Jews for Jesus picks Palm Beach County as battleground for conversion

The Sun-Sentinel/December 15, 2003
By Leon Fooksman

Competing Jewish outreach and Christian messianic organizations waged separate battles over the weekend to win over the followers of Judaism.

About 250 supporters of Jews For Jesus gathered Friday night at Florida Atlantic University in Boca Raton for a religious concert that began with a Hebrew prayer and the lighting of Sabbath candles. They clapped, sang and danced as they affirmed their claim that one can be Jewish and believe in Jesus at the same time.

To blunt their message, about 75 backers of the American Jewish Committee heard speakers Sunday night at Temple Beth El of Boca Raton reject the argument that Jesus was the long-promised Messiah and affirm that when someone accepts Jesus, he or she rejects Judaism. They called the messianic group's tactics deceptive and inappropriate.

Palm Beach County is the setting of a theological clash. It ignited Dec. 8 when the Jews For Jesus ministry began targeting the area as part of the Behold Your God campaign aimed at hitting 65 areas with 25,000 or more Jews by 2006.

Backed by a number of area churches, as well as messianic-style congregations that share its outlook of evangelizing Jews, Jews for Jesus, founded 30 years ago, has a budget of more than $24 million, offices around the world and a full-time paid staff of 240. They are part of the "messianic Jewish" movement, made of Jewish-born Christians who believe Jesus fulfilled Hebrew prophecies of a Messiah. Estimates of their numbers range from 75,000 to a quarter-million.

"Every Jew is precious," Leonard Greenberg, president of Palm Beach County's chapter of the American Jewish Committee, said at Temple Beth El. "We can't afford to lose any of our brethren."

The Jews For Jesus blitz has brought to the area three or four dozen evangelists wearing T-shirts and driving vans sporting the Jews for Jesus logo. They are passing out Jews for Jesus literature in about 30 locations, including malls.

Also part of the operation have been direct mail, phone calls and the FAU concert, where the crowd included South Floridians with a broad mix of races and religious backgrounds. Some said they were born Jewish and accepted messianic Judaism as adults. Others became messianic Jews after marrying Christians. And some were Christians who felt a kinship with Jews.

Reggie Douglas, 52, a born-again Christian from Baton Rouge, La., said he was traveling around the country with Jews for Jesus. "I felt like the Jewish people needed to hear the Gospel of Jesus, and I wanted to bring it to them," he said.

People attending the Friday celebration, also sponsored by Ayts Chayim Messianic Synagogue in Boca Raton, said they were acutely aware their beliefs threaten many Jews.

"This is a 2000-year-old debate," said Ira Brawer, 53, Ayts Chayim's spiritual leader. "Jesus is a Jewish man. Whether or not we believe in him, why does that not make us Jewish?"

Brawer said he was raised in New York by parents who escaped Hitler's Germany in World War II. And at age 30, after studying the old and new testaments, Brewar came to the conclusion "Jesus had to be the Messiah."

Much of the messianic Jewish movement's logic is flawed and "dressed up in Jewish clothes," said Scott Hillman, during the Temple Beth El meeting. He is the Baltimore director of Jews for Judaism.

Hillman played a video showing how messianic Jews use patriotic Jewish songs and biblical verses to twist their message to unknowing Jews, particularly in the atheist states of the former Soviet Union.

"It's a slick marketing technique. They perfected it over 30 years," Hillman said.

Jews For Jesus plans to continue its Palm Beach County campaign until Dec. 23.

The American Jewish Committee and Hillman's organization vow to follow its every step and counteract the messages.

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