Religious Campaign Tests Faith

Door-to-Door Blitz Could Lead to Violence, Canadian Jewish Congress Fears 20, 2003
By Lisa Queen

York Region's 43,000 Jews are about to be caught in a nasty tug of war between a controversial evangelical organization called Jews for Jesus and mainstream Jewish organizations.

"The information I have is Thornhill is one of the prime targets of Jews for Jesus for their campaign," said Canadian Jewish Congress executive director Bernie Farber, who accuses the organization of using trickery and deception to convert "vulnerable" Jews to Christianity.

"Jews for Jesus is trying to destroy us spiritually," he said.

Mr. Farber is trying to set up a meeting with York Regional Police Chief Armand La Barge to ensure there is no violence between the new groups when Jews for Jesus launches a massive evangelical campaign next month in the Greater Toronto Area and in other cities around the world.

He said there were near riots when a new religious organization called City of David Messianic Synagogue in Thornhill promoted a similar message six years ago.

"This has the potential to be worse," said Mr. Farber, who believes Jews for Jesus will target Russian Jews who recently arrived in the Bathurst Street and Steeles Avenue area.

Jews for Jesus Canadian director Andrew Barron says his members are both Christians and Jews trying to bring their belief Jesus is the Messiah to Jewish communities.

"What I'm trying to say is, if Jesus is the Messiah, the most obvious thing, as a Jew, you can do is believe in him," said Mr. Barron, who pointed out Jesus and his early followers were Jewish.

But Rabbi Michael Skobac, of Thornhill's Jews for Judaism, insists the Christian and Jewish religions are diametrically opposed on the issue of whether Jesus is the Saviour and for an organization to tell Jews they can believe the Christian message and still retain their Jewish religion is deceitful.

While he said he doesn't object to Christians spreading the word of Jesus, he's angry Jews for Jesus tells Jews they can believe Jesus is the Messiah while still remaining Jewish.

Mr. Farber is also upset churches in the Greater Toronto Area are ignoring or turning their backs on the congress's plea to condemn the tactics of Jews for Jesus.

For example, Pastor Kel Trudgian of Grace Church in Newmarket wrote a letter to the congress insisting Jews for Jesus has every right to promote its message.

"I find your letter castigating Jews for Jesus offensive and a direct threat to the natural law of freedom of speech, freedom of association and freedom of religion," he stated in his letter.

"The Jewish community is made of mature, intelligent individuals who are committed to their God and faith. They make good and right choices every day. They are quite capable of choosing to talk to, or not talk with people from different faith perspectives."

Pastor Trudgian could not be reach for comment.

Although Jews for Jesus has been operating since the 1960s, at the heart of the battle is the organization's three-week evangelical campaign beginning next month.

The drive, called the largest missionary campaign since the century following Jesus' birth, is part of a five-year program called Behold Your God. That campaign will reach out to Jews in 66 cities with Jewish populations exceeding 25,000.

The GTA's Jewish population is about 180,000.

Mr. Barron said there is nothing wrong with Jews spreading the gospel of Jesus.

"The New Testament is about a Jew named Jesus. The New Testament was written by Jews and the early followers (of Jesus) were Jews," he said.

"How did we get to today, where ... it's perfectly normal for Gentiles to believe in Jesus, but not a Jew?"

Mr. Barron insisted no one has the right to try to take away his Jewishness due to his belief in Christ.

"We are Jewish people who believe in Jesus. My parents were Jewish. Nobody can take that away from me; that is my heritage," he said.

So does that mean members of Jews for Jesus are culturally Jewish, the way someone may say his or her heritage is British or Italian, but Christian on a religious basis?

Mr. Barron insisted he's a Jew on every level, but also said people are too fixated on the Jewish aspect of Jews for Jesus.

"What we are about is bringing the message of Jesus to all people of Canada, especially our people."

But Rabbi Skobac and Mr. Farber maintain Jews for Jesus are deliberately provocative.

If the organization isn't fixated on the Jewish aspect, Rabbi Skobac questioned why the reference is so prominent in the name, why it uses many of the symbols of Judaism to lure Jews in and why they only target Jews and not other religions.

"People are taken in by the sales pitch, which is not so easy to decipher," he said.

Mr. Farber agreed.

"These people are tricking. They will do whatever they can to win someone over to Christianity," he said.

"If a Jew wants to convert to Christianity, just call yourself a Christian. Just be honest about it. (But) when we lose one Jew, it's like losing an entire generation."

Mr. Barron acknowledged his group is controversial.

"We understand people are going to be offended. It's not our intention to offend."

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