Messianic Jews prepare to share message

Palm Beach Post/December 14, 2003
By John Murawski

A theological disagreement that began 20 centuries ago in a sultry corner of the world is heating up this month in CityPlace, Mizner Park and other local public gathering places.

As in ancient times, today's disputants are sparring over the messiah, covenant and commandments. The ancient methods of persuasion included overturning money lenders' tables and disrupting synagogue services. The modern methods include press releases and the Internet.

This month, a group calling itself Jews For Jesus is undertaking the most ambitious Christian evangelical campaign it has yet attempted in Palm Beach County, home to one of the largest concentrations of Jews in the United States. The evangelical group's selling point is as novel as it is controversial: that one can be both a devout Christian and a good Jew.

The 30-year-old organization's disciples, or Messianic Jews, do not call themselves converts to Christianity, but rather "fulfilled" Jews who have accepted Jesus as the Jewish messiah who was foretold in biblical prophesies.

Messianic Jews often attend messianic synagogues -- there are five in Palm Beach County -- and observe Jewish customs, for instance: lighting Shabbat candles, attending Saturday services, and in some cases, even keeping kosher. They maintain that Jewish rituals are fully compatible with Christian beliefs.

Their Palm Beach County campaign is part of a national five-year outreach effort in some 66 cities with Jewish populations of 25,000 or more. Between now and Dec. 22, Jews For Jesus will be distributing religious tracts and spreading their brand of Christ-centered Judaism in downtown West Palm Beach, Lake Worth, Delray Beach and Boca Raton.

"This is a campaign, this is a push," said Stan Meyer, the group's South Florida director. "We've been a nonentity in Palm Beach County until now."

The effect this has on mainstream Jews ranges from bemusement to outrage, but mostly outrage.

Many Jews and gentiles see parallels between modern Christian proselytizers and centuries-old attempts to eradicate Judaism through forced conversions and pogroms.

"It's a form of spiritual persecution," said Rabbi Moshe Scheiner of the Palm Beach Synagogue.

Jews For Jesus, no stranger to criticism, has not exactly received a gracious welcome here.

"Some aspects of the West Palm Beach opposition has been some of the most mean-spirited," said Jews For Jesus national spokeswoman, Susan Perlman. "The word 'descending' -- it sounds like we're locusts, like we're a plague."

Mainstream Jewish organizations have launched a counteroffensive, Jews For Judaism, and are offering free lectures on Judaism at local synagogues and community centers.

Leading Jewish organizations have placed ads in local newspapers, saying the group is "descending" on the area and comparing Jews For Jesus to a deceptive cult.

The Palm Beach Synagogue is organizing "Project Claim Your Heritage: A Jewish Response to Jews For Jesus," offering free courses on Judaism and distributing free Torahs to any Jew who promises to study the material at least 30 minutes a week.

Jews For Jesus' claim that Jewish converts to Christianity will remain Jewish after switching religions is particularly irksome, an oxymoron, a non-starter and a lie, Jewish leaders say.

"It would be like a group forming Christians For Allah. It's absurd," said Rabbi Alan Sherman, the executive vice-president of the Palm Beach County Board of Rabbis, which is involved in the Jews For Judaism effort. "Or how about Moslems For Christ? It's a different religion."

Sherman and other mainstream Jews have ready answers to the messianic claims, honed by centuries of rabbinical study.

They will present arguments contending that Jesus does not meet the qualifications of a messiah, among them: The messiah will gather Jews in exile and lead them into Israel, will rebuild the Jewish Temple in Jerusalem and will usher in an era of world peace.

They will argue that the messiah must have a Jewish father, posing a problem for Jesus, who was not begotten by Joseph, his mother's husband.

Another impediment: The Jewish messiah will be a human being, not of a divine nature, Sherman said.

"The messiah was never meant to be an object of worship," Sherman said.

Still, all the attention from mainstream Jewish groups is a blessing to Jews For Jesus, said Meyer said.

"It provided more publicity than we could have afforded on our budget," he said. "The publicity has been a great help for us."

And the surest way to raise the hackles of Messianic Jews is to tell them they're not really Jewish.

"There's no rabbi in West Palm Beach who's going to be the arbiter of what the Jewish religion teaches," said Perlman, Jews For Jesus' national spokeswoman. "There's no pope of Judaism."

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