One morning this summer, Edith Brown opened the door of her apartment to find a thick envelope in the hallway. “When I bent down to pick it up, I smiled. It had Hebrew writing on it,” the Silver Spring resident says. “But then I saw that it was at everyone else’s door.”
She thought it was odd, since she has few Jewish neighbors in her building that serves the elderly and, like her, the disabled. Inside the envelope, marked with the word “Israel” printed in Hebrew and a faux canceled stamp with the Israeli flag, was a DVD labeled “A message of hope and gladness for Jewish people,” and a thick booklet promising to answer questions “about the Jewish messiah and searching for the truth from the scriptures.”
It didn’t take more than a moment for Brown to realize that she had been targeted by missionaries.
“I was disgusted,” she says. “I am their perfect candidate — I’m alone, with no family, handicapped.They want to get the vulnerable and lonely. But it hasn’t worked on me.”
Brown’s bravado in response to a faceless but not nameless pursuer — Israel Restoration Ministries — is a typical Jewish reaction to Christian missionaries. And when they try to mix the two faiths, the effect is often a surprisingly visceral one — a feeling of disgust, as if a natural boundary has been ruptured, whether the group bears the name of Israel Restoration Ministries, Jews for Jesus, Chosen People Ministries or Messianic Judaism. All were formed from the DNA of evangelical Christianity.
“They want to get the Jews,” Brown says, sounding both threatened and offended.
And Messianic Judaism — unapologetic in its conviction that with Jesus the Jewish messiah arrived and that the rest of Jewish practice is but an ornament, fundamentalist as any hellfire preacher and now in its third generation of adherents — insists it is authentically Jewish. The Jewish community, across the board, says it isn’t and has raised a wall against Messianic Jews. But are Messianic Jews the threat, or are they a symptom of American Judaism’s own shortcomings?
“The ultimate benefit is salvation,” Larry Dubin is saying, “and someone who doesn’t follow the biblical mandates doesn’t go to heaven.”
That’s the bottom line for Dubin, a missionary for Jews for Jesus at its office in Rockville, and he’s laying down the law for an African American man at the corner of M and 19th Streets in Washington. Dubin has come here at lunchtime to hand out leaflets and talk to as many people as he can about Jesus — no matter what their religion is.
The man, a nominal Christian, doesn’t like what he’s hearing.
“If a person does not believe in Jesus, in the God of the Bible, they are not going to heaven,” Dubin tells him. “You don’t go to heaven just by being a good person.”
“That just pushed me away from God more,” the man says.
After he walks away, Dubin says, “There aren’t just Jewish people who reject the biblical story. There are gentiles, too.”
Dubin, 47, comes to this corner often. It’s where the people are. Amid the clatter of traffic, people walking by while talking on their phone, others taking pictures of themselves, he stands with a neat bundle of folded handouts. He’s wearing a red Jews for Jesus T-shirt. It has the group’s logo in English on the back and in Hebrew on the front.
He’s looking for customers. If not this one, then maybe the next. “I am a salesman,” he says. “I’m telling people about the worldview I’ve come to believe in.”
Dubin has two stories to tell. There is the one about Jesus and the truth that he is the Jewish Messiah, that the Hebrew Bible — called the Old Testament by Christians — contains prophecies that convinced him of the truth of his faith. There’s Isaiah 53, which speaks of a suffering servant, which Christians believe refers to Jesus and Jewish tradition says means Israel. And Isaiah 9:5, which tells of a “prince of peace” — Jesus again or the pious King Hezekiah, depending on which side of the line you’re on.
“Decide for yourself,” Dubin says.
There’s also another story, the story of Larry Dubin. How he was raised as a “secular Conservative Jew” in Colorado. How after his bar mitzvah he learned for the first time about the Holocaust, which caused him to break with Judaism and God. How he was an officer on a nuclear submarine when through the influence of two men, both role models and believers, and following his aborted decision to commit suicide, he accepted Yeshua, as Messianic Jews refer to Jesus.
And how he abruptly left the Navy after 14 years of service, kissing goodbye a retirement pension that was only six years away, to become a missionary. “I knew I was supposed to leave the Navy and do the work I’m now doing,” he says.
Dubin attended Dallas Theological Seminary, which focuses on Christian ministry. He joined Jews for Jesus in 1999.
“There’s nothing new under the sun,” he says, quoting Ecclesiastes, “and if you’re not doing it God’s way, what’s the point?”
No one knows how many Messianic Jews there are in the United States, or how that number is changing. There’s never been a National Messianic Jewish Population Survey, so everyone is free to decide for themselves and pick a number.
In 2009, Gordon Robertson of the Christian Broadcasting Network estimated there to be 10,000-15,000 Messianic Jews in 120 congregations. Stephen Katz, North American director of Jews for Jesus, says he’s heard estimates of 60,000-80,000. Yaakov Ariel, a professor in the religion department at the University of North Carolina, who studies Messianic Judaism, has written that there are about 400 Messianic congregations and that the movement “is larger than that of Reconstructionist Judaism.”
