On Nov. 2, Jews for Judaism, an organization dedicated to counteracting missionaries, celebrated its 25th anniversary. Some 250 people gathered for a gala dinner at the Sephardic Temple in Westwood to honor the organization’s founder and director, Rabbi Bentzion Kravitz, and his wife, Dvora Kravitz.
As its name suggests, Kravitz founded Jews for Judaism in the 1980s as a response to the efforts of Jews for Jesus to convert Jews to Christianity. Encouraged by Lubavitcher Rebbe Menachem Mendel Schneerson, Kravitz went straight to what was then (and is still today) the frontline of the fight against missionaries: the college campus.
During those years, Kravitz could often be found arguing with the missionaries positioned on the main pathway of UCLA’s campus. He became quite familiar with the verses from the Hebrew Bible that missionaries drew upon, and his disputations regularly drew crowds. “In the early days, it was fun to go debate a Jew for Jesus on the street corner because that’s how you learned,” Kravitz said.
Today, professional missionaries like Jews for Jesus are not Kravitz’s main concern. More often, he gets calls from parents and relatives of Jews who have begun to question their faith after conversations with ordinary, nonprofessional Evangelical Christians.
At the gala, sports agent Paul Cohen, a kippah-wearing Jew who represents superstars like Yankees second baseman Robinson Cano, told the audience one such story about another one of his clients. Gabe Kapler, a native Angeleno who played with the World Series-winning Boston Red Sox in 2004, had a crisis of faith in 2000, the result of numerous conversations with a teammate, Chad Curtis, an outspoken Evangelical Christian.
Kapler called Cohen, Cohen called Kravitz, and within a few days Cohen, Kravitz, Kapler and Curtis were seated around a table of a kosher restaurant in San Francisco. Three hours and many arguments, counter-arguments and scriptural references later, Kravitz had Kapler convinced that he didn’t need to give up his Judaism and had persuaded Curtis to drop his attempts to convert his Jewish teammate. “ ‘Do me a favor,’ ” Cohen recalled Kravitz saying to Curtis, “ ‘let the Jewish people find God in their own way.’ ”
The threat of missionaries to the Jewish people is a problem that isn’t often discussed, but David Rifkind, the chairman of Jews for Judaism’s board, believes it is pervasive and tremendously important. “It’s not a big deal until it happens to you or your child or someone you know,” Rifkind said, “and then it’s not just a big deal — it’s a life-altering problem.” And when it comes to countering the work of missionaries, “There is no worldwide response to in the Jewish community aside from this organization,” Rifkind said.