By Todd Rhoads, for the Mitzpeh
They approach campus students wearing a seemingly irreconcilable contradiction on their sweatshirts, smiling and politely handing out religious pamphlets. Often harassed, they don’t fight back, but turn the other cheek when insulted or berated.
Yes, the idea of Jews For Jesus may be confusing and a little hard to swallow. But in person group members are polite, sincere and don’t pressure students to listen to their viewpoints. So while they may be a volatile mix of the Western World’s two prominent religions, aren’t Jews For Jesus still a rather innocuous organization?
No, say many national Jewish groups and rabbis, who believe Jews For Jesus and other Messianic Jewish groups present one of today’s biggest threats to American Judaism.
No, says Hillel, which is planning programs for next semester designed to teach campus Jewish students to fend off Jews For Jesus’s advances.
No, say some campus Jewish students, suspicious that Jews For Jesus is trying to trick their peers into forgoing their centuries-old heritage.
What lies behind this controversy between the Jewish community and a group that proclaims itself Jewish but worships Jesus?
Peter Rice, head of the Washington branch of Jews For Jesus and a frequent visitor to campus, wishes the debate could stay on the religious level: Is Jesus the messiah or isn’t he?
But for many Jews in America, the debate extends further: to what it means to be a Jew, to centuries of persecution, and to Judaism’s fear of dissolving into the Christian American mainstream.
‘They are not Jews’
One of the main problems critics in the Jewish community have with Jews For Jesus is that they will not give up their Jewish heritage.
Rabbi Tovia Singer heads Outreach Judaism, a full-time national organization dedicated to countering groups who target Jews for conversion.
Singer, who will be coming to campus Nov. 20, says that Jews For Jesus realizes that Jews don’t want to become Christians. So they don’t convert Jews to Christianity, but persuade them instead to become a Messianic Jew.
“They blur the distinctions between Judaism and Christianity so it becomes less offensive,” he says. “But there’s no difference between them and Christians ideologically – Jews For Jesus are actually a Baptist organization. They twist the words around, and what we have essentially is a consumer fraud issue.”
Rice responds to such criticism by saying that other Jews who differ religiously are accepted, but not Jews For Jesus.
“Ironically to me, there are Jews who are atheists, there are Jews who are Buddhists, there are Jews who are Unitarians who call themselves Junitarians, and they are all allowed to wear the moniker of Jewish person,” says Rice. “You can, it seems, have any number of –isms attached to your belief system, but not if you embrace Jesus.”
Conversions and Beginnings
Jews For Jesus was founded in San Francisco in 1974, about the time Rice became a believer in Jesus – to the dismay of his family, friends and rabbi.
Rice grew up in a reformed household in a Jewish section of Los Angeles. But he turned away from the Jewish faith, engaging in decidedly non-kosher activities.
“In high school, I was involved in the two most important things you could do there – surfing and dealing with drugs,” he says.
Feeling a spiritual void, he began, like many young people, to seek and search beyond his background. First he tried a “new age” movement complete with Ouija boards and astrology. A friend gave him a book popular at the time, “The Late Great Planet Earth.”
“I opened it up, believing it was a book on the occult, but it wasn’t. It was on Jesus,” Rice says. “I realized it was a Christian book, and said with disgust, ‘I’m Jewish, Jews don’t believe in Jesus,’ and tossed it across the room.”
But his Christian friends, who Rice says were continually trying to “share their faith” with him, did not relent. He was willing to listen, but only up to a point.
After giving Judaism another chance, but finding it still did not salve his spiritual needs, Rice decided to check out the New Testament for himself. Because having a Christian bible would not have gone down well with either his parents or his drug dealing buddies, his budding interest in Jesus remained furtive.
“I hid the bible underneath my bed with my drugs, and pulled it out at night instead of taking drugs,” he said.
His spiritual seeking ended with Jesus. Finding him was difficult, he says, but not as hard as havinghis family and relatives accept his conversion. After a contentious Thanksgiving dinner that was broken up when Rice proclaimed Jesus to be his messiah, his uncle left his parents’ house with hurtful words: “I would have preferred that Peter had stayed on drugs rather than believed in Jesus.”
