Jews for Jesus Hit Town and Find a Tough Crowd

New York Times/July 4, 2006
By Michael Luo

As part of what has become an annual summer rite, missionaries, many of them young people from across the country, are descending upon New York City, working in soup kitchens and spreading the word of God at street corners, parks and subway stations.

But one group, Jews for Jesus, will be more visible than usual.

And so will those whom the group infuriates.

Jews for Jesus is a worldwide group based in San Francisco that adheres to an evangelical Christian theology but is made up of believers with Jewish lineage. It is sending 200 missionaries to the city for July, its biggest campaign in New York in its more than 30-year history. It is the finale of a five-and-a-half-year effort to conduct campaigns in every city in the world outside Israel with more than 25,000 Jews.

"This is the largest outreach we've ever had," said David Brickner, the executive director of Jews for Jesus, who outlined a multipronged effort that involves street evangelizing and an extensive media campaign.

During previous summers in New York, a small group of Jews for Jesus missionaries concentrated on Manhattan. This year the group plans to make its presence known in all five boroughs, as well in Westchester and Rockland Counties, in northern New Jersey and on Long Island. There are also campaigns aimed at Russian-speaking Jews, Israelis and Hasidic Jews.

With a campaign budget of roughly $1.4 million, Jews for Jesus has already sent out mailings to 400,000 Jewish homes in the area and DVD's in Yiddish about Jesus to 80,000 Orthodox homes. It has launched a marketing campaign with radio spots and subway and newspaper ads featuring the slogan "Jesus for Jews."

The centerpiece of their outreach, however, is their work on the streets, where members of the group, in colorful T-shirts emblazoned "Jews for Jesus" and adorned with the Star of David, hand out literature and try to strike up spiritual conversations with Jews and non-Jews alike.

Most of the people who pray with Jews for Jesus missionaries to accept Jesus Christ as their lord and savior are, in fact, non-Jews, according to the organization's statistics. But the group, which sends its monthly newsletter to 100,000 households, is most interested in engaging Jews with the Gospel.

Jewish groups in the city across the religious spectrum, many barely able to contain their loathing for the organization, have united in opposition.

Indeed, the response that many people, Jewish or gentile, have to Jews for Jesus epitomizes the derision, admiration and bewilderment that religious proselytizers can engender in this city.

To some, they are sterling examples of spirit-inspired boldness; to others, simply infuriating.

Jewish opponents to the Jews for Jesus campaign are placing ads in more than 60 newspapers alerting Jews to the proselytizing campaign and encouraging them to learn more about Judaism and take part in its practices. There are also plans to do counter-leafletting.

"This is not Jewish versus Christian," said Craig Miller, who works in the antimissionary arm of the Jewish Community Relations Council of New York, called the Spiritual Deception Prevention Project. "It's about deception pure and simple. The groups that are coming are bringing a deceptive message that one can be both Christian and part of the Jewish community."

At the heart of the debate between Jewish leaders and members of Jews for Jesus is what it means to be Jewish, which involves not only faith but also ethnicity and culture.

Many Jewish leaders argue that because members of Jews for Jesus have adopted the central tenet of another faith, they have become apostates and are no longer members of the community. "We don't believe you can be a carnivorous vegetarian," said Rabbi Joseph Potasnik, executive vice president of the New York Board of Rabbis.

But Mr. Brickner of Jews for Jesus said a Jew is defined in the Bible and in society by being born of Jewish parents. Jews today have a variety of views toward religion, including not believing in God, he said, yet are considered Jewish. "You may become a bad Jew, but you can't become a non-Jew," he said.

Jews for Jesus is not only a group of people of Jewish descent who believe Jesus was the messiah promised in the Hebrew Scriptures, although it perhaps is the most visible one. While some members attend evangelical Christian churches, many belong to messianic synagogues — congregations that, like Jews for Jesus, teach Jews they can believe in Jesus without renouncing Judaism. Many celebrate Jewish holidays, albeit with a Christian twist.

About half of the missionaries coming to New York for this summer's campaign are full-time members of the organization's missionary staff. The rest are volunteers using vacation time.

"I don't understand how you become a Jew for Jesus," said a Jewish man in a skullcap in Herald Square on Thursday afternoon, furrowing his brow in disdain at Jeffrey B. Cohen, 47, a vice president of marketing at a major pharmaceutical company in Atlanta, who was distributing literature for the group. "How does that happen?"

Mr. Cohen, who grew up in a Reform Jewish home, began exploring Jesus Christ after his wife, who is also Jewish, began attending a messianic synagogue more than a decade ago. He reacted initially with outrage, he said. But that changed. "I could either be open to learning about this and discovering whether it was true and unite my family, or I would lose my family," he said.

Mona Katz, 42, an executive assistant from Dallas, was raised in a largely secular Jewish household, in which the major holidays were celebrated but God was discussed very little. In college, a friend brought her to a Protestant church and she began to read the New Testament.

"When I read the book of John, I was pleasantly surprised it was a book about Jewish people and their relationship with Jesus," she said.

She went on to read the entire New Testament. "I wanted to make sure there was nothing anti-Semitic in there," she said.

She was eventually baptized and was soon handing out tracts for Jews for Jesus at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena. But the level of hostility she encountered made her vow to never do it again. Only recently did she change her mind and decide to volunteer for the New York campaign.

Ms. Katz and Mr. Cohen were part of a small group of volunteers that went through a three-day training session last week at Kings College, an evangelical Christian college located in the Empire State Building.

On Thursday, Shaun Buchhalter, a staff missionary in New York, offered the volunteers tips for how to engage people. "Don't get discouraged," he emphasized. "Each person is like a bucket," he said. "Every interaction they have with the Gospel is another drop in the bucket."

Later in the day, the volunteers ventured onto the streets for the first time. Avi Snyder, the group's European director, demonstrated how it was done, briskly proffering blue pamphlets to the crowds plowing past on 34th Street and Broadway.

A man in a skullcap talking on his cellphone took one and tore it in half, tossing it over his shoulder while walking away. "Do you want another one?" Mr. Snyder asked.

A tall Orthodox Jew in a black hat, black coat and flowing beard stalked up to Ms. Katz as she was handing out tracts and said, "Ignorance is bliss."

At one point, Mr. Cohen was surrounded by a group of Jewish men who engaged him in an angry debate. "This ministry is not for the shy or timid," he said later.

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