The numbers suggest that after 30 years of intensive effort costing hundreds of millions of dollars, the return on investment for converting Jews into Jesus worshipers is rather small, and that the movement remains on the fringes of both Judaism and Christianity.
Ruth Guggenheim says there are likely 350,000 Messianic Jews, and although that number is only a guess, she has quite a different view of Messianic Jews.
Guggenheim is director of the Baltimore-based Jews for Judaism, an anti-missionary group which she helped found 30 years ago, just as missionary efforts were gaining strength. She says that, like pedophiles, Messianic Jews prey on the young, confusing the untutored with spurious proofs of Yeshua’s centrality in Judaism. That’s the kind of miseducation her organization works to counter.
She blames pluralism for the vulnerability of the Jewish young. “Our young people don’t have boundaries,” she says. “This is our line in the sand: You cannot be Jewish and believe God is a triad. What I’m seeing is that within the next 20 years, Messianic Judaism will be accepted as an alternative within Judaism.”
Jews for Judaism is an Orthodox organization, and it aims to bring Jews who believe in Jesus back to Judaism, preferably to what she calls “observant” Judaism. The group’s website carries alerts about the latest doings of missionary and Messianic Jewish groups. They also provide counseling for families with a member who has become a Messianic Jew. “Sometimes there’s nothing you can do. We were able to be a support for the parents,” she says of one family.
Guggenheim believes that Messianic Jews, with their tireless outreach, have time on their side. “It’s their friendship — the one-on-one. A predator just keeps going after you. They’re planting seeds, so that one day you’re going to have a moment of crisis in your life. At that moment, all they have to do is step right into place.”
Stephen Katz describes his Jewish upbringing as “typical and average. My questioning of everything started in older adolescence.” He entered the University of Illinois “with a soft conclusion that life had no meaning.”
The one life goal he had was to emulate his hero, Bob Dylan. Katz played guitar, thought about changing his name and planned to drop out of college after one semester, as Dylan had done.
Instead, as his idol did much later in life, Katz found Jesus.
A Jewish professor had assigned the restless young skeptic to research the reasons that Jews in the time of Jesus didn’t believe he was the messiah. He pored over books explaining the Jewish positions and others from the Christian point of view.
“I really got into it,” says Katz, 57, the North American director of Jews for Jesus, based in Rockville. “It was intellectual, and it was part of this personal search. I began to lean in the direction that this could be true.”
Katz quit school. A few months later, his girlfriend, who was a gentile, “told me she had begun to believe in Jesus. I began to see her life change in some positive ways. … I became convinced that it was true and gave my life to God.”
(He eventually went back to university and earned two master’s degrees.)
Everyone involved in evangelism has a story. After a while they tend to blur into a common account: A regular upbringing, followed by a chronic dissatisfaction with the world or a traumatic event. A friendly introduction to Christianity and, after a period of gestation, a breakthrough, amounting to a birth — or a rebirth.
“They are spiritual people who are looking to connect with God, but turned away from Judaism from some sort of trauma, perceived hypocrisy or the simple failure of the community/family to show them how to connect to God in a meaningful and relevant way within the context of Judaism,” Penina Taylor, a counter-missionary activist in Israel, says in an email.
It would be hard to find a story filled with more hairpin turns and unexpected plot twists than Taylor’s. Even the current moment of apparent resolution still feels like a cliffhanger.
Her story begins in Lakewood, N.J., in a secular Jewish family. Her parents divorced early, leaving her traumatized and depressed as an adolescent. A Christian schoolmate told her that “everyone has problems, and that we needed to have a relationship with God through Yoshke [Jesus],” Taylor explained in an interview with Mishpacha magazine in 2010.
She embraced evangelical Christianity in high school, and was baptized at age 16. She attended Bible college and trained as an evangelist, worked for the Billy Graham Crusade and appeared at Christian events as a motivational speaker. She married Paul Taylor, a Christian man.
Then one Friday, she felt God telling her to light Shabbat candles. She had inherited her grandmother’s candlesticks, but didn’t know the blessing. With the help of a Maxwell House Haggadah, also a legacy of her grandparents, she managed to perform the ritual.
Around the same time, her husband had discovered through his reading that Jews “were supposed to do certain things, like keep kosher,” she told Mishpacha.
So she and Paul began integrating Jewish practice into their lives. Eventually they left evangelical Christianity and became Messianic Jews, raising their four children with that dual identity. In 1994, the family (including Penina Taylor’s parents, who were now remarried and Messianic Jews themselves) founded a Messianic congregation, the now-defunct Knesset Hashuvim, in Bowie.
