Aiming For Detroit
Friday, August 27, 2004
Jews for Jesus targets local community over the High Holidays.
Special to the Jewish News
An international effort targeting Jews and Judaism is coming to metro Detroit and Ann Arbor Sept. 3-24. And no matter how much you try to avoid them, the "Jews for Jesus" will be working hard to make sure you can't.
"The goal is to make Y'shua (Jesus) an unavoidable issue," says local co-leader of the effort, Loren Jacobs, whose congregants at the "Messianic" Congregation Shema Yisrael in Bloomfield Township call him rabbi. According to Jacobs, local "Messianic Jews" and members of supportive Christian congregations as well as Jews for Jesus missionaries from other states will be arriving to share the message that "believing in Jesus is the most Jewish thing a Jewish person can do."
The idea of Jews accepting Jesus as their messiah is one that confuses Jews and non-Jews alike. But there is no confusion regarding where all Jewish denominations stand on the issue: Such beliefs are just not "kosher."
"Jews for Jesus is a misleading and incorrect term," says Rabbi Elliot Pachter of Congregation B'nai Moshe in West Bloomfield and president of the Michigan Board of Rabbis. "By definition, an individual who accepts Jesus as the Messiah is a Christian."
Rabbi Pachter's opinion is supported by the statement, "Meeting the Challenge: Hebrew Christians and the Jewish Community," authored by Professor Lawrence Schiffman, chair of Judaic Studies at New York University, and also endorsed by leaders of the four major Jewish seminaries - Conservative, Orthodox, Reconstructionist and Reform.
Schiffman writes, "numerous studies have shown that Hebrew Christianity or 'Messianic Judaism' is nothing more than a gargantuan effort to missionize Jews and convert them to Christianity. It is well organized and heavily funded."
He adds, "This community is not the Jewish community, it is an appendage of the evangelical Christian community."
The local three-week Jews for Jesus campaign, planned to come during the High Holidays, is part of a five-year international effort begun in 2001 to reach Jews in Israel and 65 other cities, each with Jewish populations of more than 25,000. Organizers call these "Behold Your God (BYG) cities," referring to a phrase in Isaiah 40:9 they use for their own purposes. In the next four months alone, the BYG campaign will take its message to Denver, San Diego, Paris, Houston and San Paulo, Brazil. Hundreds of trained missionaries currently are working the streets of Washington, D.C.
"Messianic" groups estimate there are 150 "Messianic synagogues" in the United States and another 40 or 50 in Israel, with a total of about 100,000 adherents. According to the 1990 Council of Jewish Federations population study, more than 600,000 Jews in North America identify with some type of Christianity, though most are not "Messianic Jews."
To counter what they see as both an insult and a threat, the local Jewish community has come together under the umbrella of the Jewish Community Council of Metropolitan Detroit to meet the challenge.
"Our community has responded to the threat of the Jews for Jesus campaign by uniting and stating that we strongly value our Jewish identity," says Pearlena Bodzin, a JCCouncil board member, B'nai Moshe member and chair of the Jews for Jesus Response Ad Hoc Committee. "We must continue to embrace the unaffiliated members of our community and educate our children about our rich heritage and Jewish way of life."
The Ad Hoc Committee includes representatives from the Michigan Board of Rabbis, Council of Orthodox Rabbis, Jewish Apartments and Services, Jewish Family Service, JARC, the Jewish Community Center of Metropolitan Detroit, Michigan Region BBYO, the Hillels of the University of Michigan and Metro Detroit, the Jewish Federations of Metropolitan Detroit and Washtenaw County and a number of local Jewish day schools.
According to Eric Adelman, a JCCouncil community relations associate, the missionaries will target the unaffiliated, college students, Russians and other new immigrants.
In response, the Council is "producing educational materials that will blanket the community" says Adelman. Synagogues, Jewish community centers, schools and other agencies will distribute the materials. Ads will be taken out in Russian language newspapers.
"We have a positive message that we are a strong, united Jewish community," he says. "We want people to strengthen their affiliation and be proud of their Jewish identity."
Adelman says the committee has consulted with the Jewish community, national organizations, other cities and the interfaith community. He says the community is very appreciative of a very supportive article by Father John West, a theologian with the Archdiocese of Detroit and pastor of Our Lady of Sorrows in Farmington, which has been printed in the Michigan Catholic and sent to more than 1,000 church leaders [see page 20].