But Rice continued to worship Jesus. He has been coming to campus to preach every week for nearly the last decade, often seen in his trademark van with “Jews For Jesus” plastered on it in seven-inch high letter. While Rice and others talk and hand out their religious tracts to everybody, they have a “special heart’s desire” to relate to Jewish people.
Students interested in the group are invited to the group’s church in McLean, Va. There followers hold bible study, light Sabbath candles, singing the Sh’ma intermingling traditional Christian choruses with standard Jewish ones, and studying Jewish scriptures mixed with the New Testament.
Is Jesus a threat?
According to Rabbi Singer, Messianic Jewish groups are increasing their intensity to convert Jews as the year 2000 approaches. To him, such groups pose a grave danger to Judaism.
“Jews For Jesus is the second largest drain of Jews today – the largest is Jews for nothing,” he says.
Singer’s claim is disputed, predictably, by those in the Jews For Jesus organization, such as David Brickner, national executive director of Jews For Jesus in San Francisco.
“I have a hard time seeing ourselves as the kind of threat we are said to be,” Brickner says.
“There’s about 13.5 million Jews in America, and we only number about 50,000, really a drop in the bucket. According to the statistics I’ve seen, more gentiles convert to Judaism every year than Jews convert to Jesus,” he says.
Brickner, who comes from five generations of Messianic Jews, says his group makes an effort to maintain and pass along their cultural heritage, through Jewish-style summer camps for children and trips to Israel.
But he is bothered that those in the Jewish community want him to give up this Jewish identity.
Some rabbis would be very happy if all of a sudden we started eating ham on white bread with mayonnaise,” he says.
Rabbi Singer argues that evangelical Christians, whom Jews For Jesus are associated with, must be watched guardedly. Not only is their history of religious intolerance cause for concern, he says, but so are their numbers: one out of every five Americans are an evangelical Christian.
Brickner argues that today’s Christians should not be held accountable for the atrocities directed toward Jews in the past.
“Evangelicals who are alive today are no more responsible for acts of anti-Semitism in the distant past than Jewish people today are responsible for the crucifixion of Jesus,” he says.
By now, given the group’s increased media exposure, most Jewish students have heard of Jews For Jesus. Reactions vary from mild disdain to anger.
“It’s fair to call them a cult,” says Alan Spiegel, who learned about the group through Jewish programming. “I’m pretty disgusted about them trying to proselytize Jewish people. We don’t force our faith on others; I get annoyed when they do it to us.”
Likewise, Scott Brown executive director of Hillel, says Hillel is not supportive of the group or of acknowledging them as Jews.
“I wouldn’t embrace them or welcome Jews For Jesus into any of our programs,” he says.
Brown would hope a Jewish student who became interested in what Jews For Jesus says would come to talk about it with someone at Hillel.
“It’s a subject everyone needs to be educated about,” he says. “Not to make an educated choice, because I don’t think there’s a choice to be made, but to at least be more knowledgeable and comfortable.”
These efforts to shelter Jewish students from Jews For Jesus doesn’t discourage the group, Rice and Brickner say.
They are resigned to the probability that Jews For Jesus will never be accepted as a valied religious group by the majority of the Jewish community, but still ask for their beliefs to be given a chance.
“My challenge to my people is to take another look, don’t just accept what you’ve heard from the rabbis about who we are and who Jesus is,” Brickner says. “If a person considers themselves to be a well-rounded and well-read individual, then they owe it to themselves to read the words of Jesus themselves.”
Rabbi Singer says college students, more open to new ideas and exploration, are a favorite group to be targeted by Messianic Jews. Elderly people, who may be alone after a spouse has died, are another popular group.
“Young people like to get involved in intellectual discussions and all sorts of movements,” he says. “Also, they’re on their own for the first time and have to build new relationships, and these groups will provide instant friends. The combination is lethal.”