Messianic Jews Under Fire

Israel Today/December 20, 1985
By Naomi Pfefferman

At first glance, Ahavat Zion look like an ordinary Jewish synagogue. On a Saturday morning in Beverly Hills, worshippers pray facing an ark containing Torah scrolls in a side room, a man puts on a long-fringed tallit.

Here are all the familiar trappings of Judaism - monorot on stained glass windows, a pulpit emblazoned with a star of David. Men wear kipot; kiddish is said over a cup of wine.

But on closer look, the Jewish atmosphere gives way to, well, something else. Something Christian. "I praise Christ all the time, you know that," said a man over a cup of wine.

"Peace be with you," said a woman in flowing white robes to a man with a large tape recorder. "Shabbat Shalom," he replied, as the player blared songs hailing the messiah.

Soon the bustle quiets and Ahvat Zion's bearded spiritual leader, Barry Budoff, takes the pulpit. "We come to you in the name of our Messiah, Yeshua," he chants, body rocking, eyes squeezed shut.

Ahavat Zion calls itself a Messianic synagogue; congregates believe that Jesus - or Yeshua, as they call him, is the promised Messiah, the son of God who died and rose again for their salvation.

The service itself is a strange potpourri of Baptist-style preachings and readings from a Hebrew siddur. Congregates worship in their own personal styles; some shake tambourines to Messianic hymns, others hold arms aloft or prostate themselves on the ground.

Messianic Jews are often products of marriages between Jews and Christians, or themselves in mixed marriages. All insist they are fully Jewish, but mainstream Jewish leaders say Jesus and Judaism don't mix. "It's as impossible as kosher pork," said Rabbi Ben-Tzion Kravitz, head of Jews for Judaism, a counseling program in Los Angeles to keep young Jews out of cults and Messianic mission groups.

"I would call it a bastard," said Rabbi Schlomo Schwartz, who heads Chabad's West Coast anti-Missionary efforts. "It's an illegal child of an incestuous, adulterous relationship."

Messianic groups, Jewish leaders say, are deliberately misrepresenting themselves to make Christianity more acceptable to Jews they want to convert. "What they're doing is theological deception," Kravitz said. "It's consumer fraud. These groups understand that for Jews to be attracted to a Christian church requires overcoming enormous barriers."

So aggressive Christian missionaries, caught up in the nation's new fundamentalist fervor, have come up with a new twist to the evangelism game. "It's the devious trick of false labeling," Schwartz said.

And the "labels" are what Jewish leaders find so dangerous. For example, they say, Messianic groups like Ahavat Zion list themselves as synagogues in the yellow pages. And messianic leaders, like Budoff, call themselves rabbis, though many admit they've never been ordained in any traditional Jewish sense. Some, like Jews for Jesus founder Marvin "Moishe" Rosen, are ordained Baptist preachers.

But Avi Snyder, Los Angeles director of Jews for Jesus, waves the deception charge aside. "I'm curious as to where the real charge lies," he says. "We're up front about who we are. Is there anything ambiguous about the term 'Jews for Jesus'?"

But Jewish leaders remain vehement. In April, more than 30 Jewish groups signed a statement condemning "deceptive Christian proselytizing" - the first time the diverse local Jewish community has come together on the issue. "We recognize the constitutional right of religious groups to practice their faiths and to share those beliefs with others," the statement reads. "…but we condemn the deceptive practices employed by certain Christian missionary groups in their zeal to win converts. Of paramount concern…is the claim of certain Christian missionary groups that they legitimately represent Jewish tradition. So-called 'Jews for Jesus', 'Messianic Jews,' 'Hebrew Christians'….Throughout history, the Jewish community, without exception, has agreed that belief in Jesus as God, the Messiah, Savior, or the son of God is Christian doctrine which wholly apart from Jewish tradition and theology. Therefore, any movement which professes such belief is not a part of Judaism and cannot legitimately represent itself as such."

But Snyder strongly disagrees. "The charge of deception is itself right on the border of being deceptive," he says. "It's an old lawyers' trick. If you don't want people to give an honest, open-minded hearing to what a witness is saying on the witness stand, you discredit the witness."