Both Penina and Paul were becoming more observant. “My husband, who was not Jewish, now adopted the Hebrew name of Pinchas and wore a yarmulke and tzitzis. We koshered our kitchen and kept Shabbos,” she told Mishpacha.
In 2000, the family moved to an Orthodox neighborhood in Baltimore. “They moved here looking like very observant Jews,” Ruth Guggenheim of Jews for Judaism says. She met Penina and Pinchas after a Chabad rabbi said he would not allow the couple to attend his synagogue unless they met with the anti-missionary group. Those interactions set her on her current path.
“What turned my world upside-down was the realization that all of the supposed proofs for Jesus being the messiah were based on scriptures that were taken out of context, mistranslated, fabricated or some combination,” she told the South Africa Jewish Report.
The Taylors eventually abandoned their Christian beliefs and became Orthodox Jews, with Pinchas converting to Judaism. Penina worked for Jews for Judaism and, in 2007 the family made aliyah.
“When I came back to Judaism, I did not have to reconvert, I simply had to do honest, true, teshuvah,” she says in her email. Even after being baptized, “I was still a Jew, although I was not Jew-ish.”
Who’s a Messianic Jew?
Edith Brown was mistaken in thinking a Messianic Jewish group had left the missionary materials at her doorstep. Israel Restoration Ministries is an evangelical Christian organization. And although its founder, Tom Cantor, was born a Jew, he says he is a believing Christian, unhyphenated.
“The blood of the Lord Jesus Christ was the blood of the Messiah that alone can bring atonement and forgiveness and salvation from hell,” he says in an email.
Viewed more closely, the Jewish Jesus-believing world itself is not a monolith. Messianic Jews look at Jews for Jesus and see aggressive proselytizers. It’s a perception Stephen Katz rejects.
“Generally speaking, we’re polite. We’re not hounding, we don’t chase after people.”
Possibly the largest difference is that Jews for Jesus exists to proselytize, while Messianic Jews build congregations. Katz says he worships at McLean Bible Church, where he nevertheless experiences a strange sense of dislocation.
“There is a caught-in-the-middle sense. In a church, there’s a like-mindedness about what we believe. But culturally, there are times when I’m a fish out of water.”
At the same time, Messianic congregations are an amalgam of Messianic Jews and a usually larger number of what might be called “Messianic Christians,” “believing Gentiles called to serve Messiah within the Messianic Jewish community,” as the website of Ohev Yisrael, a Messianic congregation in Newington, puts it.
Rabbi Michael Rudolph of Ohev Yisrael says born Jews make up about 30 percent of his congregation’s 130 members. “Maybe a little less than half is too generous.”
At Son of David Congregation in Wheaton, it’s “a 50-50 split,” according to Dennis Karp, the congregation’s leader. Son of David attracts 125 people on a Shabbat morning, he says, including 25 Hispanic worshipers, “a little more than half of whom are conversos” — descendants of Spanish Jews who converted to Christianity but retained a flickering Jewish identity.
Christianity has a long tradition of trying to win Jewish souls, but the Messianic Jewish movement is a unique product of the 1960s and ‘70s, according to Yaakov Ariel of the University of North Carolina and author of Evangelizing the Chosen People.
One influence was the counterculture. “Its conservative character in matters of personal morality notwithstanding, Messianic Judaism is a product of the age and the generation that allowed itself unprecedented freedom of choice and self-fulfillment,” he writes in the essay “Judaism and Christianity Unite!: The Unique Culture of Messianic Judaism.”
Another was the Six-Day War, which not only caused an upsurge in Jewish pride among Jewish converts to Christianity, but the status of “Jewish converts … was raised within the larger evangelical milieu.”
And then there was the rise of ethnic pride in America. Jews no longer felt the old pull to assimilate, and for Jews who went to church, “disappearing into the general non-Jewish milieu seemed less attractive than before,” Ariel writes.
It was good to be a Jew — even if you were a Christian.
Decades later, many of the original Messianic families are entering their third generation. Katz’s children attended Messianic summer camps. Now adults, they remain on the Messianic path. But along with Jewish grandparents everywhere, Katz wonders, “Will our grandchildren be Jewish?”
As director of Hillel at the University of Maryland, Ari Israel occasionally interacts with the new generation of Messianic Jews.
One woman applied to Birthright Israel, the free, whirlwind trip for Jews aged 18-26, “and we rejected her,” Israel says. “She belonged to a Messianic synagogue and wasn’t trying to be deceptive.”
She simply considered herself Jewish. Israel says his decision was “a no-brainer. We don’t consider Messianic Jews Jewish.”
Although Jews for Jesus has leafleted the College Park campus, “I’m not aware of droves of students attracted to their expression of Judaism. They’re not a significant communal threat,” he says.
