Jews for Jesus missionaries find their task a daunting one

Toledo Blade, June 19, 1999
by Judy Tarjanyi

They call their gospel tracts "broadsides," and their mission is making Jesus an "unavoidable issue" to Jews.

With a style that predates the phrase "in your face," it's not surprising the evangelistic group Jews for Jesus hasn't made a lot of Jewish friends for their namesake in the last 25 years.

Although they handed out about eight million broadsides last year, they typically see only about 1,000 of the world's 13.5 million Jewish people profess faith in Jesus Christ through their efforts annually. Three times as many non-Jews become Christian believers as a result of their work.

A major obstacle to their work is the fact that most Jews consider a Christian Jew to be a theological impossibility, since a Jew by definition is one who worships one God and does not participate in a religion other than his or her own. Hence, they say, a Jew cannot adopt another religion and still be Jewish. Nor can a Jew worship Jesus who claimed to be God since that conflicts with the Jewish understanding of monotheism.

Mainstream Jews have responded to Jews for Jesus with their own broadsides. The Reform branch of Judaism has produced a video entitled The Target Is You to warn Jewish young people against groups that seek to convert Jews. And, an organization called Jews for Judaism now works to counteract the efforts of Jews for Jesus and similar organizations that target Jews for conversion.

Claiming both Jewish identity and Christian faith, Jews for Jesus was founded in 1973 by Moishe Rosen in San Francisco's Haight-Ashbury district. Beginning with a handful of young Jews who professed belief in Jesus as the promised Messiah, Mr. Rosen built the tiny group into a worldwide mission organization.

In the ensuing years, little has changed when it comes to the group's emphasis and focus. A recently re-articulated mission statement is as gutsy as ever: "Jews for Jesus exists to make the Messiahship of Jesus an unavoidable issue to our Jewish people worldwide."

David Brickner, who succeeded Mr. Rosen as executive director three years ago, makes no apologies for the boldness of the group's mission. "We realize that that's who we are and that's who we've always been from the very beginning. The message is controversial. It was controversial when Jesus walked the Earth, and we haven't avoided any of the controversy He got embroiled in."

Among the controversy Jews for Jesus stirs up is the issue of what to call Jews who claim also to be Christians. Besides the catchy phrase "Jews for Jesus" that was coined by the media in the early '70s, Jewish believers in Christ have been called variously Hebrew Christians, Messianic Jews, and Jewish Christians.

Rabbi Michael Ungar of Toledo's Temple B'nai Israel, a Conservative synagogue, said a Jew who professed Christianity in addition to Judaism could not become a member of his synagogue. However, his biggest problem with groups like Jews for Jesus is not so much what they call themselves but how they attempt to place Christian meanings on Jewish tradition, symbols, and theology.

"When they tell me that the three matzohs on the Seder plate at the Passover Seder represent the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, that's the same as me saying that the Christian Trinity is really not the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, but it's really Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob."

Rabbi Ungar argues that one tradition has no right to tell another, "This is what your tradition means." He said, "Jews for Jesus take Jewish symbols, holidays, and laws, and reinterpret them all into Christian laws, all in the cloak of, 'Oh, but this is still Jewish.' It's not. It's a total misappropriation."

Mr. Brickner, 40, who will be in Toledo tomorrow and June 27 for presentations at two churches, defends his right to call himself a Jew even though he is also a Christian, and to practice those Jewish traditions he chooses to observe.

Born of Jewish parents who professed belief in Christ, Mr. Brickner said, "Why is it that belief that Jesus is the Jewish Messiah as He claimed 2,000 years ago put Jews and thousands of others who believe as I do outside the pale of Jewish experience?"

Indeed, the first Christians were a sect of Jews who believed that Christ was the promised Messiah. They eventually admitted Gentiles as members of their group and were called Christians.

Mr. Brickner said as a modern-day person of Jewish birth who believes in the message of Christianity, he refuses to stop emphasizing his identity as a Jew. He celebrates all Jewish holidays, worships at a Messianic Jewish synagogue on Friday evenings when the Jewish sabbath begins, and sends his children to a Messianic Jewish camp.

He doesn't keep kosher because of his conviction that in the Christian scriptures, Jesus has declared all foods clean.

While in Toledo, where Mr. Brickner and his wife, Patti, will be visiting her parents, Lou and Elaine Vasaturo, he will be talking about the importance of the Jewish people in God's plan for the future. It is also the topic of his latest book, Future Hope, which deals with predictions the Bible makes about the end of the world.

"It's a pretty important topic now," he said. "There are a lot of people right now that are very worried about the future. Some think there's no future at all. There's fear of the Y2K bug and what that might bring. Then you have all of the crises of Kosovo and Columbine and people are fearful for the future."

Mr. Brickner believes that the Jewish people are at the center of God's plan for world redemption and that they will figure prominently in any end-time scenario.

As he strives to bring more Jews into the Christian fold, Mr. Brickner knows that his is a daunting task. "If I didn't read the Bible I might feel it is an uphill climb, but I have to say the Bible gives a hopeful message." He said the Christian scriptures teach that "all Israel will be saved" before Christ returns to the Earth.

Mr. Brickner claims more and more Jewish people are coming to believe in Jesus in places like Russia and Germany. Even in Israel, he said, "Despite the pressure and opposition of Orthodox Jews, thousands of Jews are confessing and professing faith in Jesus."

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