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Messianic Congregation Stirs Up Debate in Synagogues


Synagogues in the growing area from Calabasas to Thousand Oaks are usually in a polite competition for new members before the High Holy Days. But this year the Conservative, Orthodox and Reform temples also have banded together in a united front against a newcomer--a Jewish congregation that believes in Jesus as the Messiah.

Starting with Rosh Hashana Eve services on Wednesday night, the Beth Emunah Messianic Synagogue, which has been leasing a church in Canoga Park, will be open for worship in Agoura Hills, in a rented industrial site.

The impending move--into an area where conventional synagogues and schools are already struggling for footholds amid a rapidly expanding Jewish population--has set off a debate over whether religious tolerance or religious deception is the issue.

Messianic Rabbi Murray Silberling, as he identifies himself, concedes that his ad in the Yellow Pages does not mention Jesus. But he maintained that telephone callers and visitors are informed quickly that his congregation regards Yeshua, Hebrew for Jesus, as the Messiah.

Eventually, he said, they would be told Jesus is also revered as divine, as part of the Christian Trinity.

So what is the difference between the Messianic Jewish faith and Christianity?

There are differences, Silberling insists, including his congregation's adherence to Jewish rituals and customs.

"We don't consider ourselves Christians; we think we should be considered another stream of Judaism," said Silberling. He said attendance has averaged more than 100 at Saturday morning services.

On the other hand, local rabbis and the Jewish Federation's Valley Alliance, based in West Hills, say the Messianic synagogue presents a misleading picture.

"Unfortunately, we have a lot of people who are not very literate in their own religion," said the Valley Alliance's Debra Laskow. "These people are extremely friendly but this is a misrepresentation of Judaism."

Last month, rabbis at four synagogues--two Conservative, one Reform and one Hasidic Orthodox--signed a statement declaring that while devout Jews look for a Messiah, or a Messianic era, they believe that neither has arrived.

Later, an Orthodox rabbi and a Reform rabbi who lead small congregations in Calabasas added their signatures.

"Judaism understands that the arrival of a Messiah will be accompanied by a time of shalom--peace and wholeness," the statement said.

"While they may be well-intentioned," the 400-word statement said, "leaders of Beth Emunah Synagogue create . . . confusion when they mix the rituals of our religion with the belief system of another. Our concern is based on the fact that more problems are created than are solved with this admixture of Judaism and Christianity."

Because many Jews marry non-Jews or do not practice the religion, "the Jewish community is highly susceptible to the overtures of . . . those movements within evangelical Christianity that are dressed up as authentic Judaism," Rabbi Benzion Kravitz told about 200 people attending a forum on the controversy held at Temple Beth Haverim in Agoura Hills.

"I feel this Messianic movement is a cult," Kravitz, founder of Jews for Judaism, said this week.

"The Reform, Conservative and Orthodox movements have their differences over the practice of Judaism but not over their belief in one God."

Kravitz disputes Silberling's assertion that his Messianic synagogue draws its practices and beliefs strictly from the Hebrew Bible and the Christian New Testament, and that Messianic Jews ignore the rabbinic interpretations in the Talmud that are vital to conventional Judaism.

"When they wear yarmulkes and light Shabbat candles, where does that come from?" asked Kravitz, adding that many of the details of ritual and religious garb derive from rabbinic commentaries on Jewish law.

Silberling, who began the Messianic congregation in 1992 after moving from the Seattle area, accused Kravitz's Jews for Judaism of giving out misinformation. "When they decide to target a group they are vitriolic and unethical," Silberling said.

The dispute is a common one that flares up intermittently in Jewish communities. While Roman Catholic and most old-line Protestant churches decline to actively proselytize Jews, some theologically conservative churches back Jewish evangelism. Still other Hebrew-Christian and Messianic Jewish congregations operate apart from denominational ties.

Silberling said he is on the executive committee of the Messianic Jewish Alliance of America, which he said is one of two major groups embracing about 400 Messianic congregations worldwide.

He speculated that Beth Emunah's five-year stay in Canoga Park drew no criticism because the established synagogues in the San Fernando Valley did not feel threatened.

But in the communities that straddle the Ventura Freeway and stretch across the Los Angeles-Ventura county line into the Conejo Valley, some conventional Jewish congregations are still getting established in permanent facilities.

There are many examples.

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