Toronto Jews Fight Jews For Jesus

Jewish Times/September 8, 2003
By Bill Gladstone

Toronto -- A battle for Jewish souls is being waged across Canada's largest city as Jewish activists here work to counter the effects of an aggressive missionary campaign launched by Jews for Jesus.

The multimillion-dollar international Christian missionary group kicked off a three-week missionary campaign on Aug. 25, called Behold Your God, an intensive blitz targeting the city's 175,000 Jews.

The Jesus campaign, which will last through Sept. 14, involves newspaper ads, billboards, leaflets, a telemarketing-style phone campaign and door-to-door canvassing in Jewish neighborhoods.

The missionaries also are distributing free copies of a video produced by their organization that focuses on Holocaust survivors who have converted to Christianity.

Jewish groups have mobilized in response.

The Jewish countermissionary organization Jews for Judaism mounted a comprehensive campaign to defend against the missionaries. The group designated Saturday as a Stand Up for Judaism Shabbat, urging rabbis across southern Ontario to address the missionary problem from the pulpit.

In conjunction with the Canadian Jewish Congress, the organization also held a Stand Up for Judaism community rally on Sunday.

B'nai Brith Canada also launched its own "Proud to Be Jewish" campaign to warn unsuspecting Jewish community members about the missionaries.

"This isn't about free speech," said the group's president, Rochelle Wilner. "Targeted missionizing - especially when done in a manner calculated to deceive the unsuspecting - is offensive to our community," she said.

The name Jews for Jesus makes about as much sense as Baptists for Buddha or Catholics for Krishna, she said.

The Toronto arm of the Baltimore-based Jews for Judaism has distributed nationally an eight-page brochure, "Missionary Impossible," to "help inoculate the Jewish community against the missionary threat," said Julius Ciss, executive director of Jews for Judaism in Canada and a former Jews for Jesus member.

Additionally, signs telling the missionaries to get lost have been distributed to Jewish households around the city.

Russian-language brochures were delivered to members of the city's 30,000-strong Russian-speaking Jewish community, which the missionaries specifically target because of their perceived susceptibility. Countermissionary groups say that because many Russian-speaking Jewish immigrants know little about Judaism, they often mistake Jews for Jesus activists as Jews promoting Judaism.

The countermissionary campaign had its first success late last week, when a missionary billboard in Toronto was taken down from a Jewish section of the Canadian city.

Jewish officials contend that the missionaries consistently blur the distinctions between Judaism and Christianity and practice deception by insisting that accepting the tenets of Christianity essentially makes one a better Jew.

One of the group's slogans is "Be More Jewish, Believe in Jesus."

"We're stressing the need to separately strengthen our homes and our communities against those who would sway us from our faith," Ciss said.

A native Torontonian, Ciss was involved with Jews for Jesus for five years before reconnecting to Judaism and becoming a countermissionary activist some 20 years ago.

Jews for Judaism says its representatives try to counter Jews for Jesus' message with one of their own. While Jews for Jesus hands out pink fliers urging belief in Jesus, the countermissionary group hands out blue fliers highlighting the message, "You can't believe in Jesus and still be Jewish."

At the same time, the organization is sending rapid-response teams out on patrol and established a hotline for people to call if they spot the Christian missionaries working on the street.

"It's a cat-and-mouse game," Ciss said. "If we don't know where they are, we have to hunt them down, and it's a big city - we have to drive around and look at all the big intersections. But half the time we do find them."

Andrew Barron, director of the Canadian branch of Jews for Jesus, said the Behold Your God campaign is part of a five-year effort by the international group aimed at converting Jews in some 65 cities outside of Israel with Jewish populations above 25,000.

Barron, who admitted feeling frustrated by the Jewish community's response to his group's campaign, denied that Jews for Jesus uses deceptive tactics and accused Jewish groups of showing "intolerance and bigotry towards a minority" through their countermissionary activities.

To its chagrin, the Canadian Jewish Congress said it learned the hard way that many Christian leaders and churches in southern Ontario seem to support the missionaries' campaign to convert Jews.

Congress sent a letter to 830 evangelical churches across southern Ontario explaining that it considered the Jews for Jesus crusade to be misleading and deceptive. The letter asked the churches "to commit themselves to the principles of respect and honesty in evangelism."

The general response, Rudner said, was disappointing. "They very clearly did not get it," he said. "They felt that we were telling them that they shouldn't engage in missionary activity at all, which was not the case."

Globally, Christian groups that specifically proselytize Jews command an annual budget of about $300 million and have converted an estimated 275,000 Jews during the last 30 years, according to Ciss.

Jews for Jesus has never before encountered such a strong response from the Jewish community, Ciss asserted. "We've probably got the most extensive and most proactive response anywhere," Ciss said of the current effort.

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