Ukrainian Jews claim victory after Jews for Jesus given the boot

Global News Service of the Jewish People/August 15, 2003
By Lev Krichevsky

Moscow -- Local authorities in Ukraine have kicked Jews for Jesus off the street - and Jewish activists are at least partly responsible for the ban.

The ban on the proselytizing campaign organized by the missionary group and a local Protestant church came after fierce protests by the Jewish community in the eastern Ukrainian city of Dnepropetrovsk, although Jewish activists deny they asked the authorities to halt the campaign.

But Jewish anti-missionary activists said the Dnepropetrovsk ban is the first battle they have won in the former Soviet Union, where in some places more Jews may be involved in Jews for Jesus events than in Jewish activities.

Officials cited technical breaches for their action, saying Jews for Jesus had not received approval for the campaign, which officials considered a mass religious event.

Even as Jews for Jesus halted the campaign, the group insisted that handing out leaflets and speaking to individual passers-by is not a mass event that would require official approval.

The Ukrainian chapter of the San Francisco-based organization accused the authorities and Jewish anti-missionary activists of violating Jews for Jesus' right to religious freedom. The group said the ban resulted from the Jewish community's pressure.

Students of a local yeshiva and members of a secular Jewish youth club, sporting T-shirts reading "Stop Missionaries," followed Christian activists and attempted to give out their own fliers to people who had received Jews for Jesus leaflets.

In the 20 days that the campaign lasted until the ban, Jewish activists gave out 36,000 anti-missionary fliers, according to Alexander Lakshin, head of the Moscow-based Magen anti-missionary organization.

Magen - Hebrew for "shield" - is a small operation established last year that is backed by the New York-based George Rohr Family Foundation.

The Jews for Jesus Web site claims that the group "distributed more than 370,000 pamphlets and prayed with 96 Jewish people and 196 non-Jews to receive the Lord."

A total of 2,100 people gave their names to receive missionary literature in the mail, according to the site.

Lakshin said the group's figures are grossly exaggerated. Still, he admits that many Jews did speak to the missionaries and were lured into reciting the "prayer of repentance," without being told that the missionaries consider this equivalent to baptism.

"What they tell people is misleading," Lakshin explains. "They never speak of Christianity or baptism when talking to a new person. They rather use Jewish terms and symbols and speak of themselves as Jews, not Christians."

The campaign and the response resulted in scattered violence, which each side said the other provoked.

"For centuries, the Cossacks afflicted our Jewish people, including my immediate ancestors, with systematic pogroms. And then for 70 years, the Communists dictated what a person could read, think or believe," a Jews for Jesus leader said in a press release posted on the group's Web site. "Today the czars and the political officers are gone, but they´ve been replaced by misguided religious leaders who oppose our efforts to give Ukrainian Jews the option to think for themselves."

Jewish activists said their sole goal is to unmask the true intentions of missionary groups that try to pass for legitimate Jewish organizations and take advantage of the low level of Jewish knowledge among Jews in the former Soviet Union.

"We are always reactive and never proactive," Lakshin said.

He and his group's chapter in the Ukrainian capital of Kiev helped the local Jewish community coordinate the countermissionary campaign in Dnepropetrovsk.

The opposition to the missionaries in Dnepropetrovsk received wide public attention and even national television coverage, which broadcast an interview with the city's chief rabbi.

"The press and television coverage was pretty much sympathetic to the Jewish community," said Boris Shavlov, a spokesman for the Dnepropetrovsk Jewish Community Center.

The city has one of the largest and best-organized Jewish communities in Ukraine.

In addition to canceling the street campaign, local authorities revoked their earlier decision to show a Jews for Jesus television production, "Survivors Stories," which carries accounts of Holocaust survivors who have converted to Christianity.

The Russian and Ukrainian Orthodox Churches, Ukraine's largest faiths, also spoke against the Jews for Jesus campaign.

Orthodox priests have their own reason for concern. Many of those who give their names and addresses to the street preachers are Orthodox Christians, and Jews for Jesus passes the lists of non-Jews to their partner Protestant churches, which seek to convert them.

Lakshin said the Jewish community has to make up for a lost decade when dozens of missionary organizations operated in the former Soviet Union without any opposition from the Jewish community.

Some small communities in Russia and Ukraine have an active missionary presence - although there is no organized Jewish life.

"We cannot afford to remain silent anymore," Lakshin said.

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