Ariel goes so far as to argue that Messianic Jews are no threat at all. “I see Messianic Jews as a legitimate group,” says Ariel, himself a Conservative Jew. “It’s an outcome of the engagement of evangelical Christians with Jews. This is a new way for Jews who have accepted Christianity to maintain their ties with Judaism. And in the last 30 years it has become much more Jewish.”
Messianic Jews attract the curious, he says, not with persuasive biblical exegesis, but by offering seekers meaning for their lives. “The search for community and spirituality are endlessly more important to people than theological arguments.”
For that reason he thinks counter-missionaries such as Jews for Judaism, and the Jewish community as a whole, are misguided. “By going to disputation [arguing against Messianic beliefs], you’re missing the point,” he says.” By telling people they are wrong, you don’t gain anything. There’s nothing to gain by rejecting people, trashing people.”
He adds, “Messianic Judaism is a reality. There are all kinds of Judaisms today.”
Messianic Jews and other evangelical groups like to point out that the first Christians were Jews themselves and that Jesus was a Jew. So if Judaism and Christianity were not mutually exclusive then, why should they be now?
There’s no shortage of reasons, including the eventual decision by the Jewish mainstream that Jesus wasn’t the Messiah.
But if you want to decide for yourself, there are other sectarian struggles that Jews participated in during the last 2,000 years: between Karaites and Rabbanites, which led to a permanent split in the Jewish community; between the followers of Shabtai Tzvi and those who rejected his claim as the Messiah; and, most recently, between the upstart chasidim and the mainstream mitnagdim, whose name means “opponents.”
Today there are Jewish adherents of Buddhism, Jewish secularists and Jews who believe the late Lubavitcher rebbe was the Messiah. But none of these seems to irk as much as Jews who believe Jesus is the Messiah irk. Something else is at work here.
Any borderland is a fraught, unwholesome place. And while Judaism has made an art of harmonizing circles and squares, it is, at its core, built on boundaries and separation. For nearly 2,000 years there’s been an iron border between Judaism and Christianity, agreed to by both sides, perpetuated by taboo and the genuine threat Christians posed to the largely powerless Jewish community.
Dwelling on neither side of the line, or on both, violates the taboo, writes Faydra Shapiro, director of the Galilee Center for Studies in Jewish-Christian Relations in Israel. In that way, Jews who dwell in Christianity are viewed as subversive, even perverse.
In the article “Jesus for Jews: The Unique Problem of Messianic Judaism,” she asks, “Is activism against Messianic Judaism actually about these Jews’ faith in the Jesus that [professor of religion at Rutgers University] Stuart Charme has termed ‘the radioactive core of goyishness’? Is it simply that these people have violated a fundamental group expectation, what Carol Harris-Shapiro [a Reconstructionist rabbi and author of Messianic Judaism: A Rabbi’s Journey through Religious Change in America] terms ‘the Jewish norm of loyalty to eschew Jesus at all costs’? Or perhaps it is the recognition that for those Jews living as tiny minorities in at least nominally Christian cultures of North America and Europe, a Jewish embrace of Jesus amounts over time to an act of ethno-cultural suicide.”
She says that it is “telling … that mainstream Jewish opposition to Messianic Judaism is never framed using a discourse of heresy” — which is an incorrect understanding of Jewish belief.
“Messianic Judaism, together with Jewish-Buddhism or the belief in the messiahship of the late Rebbe of Lubavitch, all present serious theological challenges. Effectively, however, it is only the first of these that has been written out of Judaism.”
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Maybe we should start trying some of their tactics,” Edith Brown says. “Be more inviting of our fellow Jews, regardless. I think we can have more outreach. I think we can be more inviting to our homes.”
In the success of Messianic Jews, there is an implicit critique of the Jewish community.
“They want a relationship with God and sometimes in Judaism we don’t know how to do that,” Ruth Guggenheim says of the young Jews who she’s worried will be attracted to the outreach of missionary organizations like Jews for Jesus.
Brown says she has been on the receiving end of that outreach, “ ’We’ll give you a ride to our synagogue. Do you need to go to a doctor’s appointment?’ If you’re lonely and not sure where you belong, it feels good. You feel wanted.”
But her Jewish loyalty is strong, “I’ll be damned if I ever, ever cross over. Not in this lifetime.”
Two thousand years ago, when this story really began, Jewish life was in ferment like at no other time before or since. Christians were just one upstart group jostling for followers in a crowded Jewish marketplace. Ariel says those days have returned.
“Jews have no other option. If they want to survive and thrive they have to participate in the open market. Let’s promote our kind of Judaism.”
Will it be a fair fight? Like other triumphalist religious groups, Messianic Judaism takes advantage of the paradox of pluralism. While insisting that they fit on the Jewish spectrum, they believe that everyone else on that spectrum is incomplete, illegitimate and going straight to hell.
As they say, decide for yourself.