Taking Aim

Efforts to convert Jews draw fire from interdenominational group

The Arizona Republic/1982
By Richard Lessner

"Jews of Phoenix…you have been targeted," states a pamphlet attacking Jewish-Christian missionary agencies such as Jews for Jesus and the Phoenix-based Jewish Voice Broadcasting.

The pamphlet will be published in December by the Jewish Federation of Greater Phoenix.

"Are Jews for Jesus, Messianic Jews or Hebrew Christians really Jewish? What is the community doing about this insult to their Judaism?" the pamphlet asks.

"What is being done about this insidious effort to debase good Christian-Jewish relations, causing possible irreparable rifts between the two communities? Shall we stand idly by?"

Moishe Rosen, head of Jews for Jesus, said, "This is obviously a propaganda piece using emotional appeals." Rosen spoke by telephone from his San Francisco headquarters. Portions of the pamphlet were read to him.

The pamphlet, attacking the evangelistic groups as Jewish impostors who use deceptive proselytizing techniques, grew out of numerous complaints from the local Jewish community against the groups' activities, said Sheryl Leonard, director of the federation's community relations committee.

A committee composed of Leonard, Rabbi Albert Plotkin and Rick Ross of Phoenix's Temple Beth Israel, and the Rev. Ian McPherson of Phoenix's Covenant United Presbyterian Church, composed the pamphlet titled What in G-d's name is happening in Arizona: Impostors (sic) Hiding Behind the Star of David.

It carries the endorsements of seven local rabbis, six Protestant ministers, and Don Eagle, vice president of the Southwest region and director of the Arizona chapter of the National Conference of Christians and Jews. More endorsements are expected from denominational leaders prior to publication, Leonard said.

"I have been the recipient of numerous complaints over the last several months about proselytizing by these so-called Jewish-Christian organizations," Leonard said. "Evangelistic materials have been left at the Kivel Manor (a Jewish geriatric center), at several Jewish institutions, and sent through the mail to Jews.

"Our main objection is that they are forcing their beliefs on a people who already have their own beliefs. This is objectionable, especially in the way the community has been blanketed."

Ross said, "The main issue is fraud. We are not opposed to attempts to proselytize Jews. Jews have always been proselytized by Christians. We object to people who aren't really Jews using Judaism, Jewish symbols and traditions, to misrepresent themselves to Jews."

The essential issue in this controversy is an old one: Does a Jew who believes in Jesus as the Messiah cease being a Jew?

The federation committee says yes, Jews who become Christians cease being Jews and should affiliate with a church and abandon all pretense to Jewishness.

Rosen, and Louis Kaplan of Jewish Voice Broadcasting, say no, Jews who become Christians are still Jews and are entitled to continue to observe Jewish customs and traditions.

"We are united on who Jews are not," Ross said. "An ordained fundamentalist minister who accepts the tenets of Christianity is not a Jew."

McPherson questioned the propriety of any attempt by Christians to single out Jews for proselytization. "From the Christian perspective, there are serious moral, ethical and theological questions whether we have any right at all to evangelize Jews," he said.

The committee said that such attempts are anti-Semitic in that they seek the extinction of the Jewish people by conversion.

The pamphlet criticizes the use of Christianized Jewish symbols such as the menorah, the star of David, and the Passover seder by these groups as a deceptive way of gaining a hearing from Jews who may not at first realize these are Christian and not Jewish groups.

"When 'Jews for Jesus' tells Jews that they can become Christians without giving up their Jewishness, they do not mean that they can fully believe in the tenets of Judaism and Christianity simultaneously, since this is plainly impossible," the pamphlet says.

"What they mean is that Jewish converts to Christianity can still observe some of the forms of Jewish life if they wish - lighting candles in the eve of the Sabbath, visiting Israel, wearing a skull cap, celebrating the Passover Seder, etc. But in the hands of Jews for Jesus, each of these most sacred Jewish acts and symbols is perverted and distorted.

"Thousand of years of unbroken Jewish tradition are casually cast aside by these missionaries who tell prospective converts that theirs are the real meanings of Jewish customs."

Rosen said, "By the same logic, Jesus was a deceiver and Christian communion a fraud. Jesus took matzos and said: 'This is my body.' He took the Passover cup and said: 'This is my blood.' Jesus himself used the symbols of Judaism. Much of the New Testament, especially Hebrews, uses Jewish symbols to interpret the Gospel. So what they are attacking is New Testament teaching."

Rosen quoted an article from the Encyclopedia Judaica that one becomes a Jew by virtue of God's covenant with Abraham as symbolized in circumcision, and that once under the covenant a Jew can never cease to be a Jew even if they adopt another religion, albeit they may be a sinner.

"There are 50 different ways to define what is a Jew. They are using a definition of convenience," Rosen said. "We know we are outcasts and not acceptable in their eyes. But they have rejected us, we haven't rejected Judaism. We never ask a convert to reject the synagogue.

"I'm a Jew by virtue of a covenant of God. No rabbi made me a Jew, my circumcision when I was eight days old did," he said.

The Jewish Federation has been lobbying for local evangelical churches who support Jews for Jesus and Jewish Voice and who allow the groups to use their buildings for programs to end this support. Morningside Presbyterian Church and Valley Cathedral have been approached and asked to withdraw their support.

The Rev. Donald McDonough of Morningside Presbyterian said Ross contacted him and the Presbytery of Grand Canyon. He told McDonough the presbytery disagreed with Morningside's support of Jews for Jesus and reminded him the presbytery owns the church's property. McDonough characterized this as financial intimidation but said the church will continue its support and that no denominational officials have contacted him.

Note: Rev. Duane McDonough and Morningside Presbyterian Church later withdrew from the denomination Presbyterian Church U.S.A. governed by the Presbytery of the Grand Canyon

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