A Christian megachurch whose clergy has worked with local Jewish leaders in recent years to support Israel gathered last weekend to celebrate Jews who proclaim Jesus as the messiah.
About 1,100 people attended the Jan. 20-21 Road To Jerusalem conference, which took place at megachurch at The Church on the Way in Van Nuys. Christian Zionists bonded with Messianic Jews who maintain Jewish traditions but believe in Jesus.
The major national conference came at a time when Jewish leaders like Anti Defamation League head Abe Foxman have challenged the wisdom of Jews aligning with the Christian right solely because of its strong support of Israel.
Christian Zionists see the existence of modern Israel as a precondition for the Second Coming of Jesus Christ, which they believe will be marked by the violent death of millions, including the ingathered Jews. Those who survive the Apocolypse will embrace Jesus.
Jewish defenders of the Christian Zionists say Christian support for Israel outweighs any concerns about end-time theology. But critics point to support for groups like Messianic Jews as proof that these groups pose a threat to Jewish continuity.
"It's kind of like they have placards that say 'Israel - yes' on one side, but 'Judaism - maybe' or 'no' on the other," Rabbi A. James Rudin, inter-religious affairs adviser for the American Jewish Committee, told the Associated Press.
Among the conference's Saturday afternoon speakers was Don Finto, the longtime pastor of Nashville's Belmont Church. Standing before an audience of more than 900, he said, "I want everybody to sit down except those who are Jewish by birth."
About 80 people remained standing.
"Your destiny is to bless the nations," Finto said. "You Jewish people are meant to bless us; we need your blessing, but you need ours. Let's bless each other."
These Messianic Jews, often seen as an aberration if not a threat by the Jewish community, have been embraced by evangelical Christians.
Those same Christian leaders are, in other local settings, welcomed by mainstream Jewish leaders for their Christian Zionism. Among those walking the line between the two worlds is the Rev. Jack Hayford of Church on the Way, who has spoken eloquently about Israel at Stephen S. Wise Temple, the Reform congregation in Bel Air. Hayford has brought busloads of his congregants to events sponsored by the Israel-Christian Nexus, which seeks to strengthen Christian and Jewish support for Israel. At the Road to Jerusalem event, Hayford spoke of, "helping the church understand what God's doing among Jews today and how to relate to it."
Despite their theological differences, Hayford's mainstream Jewish friends include Reform Rabbi Steven Jacobs of the Woodland Hills synagogue Kol Tikvah. He holds High Holiday services at Church on the Way.
"Jack Hayford is no Pat Robertson, that's the best way I can put it," Jacobs told The Journal. "And you have to discern who you can live with theologically, and Jack Hayford is a person of integrity and never has pushed my buttons in terms of salvation. He respects the Jew for who he and she is."
The Road To Jerusalem conference was organized by former University of Colorado football coach Bill McCartney, founder of the 1990s Promise Keepers movement for Christian men. As Promise Keepers rallies became smaller, in 2004, McCartney and the Rev. Raleigh Washington, a prominent African American pastor, developed Road to Jerusalem events to create Christian Zionist support for Israel and Messianic Jews.
"We believe according to God's holy word, the Torah and the New Testament, that when a Jewish person recognizes that Jesus is his messiah, he becomes a Jew who has now found his messiah," Washington said. "The Jew who believes that Jesus is the messiah believes that the messiah has come. The Orthodox Jew who does not believe Jesus is the messiah, he's still waiting for messiah. So both believe in the messiah; the question that has to be answered is Jesus really the true messiah?"
Most attendees at the event were Christians, although it was dominated by images of Israel, as well as Jewish-themed vendors, kosher food and men wearing kippahs.
Performing at the conference was a dance troupe from the Messianic Jewish congregation Beth Emunah in Agoura Hills. The troupe's leader said that out of her 15 dancers, eight were Jewish. Similarly, Messianic Rabbi Eric Carlson's said he has 280 people in his congregation in Newport News, Va., but that out "of that 280, 100 are Jewish."
David Chernoff is the son of a Messianic rabbi. He now runs his own Messianic congregation in Philadelphia and is prominent in the Messianic Jewish Alliance of America.
"We love our gentile brethren, but we knew we had to stand on our own two feet," Chernoff said, recounting early Messianic movement growth in the 1970s. "I never imagined that we in Messianic Judaism would have friends such as this."
The Rev. Mike Bickle of Kansas City, Mo., spoke at the conference about end-of-times predictions about Israel; in a passing comment, he used the phrase, "unsaved Jews," and said a Satan-like leader, "will be required to exterminate the Jewish race."
Messianic Jews at the conference complained about being harassed in Israel for their beliefs and facing immigration problems over Israel's right-of-return law for Diaspora Jews. When asked about this while speaking at a separate event in Los Angeles last weekend, Israeli politician Natan Sharansky said, "If you change your religion, you don't have a right to become a citizen by law of return ... the change of religion means change of nationality."