, and Dr. Showers, thank you so much for being with us, sir.
Jim Showers: Thank you, Chris.
Steve Conover: Now, Apples of Gold, a dramatic reading from the life and ministry of Holocaust survivor, Zvi Kalisher.
Mike Kellogg: In Israel, people are preparing for the feast of Rosh Hashanah followed by the greatest holy day of all, Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. This is the only holy day people fear; 30 days beforehand, they begin to pray day and night for forgiveness.
Recently, some people came to me and said, "We want you to forget about your strange ways and come with us to pray." When I asked who has sent them, they replied, "No one sent us. We have come on our own."
"No," I responded. "You did not come on your own, but God sent you, so I could tell you that He has already forgiven my sins."
"Oh, yes," they agreed. "He forgives us every year at this time of the great fast."
"This is not what I mean," I countered. "I came to God only once. I put my faith in Him, and He forgave my sins. He can forgive your sins, also, once, forever."
They were not interested in anything I said. "If you will do as we ask," one told me, "you will have no more trouble with us." I told them, "I am not afraid of you. I fear only God."
"How can you fear God when you do not believe in Him, but in Jesus?" another asked. I replied, "The Lord said, 'I've had enough of burnt offerings of rams,' Isaiah 1:11. I believe only in one offering, and that is the offering of the Lord, Himself, who gave Himself for us."
"From what book did you take that?" one asked. Quickly, I turned to Isaiah 53, and then I told him, "He is the One in Whom I have trusted, and He has given me peace. I know that when I leave the world, I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever. You have come to tell me that I may experience trouble from you, but I am not afraid anymore."
"Not even about your life, when demanded?"
"No, because I know Whom I belong." At this point, someone said, "If you're not afraid of us, then let us make a ceasefire and speak together as good friends."
"That is what I have been waiting for," I replied. "I do not hate you. You're my dear friends, and you're welcome to visit me anytime." All of them said, "We cannot believe this."
"May I read to you from the New Testament and tell you why I am so happy?" They agreed, and I read Romans 12:9-21. After I finished, one man asked, "These things are nice to hear, but if Jesus loved His enemies, then why did the Germans, who are Christians, persecute the Jewish people so badly?"
I replied, "I am sure that they were not true believers. Now, many in Germany are sorry for what they did and are again calling on the Lord, but they are not really clean within. They only hope they are clean, just as you hope when you pray at Yom Kippur. On the Day of Atonement, you will not be sure if the Lord has forgiven your sins, but I know He has forgiven mine. My friends, why do you continue to live in fear? The Lord is your Atonement. He will receive you into His family and forgive your sins. You came hatefully to warn me, but the love of the Lord has been with us. We should thank the Lord that He is with us."
These people left my home feeling differently than when they came. They left with love in their hearts and smiles on their faces. Praise the Lord.
Steve Conover: Thank you so much for joining us today. Where are we headed next week, Chris?
Chris Katulka: Yeah, so it's almost about 100 days since Prime Minister Naftali Bennet became the Premier of Israel. We'll look at... I know a lot of us love and support Benjamin Netanyahu, but there's a new prime minister in office. He's only got two years to work, so we've got to see what he's been doing in the first 100 days, because they're really going to mark a legacy for him.
Steve Conover: Our host and teacher is Chris Katulka. Today's program was produced by Tom Gallione. Our theme music was composed and performed by Jeremy Strong. Mike Kellogg read Apples of Gold, and I'm Steve Conover, executive producer. Our mailing address is FOI Radio, PO Box 914, Bellmawr, New Jersey, 08099. Again, that's FOI Radio, PO Box 914, Bellmawr, New Jersey, 08099.
I'll give you one last, quick reminder to visit us at foiradio.org. The Friends of Israel Today is a production of the Friends of Israel Gospel Ministry. We are a worldwide evangelical ministry proclaiming biblical truth about Israel and the Messiah while bringing physical and spiritual comfort to the Jewish people.
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Apples of Gold: Yom Kippur—The Lord is Your Atonement
During Rosh Hashanah and before Yom Kippur, a group of people came to Zvi to try to get him to see the way of Judaism is the correct way to God, not the way he says people come to God, through Jesus the Messiah. They asked him to come to synagogue with him to observe Yom Kippur. Because of their pure intent and their heart attitude, Zvi was able to have an open and honest discussion about why he believed what he did, and they were open to hearing the Truth that lies in Scripture.
The Friends of Israel Today theme music was composed and performed by Jeremy Strong.
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