Messianic Group's Touchy Mission

Renewed D.C. Campaign of Jews for Jesus Brings Out the Counter-Leafleters

Washington Post/June 30, 2007
By Michelle Boorstein

A two-week evangelical campaign designed to bring Jews to Jesus is underway in Washington, taking this question to Metro stations, Nationals games and popular spots like U Street: Is Jesus the Jewish messiah?

That is the core belief of the international missionary organization Jews for Jesus, the best known of dozens of messianic Jewish groups that have sprung up in recent decades. Followers believe that Jesus was the messiah mentioned in Jewish scripture. The group, which has a $17 million annual budget, defines its mission as "making the messiahship of Jesus an unavoidable issue to Jewish people worldwide."

The group is loathed by many mainstream Jews. Washington area Jewish organizations and the InterFaith Conference of Metropolitan Washington have condemned the campaign, saying Jews for Jesus proselytizes too aggressively and misleads potential followers by using Jewish symbols, portraying their places of worship as synagogues and referring to Jesus by Hebrew names.

Jewish tradition does foretell of a messiah who will return Jews to their promised land and bring peace to the world, but it rejects the idea that Jesus was that person -- as Christianity teaches.

"You don't dress up fundamentalist, evangelical Christian missionaries in Jewish clothing and call it Judaism," said Scott Hillman, director of the regional office of Jews for Judaism, which works against groups trying to convert Jews to Christianity. He ran two training sessions last week for 30 people who try to be wherever the Jews for Jesus leafleters are and hand out their own leaflets.

The campaign, which began last Saturday and ends July 8, is the second push that Jews for Jesus has made in the area, which has one of the nation's larger Jewish communities with 215,000 Jews, according to a 2003 study. More than 30 Jews and Christians from Washington and across the country are participating, a far smaller number than in 2004, when 600 volunteers were trained to hand out leaflets.

Organizers say that is because 2004 was part of an unprecedented five-year, 38-city, global Jews for Jesus campaign that cost millions. The D.C. area push that year, which cost about $200,000, was also promoted heavily by the Rev. Lon Solomon, senior pastor of the McLean Bible megachurch in McLean and a member of the Jews for Jesus board of directors. This year, McLean contributed a small number of volunteers and the campaign has no advertising, as there was in 2004.

But it comes at a time when congregations of messianic Jews are growing, albeit slowly. There are about 300 such congregations in the United States, up from none around 1970, according to the Union of Messianic Jewish Congregations. Jewish groups that work to oppose conversion efforts estimate that 200,000 American Jews have become believers in Christ in the past three decades.

Many others who are active in such groups as Jews for Jesus worship at biblically conservative, evangelical churches, like McLean Bible Church. Some were born Jewish; many others were born Christians. All share the belief that Jews hold a special place in the Bible but differ on what that means. Some believe that Jews must come to Jesus in order to create the conditions for his return; others believe that evangelizing Jews is simply a way to express love for a people whom God, in Exodus, called his "peculiar treasure."

The issue of missionizing to Jews is becoming more explosive as evangelical Christian groups -- the primary backers of messianic organizations -- draw closer than ever with Jewish groups over their shared support of Israel. Christian blogs lighted up last year when the

Jerusalem Post reported that Texas megapreacher and stalwart Israel ally John C. Hagee believed that Jews have a special covenant with God that allows them salvation without accepting Jesus. The Rev. Hagee is already criticized by some evangelicals because he doesn't advocate proselytizing to Jews. He disputed the newspaper report, saying he believes that Jews do need Jesus, but many messianic Jews remain angry that some evangelical leaders are willing to tone down evangelizing in order not to offend Jews.

"How can you say you love Jews if you withhold the messiah from them?" asked Stephen Katz, director of the local Jews for Jesus office, who handed out brochures to commuters at the Foggy Bottom Metro during Tuesday's morning rush hour.

Working with him was Adam Myers, 21, a junior at Liberty University, who said it bothers him that so many people at his church believe that proselytizing to Jews is unnecessary.

"It's just not politically correct to tell people that if you want to go to heaven, you have to accept Jesus. What we're saying is intolerant, just like if a doctor said you need to take this medicine, that is intolerant," he said.

While passing out brochures, Katz got the e-mail address of Michaela Curtis, a 21-year-old intern from North Carolina who grew up in a Christian household where interest in Judaism was high.

"Jews for Jesus is true Judaism, because Jesus was the king of the Jews," she said. "It makes perfect sense to me."

But nearby was Bess Lender, a Jewish George Washington University senior, who disagreed.

"They'll promote themselves as Jewish," Lender said, "but it's just silly to me to think you can be Jewish and believe in Christ as the messiah."

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