Jews for Jesus brings campaign to city

Religion: The Messianic group plans a three-week mission here, raising concerns among mainstream Jews.

Baltimore Sun/August 18, 2005
By Matthew Hay Brown

The way David A. Finkelstein sees it, he's only trying to share the good news with his people.

Raised Jewish in Pikesville, Finkelstein says he didn't know the presence of God until he found Yeshua. Now he believes that this Jew who lived 2,000 years ago is the messiah promised by God - and that accepting him as his savior has fulfilled his Jewish self.

Finkelstein, the spiritual leader of the Am Yeshua Messianic Jewish congregation in Reisterstown, is one of several local believers planning to join a missionary group targeting Baltimore-area Jews for conversion to Christianity.

For three weeks beginning Sunday, Jews for Jesus will be blanketing downtown and the Inner Harbor with leaflets, chatting up fans outside Orioles and Ravens games, making telephone calls and knocking on doors. Baltimore is the latest stop in the San Francisco-based ministry's global "Behold Your God" campaign, a five-year push to bring the Christian gospel to all 65 metropolitan areas outside of Israel with a Jewish population of more than 25,000.

"Without Jesus, my Jewish people are dead in their sins, without hope," Finkelstein said. "To believe in the messiah just makes me much more of a Jew than I ever was."

Such testimony has drawn concern from mainstream Jewish leaders - and some of their Christian counterparts - who accuse Jews for Jesus of deceiving would-be converts with what they say is Christianity dressed in Jewish garb. They say such missionaries prey on the vulnerable - the young, the old, recent immigrants - culling from the community those who are unsure of their faith with the disputed claim that they can accept Jesus as their savior and still remain Jewish.

"Look, we live in America," said Scott Hillman, Baltimore director of Jews for Judaism. "Everyone is free to try to convert everyone else. So if someone wanted to put up signs all over the place saying Jesus is the answer, convert to Christianity today, we wouldn't have a problem with that.

"Of course, if you put up a sign saying Yeshua is the messiah, fulfill your Judaism, we have a problem."

Jews for Jesus says its missionaries do not prey on the vulnerable or employ subterfuge to gain converts.

"Charges of deception are a cheap shot," spokeswoman Susan Perlman says. "We are people who have come to believe that Jesus is the messiah sincerely. We think what we're doing is the most loving thing we can do, sharing this good news with our fellow Jews."

Estimates of the size of the Messianic Jewish community vary. Jews for Jesus places the number at between 75,000 and 100,000 worldwide. Jews for Judaism says Christian groups specifically targeting Jews have converted 250,000 in the past 25 years.

Ancient divide

The conflict over that missionary work goes to the heart of the 2,000-year-old divide between the two faiths. Christians believe that Jesus is the son of God, sent to redeem mankind. Most Jews believe the messiah promised to them by God has not yet come.

"It's not our place to judge any other belief system," Hillman said. "Judaism has a path, and we're supposed to stay on the path. That's our relationship with God."

The battle for souls is pitting the Christian injunction to spread the Gospel against the Jewish imperative to survive.

"Protestants, Catholics are not worried about disappearing," said Jonathan Sarna, a professor of American Jewish history at Brandeis University in Waltham, Mass. "Jews, who lost a third of their membership in the Holocaust, and are very small and not growing, are, of course, deeply concerned."

Messianic Jews say they pose no threat to Judaism, but rather its fulfillment. They note that Jesus was a Jew, as were most of his early followers. Through belief in him, they say, Jews and Christians can become one people.

"What you have is the picture of God's heart for humanity," Finkelstein said. "He never wanted any separation between Jews and gentiles. The cross has done away with any separation."

Most Jews reject the idea that Jews can accept Jesus and remain Jewish.

"It's not possible," said Rabbi Elan Adler, president of the Baltimore Board of Rabbis. "When you accept Jesus as your messiah, you become a Christian."

Many Christians agree.

"Both of our traditions established a wall of separation that made it very clear that we belong to two different covenantal communities," said the Rev. Christopher Leighton, a Presbyterian minister who is executive director of the Institute for Christian and Jewish Studies. "To pretend that you can somehow get around an anguished history is to falsify the foundational affirmations of both communities."

A panel of Catholic and Jewish scholars appointed by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and the National Council of Synagogues concluded in 2002 that Jews are in an eternal covenant with God, and renounced missionary efforts directed at converting them to Christianity.

40 cities, 6 continents

During the first four years of the "Behold Your God" campaign, Jews for Jesus says, it has brought 852 Jews and 4,107 gentiles to Yeshua. Missionaries in 40 cities on six continents have distributed 11.8 million leaflets and gathered contact information for more than 28,000 nonbelievers.

In the Baltimore area, where 100,000 residents form the ninth-largest Jewish community in the United States, Jews for Jesus plans to send out 10 to 20 missionaries per week to hand out tracts on street corners, at tourist centers and outside sporting events.

"We want to be where the people are," said Stephen Katz, chief of the organization's Washington office. He said the missionaries would be motivated by "a love for our people.

"Without knowing the God of our ancestors, and our messiah, Jesus, we have less meaning in our life," he said. "We've lost our purpose and what it means to be a Jewish person. And when we discover that, we get pretty excited. And we want to share our experience with our own people."

They will be supported in that mission by some area churches. Trinity Assembly of God in Lutherville plans to host a pair of Jews for Jesus speakers in the coming weeks.

George Raduano, pastor of Trinity Assembly, says he is aware of the controversy surrounding the group.

"As Christians, we're going to be controversial," he said. "We hear quite a bit that everyone can have their own faith, and let everyone practice whatever faith they want to. And we don't see it that way. We see Jesus said that he was the only way, and ... we believe people need to hear what we fully believe is the truth."

Local Jewish organizations, meanwhile, have held a series of town hall meetings to warn the community about the missionaries.

As in other "Behold Your God" cities, they plan to deploy counter-missionaries to trail them and challenge their claims.

The town hall meetings, attended by Messianic as well as mainstream Jews, have offered a preview of the confrontations likely to come. At Beth Israel Congregation in Owings Mills this week, Hillman quoted Hebrew Scripture to argue that Jesus was not the Jewish messiah. Yonah Freedman, a Messianic believer who says she is not affiliated with Jews for Jesus, took issue with his interpretation.

Claims of deception

"You're the one who's being deceptive," she interrupted. "You're the one who is lying to your people. You're mocking the god of Israel."

Others in the sanctuary told Freedman to quiet down. Sam Liebowitz was one of several to confront her after the meeting.

"To me, [Jesus] is the chief revolutionary," the Owings Mills man said. " 'I'll take care of the poor, like Castro, I'll take care of the sick, but give me all the power, give me all the glory, give me all the money.' "

"He died for you," Freedman said. "Where's the power and the glory in that? He died on a tree for your sins."

"Not for me," Liebowitz said. "I think he's the prototype of all dictators."

"Excuse me," Freedman said, "but for every word you say, God will hold you accountable, so I think you should choose your words very wisely."

Not all Messianic Jews are enthusiastic about Jews for Jesus. Irv Horseman, congregational leader of Rosh Pina Messianic Synagogue in Owings Mills, says he agrees with the group's message but has concerns about its tactics.

"We feel that the method of handing out tracts and being more in your face is offensive to the Jewish people," he said. "It usually doesn't have long-term impact. We believe in building relationships with people and being in the community."

Katz recalls the tribulations of earlier missionaries and is undaunted.

"We do identify with both the prophets in the Hebrew Bible and the apostles in the Book of Acts who were calling our people back into a relationship with God," he said. "When we see what they endured from the community, that helps us to know we're not the first ones to get it."

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