Tuvya Zaretsky, a bearded, affable man in his 50s, certainly looks Jewish. His workplace could be confused with any Jewish agency in the Southland. Decorated in professional gray tones, the office walls are adorned with paintings of Jerusalem and biblical scenes.
But a sign at the entrance to this two-story building in Westwood Village tells you otherwise: Jews for Jesus.
The L.A. Jews for Jesus headquarters is busy readying itself for the arrival of Behold Your God, a multimillion-dollar, international campaign launched in 2000 to make the messiahship of Jesus an unavoidable issue for Jews, which is expected to tour 66 Diaspora cities by 2005. The Los Angeles/Orange County campaign, set for Dec. 16-Jan. 11, will be a decisive battleground, since the combined Jewish population of both counties is the largest Behold Your God has targeted to date.
Rabbi Bentzion Kravitz, West Coast director of Los Angeles-based Jews for Judaism, is mounting a counter-campaign with Operation: Missionary Impossible, which aims to educate and protect the Jewish community against proselytizing, even employing Jews for Jesus-style tactics to get the world out.
Come December, both organizations' volunteers will take to the streets to fight for the community's attention. But with volunteers that may number into the dozens and an estimated budget of $150,000, Behold Your God will likely overpower and outspend Operation: Missionary Impossible's $20,000 budget -- which Kravitz hopes to increase through fundraising -- and volunteer base that could reach 12 people.
The battle for Jewish souls is coming to Southern California, just in time for the holiday season.
On this sunny fall afternoon, students pass by the Jews for Jesus offices -- located near Chabad's headquarters and UCLA Hillel -- which will serve as the command post for the upcoming campaign. Zaretsky, the branch leader, talks about growing up Reform in the Bay Area, finding Jesus in college and enlisting with the nascent Jews for Jesus movement in the '70s, after a two-year stint in Israel. For the last 27 years, his job has been asking Jews to sign up, "to come to faith in Jesus."
"Unequivocally, I'll fight for the right of the Jewish people to hear [our message], even if most of them don't want to," Zaretsky said.
Besides proselytizing to Jews, San Francisco-based Jews for Jesus will also be looking to Los Angeles as a boot camp to train Evangelical Christians in the finer points of converting Jews and as a testing ground for new outreach strategies that the organization can use in future campaigns in cities like San Diego, Phoenix, Philadelphia and Miami, according to Kravitz.
Nearly two years into the campaign, Jews for Jesus reports the conversion of 448 Jews worldwide and collecting contact information of more than 9,000 Jews.
Behold Your God organizers who consented to talk to The Journal were purposefully vague about campaign strategy or the number of staffers and volunteers participating.
"Visibility is obviously going to be the primary way," said L.A. Behold Your God coordinator Rob Wertheim, referring to the group's outreach methods. "If you look at what we've done in the past, that should be some indication of the kinds of things we'll do."
Jews for Jesus, which traditionally relies on street evangelism as its primary method of reaching the Jewish community, is also experimenting with new methods on each Behold Your God stop. One of the additions has been a door-to-door approach -- more commonly associated with Mormons and Jehovah's Witnesses -- that was used in New Haven, Conn., and Boston.
In the past, Jews for Jesus also incorporated the Shoah into its outreach, hoping to attract Holocaust survivors and their families. In Portland, Ore., organizers drew 1,000 people to the Portland Art Museum for a private screening of "Survivor Stories," a video featuring Holocaust survivors who have accepted Jesus as the Messiah. Locally, the Jews for Jesus office distributes the Wertheim-penned "I Escaped From Hitler Twice," a pamphlet that describes his Holocaust-survivor father's journey to accept Jesus.
Additionally, past campaigns have used phone banks, billboards, mass mailing, performances by music groups, outreach to college students on campus and home visits to seniors. Kravitz expects that the Los Angeles campaign will use political-style lawn signs and that the group will be out in force at the Rose Bowl on New Year's Day.
"They're going to use every lesson they learn here to better themselves for the next city," said Kravitz, who has studied the group's operations in order to prepare his own counter-techniques.
Operation: Missionary Impossible has been gaining momentum since October, when Jews for Judaism held an international summit to discuss the state of worldwide missionary efforts and plan the organization's response.
From public training programs during the summit, Jews for Judaism selected an elite corps of volunteers that will be trained to shadow Jews for Jesus' street evangelism with counter-leafleting techniques developed by the Jewish Community Resource Center-Task Force on Missionaries and Cults in New York. "If the Jewish [counter campaign] to Jews for Jesus is good in Los Angeles, we'll be able to duplicate that model for other cities," Kravitz said.
In addition to its ongoing communitywide education effort, Jews for Judaism is coordinating a Unity Shabbat, which Kravitz hope will take place in Southland synagogues on Dec. 13-14 so that the "Jewish community can rally together in the face of adversity," he explained.
