Jews for Jesus missionaries find warmth, hostility

Baltimore Sun/August 27, 2005
By Matthew Hay Brown

Spying Rick Lee in his bright orange "Jews for Jesus" T-shirt, Leigh Resnick crossed over Calvert Street to introduce herself.

The 20-year-old Philadelphian, who is Jewish, had never heard of the missionary group. But she wanted a leaflet.

"I had to get one for my mom," she said. "I like to show her things she won't like."

Through their first week in Baltimore, the volunteer missionaries of Jews for Jesus have encountered warmth and hostility, curiosity and indifference.

In Pikesville, members say, they ran into a group of youths this week who threw golf balls at them. One man told the missionaries that they would burn in hell.

But at the Inner Harbor yesterday afternoon, where seven missionaries were working the lunchtime traffic, a woman passing in a sport utility vehicle honked her horn and shouted, "That's right - praise the Lord!"

Stephen Katz, who heads the group's Washington office, said the missionaries had persuaded 13 Jews to accept Jesus as their savior.

"It's going very well," Katz said. "Every city's different. We take different approaches. It's all in God's hands."

The San Francisco-based group, which targets Jews for conversion to Christianity with the disputed claim that Jesus is the Jewish messiah, is planning to stay three weeks in the area. Baltimore is the latest stop in the group's five-year campaign to proselytize every city outside Israel with a Jewish population of 25,000 or more.

Their efforts here have drawn criticism from mainstream Jews and some Christians, who accuse Jews for Jesus of leading the vulnerable - the young, the old, recent immigrants - to abandon their faith with what critics say is the false claim that they can accept Jesus as their savior and still remain Jewish.

"If they were out there saying Jesus is God, the son of God, your means of atonement, through Christian understanding, there wouldn't be an issue here," said Scott Hillman, director of the Baltimore office of Jews for Judaism. "But they're out there saying that you can be Jewish and Christian at the same time, that Jesus is the Jewish messiah."

Jews for Jesus rejects accusations of deception. Katz, a Jew who accepted Jesus while a student at the University of Illinois, said the missionaries are motivated by "a heart for our people."

Katz was the only missionary born Jewish among the seven working at McKeldin Square in the Inner Harbor yesterday. He pointed out that while his T-shirt read "Jews for Jesus," those worn by the rest added "and Others" in small print under the word "Jews."

One of those others, Kristin Dugas, dashed from pedestrian to pedestrian at the corner of Pratt and Light streets to hand out leaflets. A man in a jacket and tie said, "No thanks;" a woman sped past and waved her off. Many more took a leaflet silently and walked on.

"You're nervous at first, but the message is important to get out," said Dugas, a firefighter from Hedgesville, W.Va. "If people don't know Jesus, they're going to burn in hell for eternity."

Across McKeldin Square, a man walking with his family caught sight of a banner reading "Jews for Jesus."

"I'm a Jew for Jews," he said.

Katz said missionaries were also at the Maryland State Fair in Timonium and knocking on doors in Pikesville yesterday. They have set up outside Orioles and Ravens games. During their first week, Katz said, they had distributed more than 22,000 leaflets, made more than 1,000 telephone calls, visited more than 900 homes and gathered contact information for 179 people.

Local Jewish leaders had prepared for the coming of Jews for Jesus with a series of meetings alerting the community of their methods. Several said that work appeared to have been successful.

"While we remain perturbed by their use of deceptive tactics, all indications are that they have very little impact and are failing to mislead members of the Jewish community and the other citizens of Baltimore," said Arthur Abramson, executive director of the Baltimore Jewish Council.

Katz said the group was excited about its work here so far.

"Scott Hillman and Arthur Abramson say it's fraudulent, that a Jew can't be a Christian," he said. "But they don't believe in the New Testament.

"We think we're having an impact from the people who want to hear more from us."

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