Snyder, a slight, bearded man whose speech is sprinkled with Yiddish, sits in the meeting room for Jews for Jesus', Studio City headquarters. The office is inconspicuously located above a clothing shop on Ventura Boulevard; there is a dark flight of stairs, a buzzer and peep-hole, and a small, plain plaque that reads, "Jews for Jesus." The front door is always locked.

Inside, pictures of Israel decorate the walls, and a plaque reading "Y'shua" adorns the meeting room; here, Snyder talks quickly, eagerly about his work.

"My job is to let people know that, if you're Jewish, yes, you should believe in Jesus," he says. Jews, he adds, can't be complete unless they accept Jesus as savior. "You can't call Judaism a belief system," he continues. "Tell me what my belief consisted of when I was circumcised at eight days old."

But Rabbi Shelton Donnell of Wilshire Boulevard Temple says this kind of thinking as anti-Jewish. "Messianic Jews suggest that Judaism as it is understood by the Jewish community is not complete in and of itself," he explained. "That's theological anti-Semitism. I take offense at that."

But Snyder has his own interpretation. "If Jesus were the only cure to cancer and the only reason you withheld that information to a person who's dying of cancer is because he's Jewish, I'd say that was anti-Semitism," he said.

Snyder, when pressed, admits his beliefs are identical to those of fundamentalist evangelical Christians - and that most of his group's funding, $5.5 million a year, comes from evangelical Christian churches, "I believe the Christian faith, divested of a lot of cultural trappings stuck on afterward, is in harmony with the Hebrew Scriptures and is a Jewish thing," he says.

However, this kind of thinking outrages mainstream Jewish leaders. "For the first time in recorded history, an outside religious group is trying to create a counterfeit Judaism," said Rick Ross, a member of the task force in Missionaries and Cults of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations. "They know damn well that they're evangelical Christians and what they are is a fraud…Can you be a Baptist for Buddah? A Catholic for Krishna?" Ross also points out that Jews for Jesus is under the auspices of the Evangelical Board of Financial Accountability.

And despite the Jewish trappings, Hebrew Christians are still Christians, according to Donnell, vice president of the Task Force on Missionaries and Cults of the Jewish Federation Council. "Jewish rituals are only meaningful within a Jewish theological context," he said. "You can't divorce the tradition from the beliefs."

But Budoff has his own theory about why Jews react violently to Messianics. "If we're right, they're out of a job," he adds: "Mainstream Judaism doesn't fulfill the needs of a person's relationship with God. It deals primarily with traditions…The mainstream Jewish community doesn't address that hunger."

But Leah Schoenberg, an observant Jew who used to call herself a Christian, vehemently disagrees. "It's possible to get the same thing out of Judaism," she says.

As a child, Schoenberg said she had "proud, strong feelings" about being Jewish, but found synagogue "boring and dry." In college, she spent a small amount of time talking to Christian missionaries - and found herself attending a Baptist Church. Christian services, she says, were much more exciting and emotional then her childhood memories of a suburban synagogue. However, after years of soul-searching, she became convinced Christianity was fantasyland. "Losing Jesus was painful in the beginning," she says. "Almost like losing a loved one." Today, she adds, she finds the same spiritual fulfillment in the Jewish religion.

A hunger of sorts seems to draw some Jews into Hebrew Christianity; experts agree the numbers have swelled rapidly during the last decade. No one knows exactly how many Messianic Jews there are in America, but estimates range from fewer than 10,000 to more than 100,000.

Mainstream leaders like Rabbi Schwartz say those who get involved are down and out or rebellious. "They're up for grabs," he says- prime targets for any group that comes along, peddling simple solutions to life's troubles.

It's a sunny Saturday morning after services at Ahavat Zion on Beverly Drive, and congregates are socializing and drinking coffee. Someone is playing hymns on a weather-beaten piano as some of the congregates unfold their stories.