"We've got Reconstructionist, Reform, Orthodox and Conservative all signed up to take part," said Kravitz, who believes that this outside threat is one thing that can always bring the different movements together.
Jews for Judaism is also sponsoring three free lectures by Gavriel Sanders, a former Evangelical minister who spent 20 years in Los Angeles and Israel converting Jews, scheduled for Nov. 21 and Nov. 24.
Rabbi Mark Diamond, vice president of the Southern California Board of Rabbis, is currently serving on Jews for Judaism's rabbinic advisory board and applauds Kravitz's work.
"On this issue there can and should be broad community support for Kravitz's efforts," said Diamond, who once exposed a Jews for Jesus member that infiltrated a Jewish conversion class to gather names and phone numbers. "The tactics used by Jews for Jesus are deceptive, sleazy and reprehensible."
Jews for Jesus, which scrutinizes Jews for Judaism's efforts with equal voracity, is already expecting that it will be sharing the street corners with Kravitz's volunteers. The potential for confrontation is on the minds of both organizations, which are training their volunteers on how best to deal with conflict.
"If you were training for war, you'd do a good job of letting people know what the horrors of war look like," said Wertheim, whose organization produces a how-to CD-ROM set titled, "Street Evangelism Training." "As far as special training, we're going to let people know what the possible risks are."
Jews for Judaism plans to keep a minimum distance of 25 feet in order to avoid conflicts that might draw a crowd, while Wertheim said he would be willing to exploit a conflict.
"The more heckling, the more hassling that goes on, the more it's going to raise the image," Wertheim said. "It's going to attract people ... it's just going to raise the issue even more."
But even more crucial for Jews for Judaism than preventing raised hackles is the tedious job of raising money for a war chest. The current economic crisis and the situations in Israel and Argentina have severely impacted Jews for Judaism's fundraising ability.
So far Kravitz has raised a little more than $20,000 from the Los Angeles Jewish Community Foundation and individual donations, but said he needs at least another $75,000 to take advantage of a $100,000 matching grant from the Baltimore-based Weinberg Foundation. In the meantime, Kravitz is having to tap the Los Angeles office's annual budget of $350,000.
"Jews for Jesus is a serious threat," Diamond said. "We need to counter them with all of the resources available to the Jewish community."
Zaretsky and Wertheim both told The Journal that their Jews for Jesus office has raised $20,000 for the L.A. campaign. But Susan Pearlman, a spokeswoman for Behold Your God, said that the Los Angeles budget will soon blossom to $100,000 or $150,000 following a contribution from the Jews for Jesus international headquarters. She added that she was sure the Los Angeles campaign will be printing "several hundred thousand broadsides [leaflets]."
Behold Your God campaign materials acquired by The Journal put the five-year campaign total at $22 million, a figure that Zaretsky said was an optimistic projection that isn't panning out. Pearlman said that the actual Behold Your God budget, while still in the millions, is substantially less.
"We haven't held back on our Behold Your God campaigns," she said. "I'd be happy if we made it to $10 million for five years."
But the amount of money being spent on Behold Your God compared to the number of Jews who have actually converted makes the campaign look like a failure. After distributing more than 6 million broadsides and collecting contact information for 9,056 people in 19 cities around the world, only 448 Jews have converted, of which only 31 were from the United States.
The U.S. campaign is hardly the picture of myriad Jews being lured away from their faith, but the strategy behind Behold Your God is really about long-term success, not short-term gains.
"Our goal is to saturate the community so that Jewish people have heard the message," Pearlman said. "If we're successful, we will have something in place that's more long term."
Statements like Pearlman's point to what Jews for Judaism thinks is an underlying threat of Behold Your God. According to Kravitz, Jews for Jesus flies in dozens of staffers to each Behold Your God campaign stop. The staffers then meet with and train local volunteers, a substantial portion of which are Evangelical Christians. The Evangelicals tag along with staffers as they proselytize to Jews, getting in-the-field training they can put into practice after Jews for Jesus moves on to its next campaign stop.
"Evangelical Christians are going to be the point people for Jews for Jesus," Kravitz said. "What we've seen in the other cities is they get all these Evangelical Christians who become bold about having a dialogue with their Jewish friends and neighbors about Jesus. Then someone from Jews for Jesus will come in, like a salesman, and close the deal."
For Zaretsky, who has evangelized across the United States, American Jews are becoming increasingly "closed-minded" and have a "homogenized view" of the Jewish world. He said the older he gets, the harder it is to make contact with the Jewish community. Still, he keeps plugging away, committed to his mission: spreading the word to Jews that Jesus is the Messiah.
"People don't have to join the conversation, they don't have to listen to us, they don't have to agree with us. They can be outraged if they want. They can ignore us. It's a free country," he said.
What Jews for Jesus Believes
We believe that the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments are divinely inspired, verbally and completely inerrant in the original writings and of supreme and final authority in all matters of faith and life.
Source: Jews for Jesus.