At the southernmost tip of Israel, where three countries meet on the Gulf of Aqaba, you will find the ancient port city of Eilat. Nestled on the shores of the Red Sea with its azure and aquamarine waters and the contrasting russet-colored mountains forming part of the Great Rift Valley, the growing desert city with its international airport is a thriving holiday destination that attracts locals and tourists from around the globe.
Not far from the hotels and restaurants, glass-bottomed boats, coral beaches, buskers and street artists, and bustling malls with their duty-free shopping and active night life, in a quiet, unassuming neighborhood, you will find a retreat of a different kind: The Shelter Hostel. True to its name, this haven has been providing sanctuary to travelers for over three decades. It is known by its guests throughout Israel and abroad.
KNI spoke with The Shelter’s Judy Pex. Pex and her husband John are the masterminds behind the unique project that has impacted many thousands of lives over the last 30 years.
Pex recalled how before The Shelter came about, they were newlyweds living in a tent in the Sinai. It was the late 1970s and the tail end of the hippie lifestyle was evident in this part of the world. Eilat then, just like now, attracted tourists and seekers from all walks of life. Judy was an American Jewess who made Aliyah and John was a Catholic from Holland. The unlikely couple came to believe in Yeshua, the Jew who is the Savior of both Jew and non-Jew.
As a couple, the two naturally gravitated towards hospitality and sharing in their home and faith. As their family grew and numerous guests came to visit, the Pex’ found it necessary to acquire bigger accommodations in order to keep sharing. Following that pattern, it became clear that something even larger and more permanent, outside their home, would be more amenable if they wanted to continue being hospitable while sharing the Gospel. Thus the current premises was found and the ministry was born.
Judy said that the name for the hostel was chosen because the property was right behind a bomb shelter and there were “SHELTER” signs all around. The spiritual symbolism was not lost on them, so displayed boldly on a plaque on the wall just inside the front gate is Isaiah 4:6: “It will be a shelter and shade from the heat of the day, and a refuge and hiding-place from the storm and rain.”
The Shelter has done just that! Offering economical accommodation in a peaceful, international atmosphere since 1984, the hostel continues to host believers and unbelievers — meeting together, mixing together in a community setting that facilitates networking, relationship-building and a platform for the Gospel to be lived, shared and spread.
Pex described how over the years, apart from regular hostel guests, there have been specific waves of groups being impacted by and impacting the work at The Shelter. As an author, she has been able to write about the various experiences.
At the outset, because both John and Judy were outdoor travelers and backpackers themselves, The Shelter’s first wave was mostly backpackers, hippie travelers and kibbutz volunteers.
The next wave was in the 1990s which saw a flood of Russian immigrants coming to the country.
“We filled up the hostel with Russian folk who couldn’t find places to stay,” Pex recalled. “They came to us and they too were open to the Gospel.”
The following wave was the Chinese and Romanian construction workers who the Israeli government brought in to build homes for the Russian immigrants.
“By this stage we had the congregation and these people joined us for Friday night meals. Many became believers,” Pex told us.
Then, the following wave saw Sudanese refugees coming over the border by the thousands.
“We noticed these poor people and invited them. We got very involved in helping them. A few years later they were deported,” Pex explained.
Each wave brought people with different needs that were met by the unique ministry that is The Shelter.
“We meet their needs not only physically – by way of shelter, but also emotionally and spiritually,” she clarified.
All guests are invited to join the daily Bible study and are offered a New Testament.
To be able to offer guests affordable accommodations, they keep running costs low. The Shelter has four or five volunteers at any given time who are responsible for the general running of the hostel.
“They are a vital part of the work here and come from countries such as Holland, Germany, England, Switzerland, the USA and Finland, for example,” Judy said, emphasizing: “Our goal is to minister to the body, soul and spirit of everyone who comes in our gates.”
The latest wave of guests to The Shelter is made up of “trailists” otherwise known in Hebrew as “shvilistim.” The term pertains to hikers who follow the Israel National Trail that stretches the length of the country from the Lebanese border to Eilat. The trail (shvil) was named by National Geographic as one of the 20 best epic hiking trails in the world and it attracts trailists from everywhere.
In 2005, John and Judy took a mini sabbatical and walked the entire distance of the trail.
“We love hiking, exploring the country and nature, so we walked the 1,000 kilometers from Eilat to Kibbutz Dan while journaling it to put into a book,” Pex said. “The first challenge was the walking, the other part was writing the book.” “Only after we did the trail, did we hear about Trail Angels. We joined the forum and then we decided to be trail angels too.”
After getting listed, John and Judy began to offer trailists a free night at The Shelter.
“Generally speaking, in the spring the hikers start at the northern end of the trail and in the fall they begin in Eilat,” she said, adding that “the trail attracts a lot of Israelis who are fresh out of the army.”
In each season The Shelter hosts a couple of hundred trailists for free as well as offering an opportunity to join the Bible study and receive a New Testament.
Four years ago, Alon was one of the hikers who stayed at The Shelter when he hiked the Israel National Trail. Last month, he came back with KAN (Israel’s new public broadcasting corporation) to do a feature on The Shelter in which he talked about the trail, the role of The Shelter and John and Judy.
Pex said that Alon spent four hours there interviewing them, guests and filming to make the six-minute movie, which has been very well received. The clip made it clear that The Shelter is not there to be a “Christian Guesthouse” or to convert Jews.
“You never know what an interviewer will do, but I appreciate how Alon was able to grasp the goal of The Shelter and how he pieced things together and was able to weave our testimonies into the presentation the way he did,” Pex said.
Click below to watch the KAN video (in Hebrew – for English subtitles press the settings button on bottom right of the video).
For more information visit the Facebook Page for The Shelter.
Pex is also a published author. Click here to visit her Amazon page to find more about her books.