The messiah wars

When Jews for Jesus fanned out in the U.S. capital in recent weeks in an attempt to win people over, the Jewish community swiftly united to counter them. 14, 2004
By Nathan Guttman

Washington, D.C. -- Immediately after Rosh Hashanah, Jews for Jesus ended their recruitment campaign in the greater Washington area. The month-long campaign was aimed at persuading Jews, as well as Christians, to join the ranks of Jews for Jesus and accept Jesus as the messiah. During that month, missionaries for the movement fanned out to Metro subway stations and parks and shopping centers in Jewish neighborhoods, and tried to distribute information and get people to hear the word of Jesus. On the other side, the Jewish community in the Washington area mobilized to strike back at the members of the movement - to tell anyone interested in what it promotes that one cannot possibly continue to be a Jew and also believe in Jesus. After one month, both sides are declaring victory.

"We achieved our main goal, which was to make Jesus' identity as messiah an issue on the agenda of the Jewish community," says Stephen Katz, the Washington director of Jews for Jesus.

"You can count on one hand the number of Jews all over the country that joined them," retorts Gary Bretton-Granator of the Anti-Defamation League (ADL).

Washington is just one stop of the worldwide Jews for Jesus campaign in cities with large Jewish populations; it was launched in 2001 and is slated to end in 2006. The message: The Scriptures prove that Jesus is the Jews' messiah and therefore it is necessary for people to adopt a religion that includes most of the elements of Judaism but also the belief that "Yeshua" (Jesus) is the messiah. The basic tactic of the members of the group - who went around wearing green T-shirts with the slogan "Jews for Jesus" in which one of the letters has been replaced by a Star of David - is to try to lure passersby into conversation and interest them in their message. Mostly this begins with a sentence like: "Who do you think Jesus is?" It is likely that Jews will respond with a sentence that links Jesus to Christian belief, but the Jews for Jesus people will say: "Jesus is the son of God who died for our sins." From this point the conversation is likely to develop into a discussion of whose messiah Jesus is and an attempt to persuade the Jewish listener to adopt this belief.

Six Israelis, too

According to the organizers, during the month of the campaign in the U.S. capital no less than 400,000 information flyers were distributed and about 2,700 people gave the missionary representatives their particulars in order to be contacted in the future and to receive additional information. This number includes both Jews and non-Jews. According to Stephen Katz, there were also six Israelis among those who signed up.

The Jewish community of greater Washington is one of the largest in the United States, numbering more than 200,000, most of them concentrated around the capital in the suburbs of Maryland and northern Virginia that border on Washington, D.C.

Has anyone begun to believe in Jesus as a result of the campaign? Apparently not, at least not at this stage. The organizers talk about a long process of education, invitations to ceremonies and events - among them Sabbath eves in the spirit of Jews for Jesus, Hanukkah parties and holiday prayer services. The importance of the campaign, according to Katz, is that they succeeded in making their presence felt in the Washington Jewish arena. "We want people to talk about us, we want there to be a debate," he says.

For its part, the local Jewish community came prepared. The Jews' main answer to the campaign is simply that there is no such thing as Jews who are for Jesus.

The response to the question of Jesus being the messiah is an absolute no, reiterates Scott Hillman, director of the Jews for Judaism organization in the Baltimore area. In cooperation the local Jewish community, his organization - established with the aim of dealing with missionary groups that proselytize among Jews throughout the country - held information meetings and seminars to develop awareness among rabbis and Jewish teachers, and trained dozens of volunteers who were equipped with brochures containing "Seven Answers to Jews for Jesus," so that they could counter the hundreds of missionaries in the vicinity. "It was an opportunity for the Jewish community to unite," says Hillman.

The rules for the activists stipulate that they must not enter into confrontation with the Jews for Jesus people, block their way or get too close to them. The intention is to see who is conversing with the missionaries and then to offer him or her counter-information material that makes it clear that Judaism is opposed to Jesus and that he is not its messiah. In Washington this indeed worked peacefully, with no reports of violent incidents of friction between activists of the two sides.

"I was quite surprised by the lack of opposition on the streets," says Katz. "I think it is because we are more committed to our beliefs than they are."

The most significant debate concerned a radio advertisement that the missionaries broadcast on local stations. In the ad, on the background of klezmer music and to the sounds of "Hava Nagilah," two Jews, both of them with a marked European-Jewish accent and diction, supposedly discuss the question of whether Jesus is the Jews' messiah and come to the conclusion that the time has come to examine the question and "think for ourselves." The stations that broadcast the advertisement were inundated with calls from Jewish listeners and organizations and decided to take it off the air or introduce changes to it. The explanation that was given for these decisions by the station managers was the use of Jewish stereotypes that were manifested in the way the participants in the ad spoke.

Adoption of Methods

Although the Jews for Jesus campaign did not lead to a flight of believers from the Jewish ranks or to the undermining of the Jewish community, even Scott Hillman acknowledges that it has had an effect. "It is not only what happens here during this month. All of a sudden you have another 600 people and another 10 churches that want to do missionary work," says Hillman. According to him, the most palpable result of the Jews for Jesus' activity is not their direct approaches to Jews during the days of the campaign, but rather the inculcation of missionary zeal and the adoption of their methods among other Christian communities in the area.

Jews for Jesus are especially successful in annoying the Jewish community, according to its representatives, because of the deceptions used by the organization. "They say you will be a better Jew if you believe in Jesus - that it is a Jewish thing to believe in Jesus," says Hillman. "That is not honest advertising. That is being deceitful." The missionaries' attempt to depict themselves as Jews is also not accepted by the community. After all, Jews for Jesus is part of the Evangelical church movement.

"We see two different kinds of missionary activity," explains Rabbi Bretton-Granator. "There is the `in-your-face' approach, which we have no problem with. They can put up a 50-foot sign saying that the church welcomes Jews to come and join - I have no problem with that." More problematic is the missionaries who use tactics of deception, he says, "trying to sell to the Jews the idea that you can believe Jesus is the messiah and still be a Jew."

Therefore, the established Jewish community is not focusing on a fight against open missionary activity, especially that which derives from the Evangelical movement, which believes that in the messianic age, all Jews will have to accept Jesus Christ as their messiah. In recent years Jewish activity in this realm has in fact focused on the Presbyterian Church, which runs Avodat Yisrael - a sort of church-cum-synagogue in the Philadelphia area. Avodat Yisrael makes use of Jewish symbols and invites Jews to participate in ceremonies and services with the aim of bringing them into the ranks of Christianity. The attempts by the Jewish organizations to persuade the Presbyterians to cease their support for Avodat Yisrael have thus far been to no avail and the church continues to support missionary work among the Jews.

"Missionary activity in America is cyclical," notes Bretton-Granator. The history of such activity in the U.S. is as long as the history of Jewish settlement on the continent, with ups and downs. Now, the rabbi adds, America is experiencing a peak in the curve of the missionary cycle, during which there is more activity. Why? Perhaps because the Jewish community is more prominent - or perhaps because it is more open and less organized. In any case, it is clear that the missionaries have not managed to bring Jews over to Christianity in anything but a marginal way. The missionaries' only "success" thus far has been to deepen the suspicion between the Jewish and Christian communities and to pose obstacles in the way of interfaith dialogue.

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