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Challenge to Jewish Evangelists Intensifies

Theology: Mainstream Jewish group in New York begins a program to counter the activities of Jews for Jesus. But missionary officials claim that such activities actually help them.

August 03, 1996|ANDREA HEIMAN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

NEW YORK — Call it turf war in Times Square.

A clean-shaven young man in a T-shirt that boldly proclaims "Jews for Jesus" hands out flyers amid a sea of subway commuters. A few feet away, a tall, bearded man wearing a large black yarmulke--his T-shirt stamped: "Judaism, the Religion for Jews"--hands out leaflets of his own.

"Have a good night you guys, see you tomorrow," the yarmulke-wearing man calls to the "Jews for Jesus" gang, as rush-hour traffic dwindles and the leafleteers begin to head out.

Tonight the relationship is cordial. But in the heat of theological debate and a crowded subway, it isn't always.

Since 1974, Jews for Jesus--an evangelical organization of "Messianic Jews," who contend that Jews can believe in Jesus and maintain their Jewish identity--has sponsored a summer crusade each year in New York City, home to 1.9 million Jews, more than any other American city.

In addition to its subway posters and citywide billboards, the group sends a full-time staff to New York each July to pass out leaflets on the streets and operate a phone bank from its headquarters in Mid-town Manhattan.

For years, this annual effort has gone on without much organized opposition from the Jewish community. But this summer, for the first time, the missionary group is facing organized opposition from the New York Jewish Community Relations Council, which has launched its own counter campaign.

With help from the Los Angeles-based Jews for Judaism, the group's task force on missionaries and cults has recruited volunteers to distribute anti-missionary material and spent nearly $40,000 on educational programs, leaflets and subway signs that read: "Can you be Jewish and believe in Jesus? NO WAY."

It is considered the first directed, large-scale effort to challenge Jews for Jesus' missionary campaign.

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The threat posed by groups such as Jews for Jesus has come into sharper focus this year, in part because of the June resolution by the Southern Baptist Convention to convert Jews to Christianity, said Philip Abromowitz , director of the task force on missionaries and cults. That referendum, assailed by many in the Jewish community as a "spiritual declaration of war," has led groups like Jews for Judaism to step up efforts to make Jews less vulnerable to conversion.

"We're trying to teach Jews more about their Judaism," Abromowitz said. "They [Jews for Jesus] make a mockery of Judaism; it's an affront, and an insult to the 6 million [Jews who died in the Holocaust]."

The success of the task force's monthlong anti-missionary campaign is, however, debatable.

"They've helped raise our image," said David Brickner, executive director of Jews for Jesus. "They've helped us get media coverage, and amplified what we are trying to say. They'll have no long-term impact on us. In fact, we've had more response this year than in previous years."

Jews for Jesus aimed to distribute 1 million leaflets during its July crusade. In the first 10 days of campaigning, Brickner said, the 27 participants had distributed half a million leaflets, and taken the names, addresses and phone numbers of nearly 3,000 people who were willing to learn more.

The missionary group has drawn the ire of many of New York's Jews, but there is no consensus on how the Jewish community should respond to the group's recruitment campaign.

"It's nice to see [the counter-missionaries] here to counteract the Jews for Jesus people," said Janet Blumenthal, 60, who accepted pamphlets from both sides as she made her way home. "It's upsetting to see Jews for Jesus. I'm Jewish, and I would never turn my back on my religion."

But Karen Ruderman of Manhattan worried that the counter campaign is merely raising the profile of the missionary project.

"It's good that they're presenting the other side, but at the same time, I think it gives the Jews for Jesus more credibility," said Ruderman, 30. "I don't know if we should take them so seriously."

While Jews for Jesus, which is funded primarily by Messianic Jews and evangelical Christians, has received prominent attention in the media, the actual number of so-called "Jewish believers" is unclear.

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There are about 60,000 Messianic Jews worldwide, according to Brickner. Jews for Judaism puts the figure at 150,000, and estimates that another 100,000 Jews have converted to Christianity.

But it is clear that Jews for Jesus has mastered the art of proselytizing. In June, "Messianic believers" from around the world attended a two-week conference in Chicago, training them in methods of evangelizing Jews. Their clever, brightly-colored pamphlets, which refer to Jesus as "Yeshua" [Jesus in Hebrew], capitalize on pop culture, with cartoons of Howard Stern and Jerry Seinfeld on their covers.

During the group's July campaign, teams of leafleteers fanned out through the city from 7 a.m. until 10:30 p.m. each day, catching New Yorkers on their way to work, at lunch hour, after the theater.

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