September 28, 2006
Local minister, dressed as High Priest, stages Yom Kippur service for evangelicals
On Sunday morning, while Jews are preparing for Kol Nidre, a group of Christians in Simi Valley will be participating in a Yom Kippur service of their own.
For the fifth year in a row, Kevin Dieckilman, senior pastor of the evangelical Simi Hills Christian Church, will lead a High Holiday service designed to teach Christians their Jewish roots.
Christians have been known to host Passover seders, portraying Jesus as the paschal lamb, but rarely -- if ever before -- have Christians observed the Jewish Day of Atonement.
For Dieckilman, 56, acknowledging the day only makes sense. "If it's the highest holy day for the people of God, then Christians should not overlook it," he said.
On the morning before Yom Kippur, which begins at sundown on Sunday, Dieckilman will don a high priest costume. He will wear a blue robe and white hat, affixed with a golden crown.
Over the robe, he will put on a breastplate with colorful glittered ovals, representing the 12 tribes of Israel.
Bells on the costume will jingle when he walks, because in the time of the Temples, "the high priest never walked in the presence of God without the sound of worship," Dieckilman said. For the service, Dieckilman will create a replica of the biblical tabernacle, or "Tent of Meeting," which the Israelites used as a sanctuary while wandering the desert after fleeing Egypt.
An ark, containing a Torah, a jar filled with "manna" (bread) and a rod representing Aaron's staff, will stand on stage, as will a sacrificial altar. Red drapes embroidered with golden guardian angels will create a backdrop.
In his sermon, Dieckilman will explain the meaning of these biblical symbols. He will also talk about Jesus.
Dieckilman said the primary goal of the service was to help Christians understand their Jewish heritage. Too often, Christian churches ignore the Torah and focus only on the New Testament, he said. They forget that the Christian religion owes a lot to Judaism.
Christians have a shameful past when it comes to Jews, he added.
"What the history of the Christian church has done to the Jews is despicable," he said. "We can only come humbly and honestly to the Jewish community to ask forgiveness and offer our apologies."
Dieckilman has studied Torah, learned Hebrew and been to Israel. In fact, he takes a group of Christians to Israel each year. On Sukkot, Dieckilman builds booths at the back of his church. He has hosted Passover seders. And on Yom Kippur, he fasts.
In his office, Dieckilman displays a Star of David, a shofar and a kippah -- but no cross. ("Now that you mention it," he said with a smile, "I better get one.")
The way Dieckilman sees it, Jews are God's Chosen People and Christians are simply "grafted on" to that group.
"There's no question Jews are the people blessed by God and chosen by God to bring redemption to earth," he said.
David N. Myers, professor of Jewish history and director of the Center for Jewish Studies at UCLA, said, "A Christian church seeking out its Jewish roots without attempting to uproot them is historically significant."
"Christianity spent a lot of time -- centuries -- denying its explicitly Jewish foundation," he said.
Since the conclusion in 1965 of Vatican II, which denied the claim that Jews killed Jesus, many Christians have come to assume more sympathetic attitudes toward Jews, Myers said. Christian scholars have recast Jesus as a Jew, and Jews are typically no longer held responsible for Jesus' death.
Shimon Erem, president of Israel-Christian Nexus, a nonprofit group that brings together Christians and Jews in support of Israel, has been to the service twice. He went because Dieckilman, a member of the group's advisory board, invited him.
Erem, an 84-year-old former Israeli military general, said he was "very impressed." What moved him was the attitude of "great respect and awe" displayed by the Christians attending the ceremony.
Erem praised the service as "only one part of the effort of the evangelical community to respond to the Jewish community with outstretched arms."
Still, some Jews are troubled by the idea of a group of Christians observing Yom Kippur. "I just feel that it's our day, and these are our rituals," said Rabbi Brian Schuldenfrei of the Conservative Sinai Temple in Westwood.
"While I'm sure his intentions are good," Schuldenfrei added, "I think that ... just to look at Yom Kippur in a biblical vacuum doesn't quite capture the essence of Yom Kippur today." Jews do recollect the way Yom Kippur was observed in Temple times, he said. "But we relive it through our words and not through dressing up or creating physical structures. It's in our poems, in our songs, in our prayers."