Rabbi Pachter is concerned about the impact of the campaign on interfaith relations. Jews for Jesus supporters make "aggressive attempts to confront and convert Jews to their cause and are in opposition to the mutually respectful relationship we have developed with Christianity," he says. "We have worked together over the years, while recognizing and appreciating our differences. However, Jews for Jesus and similar Christian missionary groups violate the relationship in both their message and method."
Rabbi Scott Hillman is director of the Baltimore-based Jews for Judaism, an international, full-time counter-missionary, counter-cult, educational, outreach and counseling organization. He offers services to Jews confronted by Christian missionaries and is very involved in countering the campaign in Washington, D.C.
He urges the community to prepare to be "under siege," noting that Jews for Jesus has raised more than $22 million for the BYG campaign. "They bring in about two dozen people from the outside, and pretty much deliver on what they promise," he says, citing street evangelism, radio and newspaper ads, direct mail, door-to-door proselytizing and public events experienced so far in Washington.
While he admits Jews for Jesus missionaries often freely identify themselves, he says their deception is not in their manner but in their message.
"They deliberately misquote, mistranslate and misinterpret Jewish Scriptures and rabbinical texts in an attempt to 'prove' that Jesus was both the Jewish Messiah and God," Rabbi Hillman says. "Their de-legitimization of Judaism, in concert with their misleading exploitation of Jewish symbols, religious artifacts and even traditional music, serve to confuse the potential convert, making him or her more vulnerable."
He warns they also try to capitalize on Jewish woes, widely showing a film of Jewish Holocaust survivors who have become "Messianic."
Rabbi Hillman's advice for those contacted by Jews for Jesus: "Just like the old anti-drug slogan - just say no. Say, 'No, thank you, I'm happy with my Judaism; I'm religiously satisfied.'
"Don't spit, don't yell, don't get violent," Rabbi Hillman says. "They don't know Judaism and we would love for them to come back [to the faith]."
Wooing Jewish Souls
Karen Sackville, project director of the Task Force on Cults and Missionaries of the Jewish Community Relations Council of New York, heads one of the most significant organizations in its field. While not underestimating the dangers posed by Jews for Jesus, Sackville believes the biggest achievement the campaign will have is "annoying people."
"You are going to be inundated," she warns. "They are out to get Jewish souls."
While the routine is pretty standard, some egregious excesses have taken place. For example, she says, "In Connecticut, they went to school bus stops to talk with kids."
Sackville recommends having Jewish communities "defend themselves" by having volunteers ready to distribute pamphlets whenever and wherever a Jews for Jesus pamphleteer is located. "It is the most important thing," she says, "and probably the only thing you can do to counter them without being taken to jail."
The JCCouncil's Ad Hoc committee, however, has chosen not to do so, says Adelman, because it is felt that "it is not the most effective use of time and resources."
The U-M Hillel is also preparing for the campaign, says Hillel Assistant Director Rabbi Jason Miller.
"Historically, they have been successful at targeting college students," he says. "They know how highly impressionable college students can be."
During Ad Hoc Committee meetings, "the discussion focused on the difficulty of denouncing the JFJ effort without aiding in their publicity effort," says Rabbi Miller. "We Jewish leaders do not want to do for JFJ what the conservative media did for Michael Moore's film [Fahrenheit 9-11]."
"Rather than devising our own strategy to combat the BYG campaign, [Hillel] will follow the Jews for Judaism playbook" by printing its "7 Answers to Jews for Jesus" brochure [see sidebar] to distribute at all of its welcome-back events this fall.
"We will make students aware of the upcoming JFJ campaign through our e-mail network," says Rabbi Miller, who will address the subject during his Rosh Hashanah sermon. "We have over 1,500 students attend services here, but we also need to reach the unaffiliated students who will not likely attend holiday services."
Community leaders are confident the BYG campaign will not succeed and may be less extensive than in other cities. But they are prepared for whatever might occur and are flexible enough to adapt.
Again, the consensus is expressed clearly in Schiffman's document: "Hebrew Christianity constitutes a profound challenge to the Jewish community with its heritage of open mindedness and its desire to embrace all Jews no matter how close or how far from our tradition. Yet there are times when a line must be drawn, when a barrier must be erected.
"Our history tells us that when confronted with Jews who have adopted another faith and who seek to lure others to follow that same path, we must stand firm in asserting that this other faith is not Judaism; and that its adherents, even if of Jewish status, forfeit their privileges as Jews.
"How much more so is this the case when our ancient rabbis already confronted the very same phenomenon in the form of Jewish Christianity and pronounced it loudly and clearly to be another faith, and when our modern rabbis stand united behind these principles."
© 2004 Detroit Jewish News
© Rabbi Jason Miller 1996-2007