Orthodox Rapper Embraces 'Jews for Jesus' Sect

The Forward (NY)/June 17, 2005
By Mordechai Shinefield

50 Shekel, the Jewish rapper who dubbed himself the "The World's Most Kosher MC," is now calling himself "The Jewish Jesus Freak."

The rapper, Aviad Cohen, announced last week on his Web site that he had joined Jews for Jesus. In an e-mail to the Forward, he attributed the transformation to listening to evangelical Christian radio and to seeing Mel Gibson's film "The Passion of the Christ."

"Next thing you know it, I'm at a Jews for Jesus Ingathering," wrote Cohen, who has been profiled in Jewish and non-Jewish publications, including the Forward and New York Magazine. "It was totally set up by [God]."

Cohen said that he adopted his new beliefs eight months ago, but is only now going public.

For decades, synagogues and Jewish organizations have fought aggressively to discredit the claim that it is possible to remain Jewish and embrace Jesus, going so far as to blackball messianic Jews from the Jewish community. Cohen, whose stage name is a play off of the hit rapper 50 Cent, is believed to be the first high-profile Orthodox Jewish performer to declare himself a Jew for Jesus. He first gained notoriety with a parody of the 50 Cent song "In Da Club," titled "In Da Shul," which featured such lyrics as, "You can find me in the shul, praying after school."

Scott Hillman, director of the Baltimore branch of Jews for Judaism, a counter-missionary group, told the Forward that his organization has been advising Jewish youth groups and synagogues to discontinue booking Cohen for performances. Hillman also said that the organization has received several complaints from people claiming that Cohen has been using his mailing list to proselytize to his young Jewish fans.

"We have a responsibility to let people know when a missionary is taking advantage of kids," Hillman said.

When asked about the allegations, Cohen responded that God's "work speaks for itself."

Cohen's family contacted Jews for Judaism when they found out about his increasing interest in Jesus. A representative of the counter-missionary group met with the rapper, but Cohen continued on his new religious path. "The Jews for Judaism program is flawed," Cohen said. "They have a patronizing approach when dealing with concerned parents and the new believer."

After the failed meeting, Cohen said, he "gathered up the matzo balls to get mikvahed by a messianic rabbi."

At that point, the rapper was on hiatus from performing so few people were aware of his spiritual turn. But eventually Jews for Judaism began receiving complaints, starting with a youth adviser who reported that the rapper had begun parroting many of the expressions used by Jews for Jesus members. For example, Cohen spoke about a second covenant and being a "true Jew."

"In the last few months," Hillman said, "teenagers started to report that things were off."

Fans on Cohen's mailing list began receiving messages with references to Jesus, and then the rapper began discussing his conversion online with his fans.

He also has revamped his Web site to reflect his new religious beliefs. One page on the site features a picture of a giant billboard with the message, "Jesus is more Jewish than your rabbi."

A number of Cohen's former fans in Australia have launched a boycott against him. "50 has let me down," one fan said.

Cohen is unapologetic about his conversion and his subsequent efforts to spread his new religious message. "As I haven't ever and won't compromise my ethics as far as making sure I don't have profanity in my lyrics," Cohen wrote to the Forward, "I also don't compromise The Truth when it comes to God and His Word."

Cohen's conversion has triggered a debate on the Internet over who is to blame for his religious transformation. In an article published on the Web site Bang-itout.com, music critic Arye Dworken blamed the turn of events on unflattering reviews of Cohen's work. Some critics dismissed Cohen, using words like "fraud," "hack" and "gimmick." In particular, Dworken, who is a regular contributor to Heeb magazine, singled out Jewschool, the popular Jewish blog, for harshly criticizing Cohen's music and allegedly leaving the rapper "with exhaustion and depression."

Heeb, which played a key role in promoting Cohen, issued a statement to the Forward, saying, "This is indeed a sad day in the world of Jewish parody rap."

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