Susan (not her real name) says she grew up in the Fairfax area with a "great feeling of Jewish identity." "But when I became a believer," she says, "I felt I had to give it all up. It was hard on my heart, because a leopard just can't change its spots." A petite, earthy-looking woman in peasant skirt and sandals, Susan says she first became Christian after her mother's death and her own abortion. After this "death and sin experience," she says, she saw a "light in missionaries' lives that was sorely lacking" in her own. Today, Susan debbles in teaching and writing, her direction unclear except for a keen faith.

Vivian Newman is a small, 74-year-old woman, a Jewish Russian immigrant who witnessed pogroms in the Old County. Speaking with tremulous emotion, she recalls how she came to Ahavat Zion 11 years ago, when the place was still run by the Assemblies of God church. At the time she got involved, Vivian says she was at a low ebb. "Somebody called me and asked if I'd like to come to a synagogue," she said. "I was walking with a cane because I was paralyzed from the hip down." The caller, she said, had gotten her name from a television repairman, she noticed Vivian was crippled.

Newman vehemently opposes people who criticize Messianic Judaism. "We believe in God just like everybody else," she says. "We are in the United States and we can pray and obey God any way we want to. We're not anti-Jewish. (Mainstream) Jews are afraid, just like they were afraid of Yeshua…"

Arnie LeVine says he first became interested in Christianity through his wife, who got him to watch Trinity Broadcasting Network and other evangelical Christian television shows. He says he also read a book put out by Jews for Jesus.

Once he came to believe in Jesus as Messiah, LeVine says it "took quite a while…to find a place (of worship) I felt comfortable approaching. My wife and I didn't really feel comfortable in churches, mainly because we're Jewish." LeVine has been attending Ahavat Zion for two years now. "It's one of the few places you can go and still be a Jew," he says, though Jewish leaders would call him an apostle Jew - one who has embraced an alien theology.

Messianic synagogues also seem to be attracting a growing number of non-Jews, experts say. Gabriel and Marilyn Insalaco are one such example at Ahavat Zion. They are not Jewish, but they say they spend much of their time "witnessing" (proselytizing) to Jews. "We have witnessed to Jews who don't believe in the Messiah," Gabriel said. "But some of them have come to Christ. Some with names like Isaac!" Gabriel says he witnesses everywhere, even at work, where he serves as a housekeeping supervisor in a large hospital.

Gabriel's wife, Marilyn, wears a white robe and sandals.

"The Lord Yeshua has sent me here to witness to the house of Israel," she explained. "My task is to visit the fatherless and the widows in their affliction and to keep myself unspotted from the world." But when asked whether she considers herself a Jew, she replied: "The Lord Yeshua tells me it is better to be called a murderer or a thief."

Barbara Plessen, Barry Budoff's secretary, arrives at Ahavat Zion with her husband and five children. Her family attended a Seventh Day Adventist Church before making the switch to Messianic Judaism. "We just wanted to go back to the Bible…and we know the closest is going back to the Jewish way," she says. "Messianic Judaism is Judaism but you have Jesus," she added. Plessen who has never formally converted to Judaism, says she bought a book explaining how to celebrate Jewish holidays. "We have Passover and other festivals," she said. "It's easy to put Jesus into these things."

Here in Los Angeles, the war seems to be escalating between Hebrew Christians and the Jewish community. "Jews have the dubious distinction of being the most targeted single denomination in the United States by the fundamentalist and evangelical movements," Rick Ross said.

Ross points out that one in five people in the U.S. are fundamentalist Christians. "Think of the damage that can be done by the combined ministries - a combined budget of more than a billion dollars a year," she says. He estimates that evangelical groups spend some $50 million a year to target Jews.

Jews for Jesus probably the most visible of these organizations, has a full-time staff of more 100 in 56 cities (there are eight staff workers in Studio City). Staff workers and volunteers are often seen proselytizing on street corners; they pass out some 2.5 million pamphlets a year.

Recently, Snyder successfully challenged a resolution by the commissioners of Los Angeles International Airport that prohibits distribution of religious tracts. (The federal district judge's decision that the central terminal is a public forum is now being appealed).

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