About 200 congregants filled the stain glassed-windowed sanctuary on a Shabbat morning this spring, praying, singing and welcoming new members. Among the newly welcomed members was a young Israeli man, named Yoav. Not really extraordinary news, except Congregation Beth Hallel in a northern suburb of Atlanta is not a typical synagogue. Indeed, it is a member of the International Alliance of Messianic Congregations and Synagogues (IAMCS), the largest ordaining body in the messianic Jewish movement.
Beth Hallel is only one of a number of messianic Jewish congregations in the Atlanta area – and one of some 800 messianic Jewish congregations in the world, according to Joel Chernoff, CEO of Messianic Jewish Alliance of America (MJAA), up from zero in 1967. “Messianic Judaism is the fastest growing stream of religious Jewish life since 1967,” said Chernoff, who said he grew up in a messianic Jewish family. Sharing his extrapolated and complicated arithmetic, Chernoff credited the Council of Jewish Federation’s 1990 National Jewish Population Survey for his belief that there are now more than one million messianic Jews. “Jews are becoming believers in Yehoshuah,” he says, referring to Jesus.
How can one be Jewish and accept Jesus?
Of course, mainstream Jewish leaders argue that messianic Judaism is not Judaism at all. How can one be Jewish and accept Jesus as the Messiah? Messianic Judaism, says Rabbi Eric Yoffie, president emeritus of the Union of Reform Judaism, is “built on a lie. They are lying about us and lying about themselves; they distort both.”
The rabbi of the Reform congregation not far from Beth Hallel says he rarely sees any of the messianic congregation’s members—“except those who want to see what a normative Jewish experience looks like,” says Rabbi Fred Greene of Temple Beth Tikvah. Greene expresses more concern about a local Baptist mega-church whose members approach Jewish teens and challenge them: “if you don’t find Jesus, you’ll go to hell.” Area high schools host rallies sponsored by the Fellowship for Christian Athletes. Other rabbis in the Atlanta area, even those who gladly share stages for pro-Israel rallies with evangelical groups, draw the line with messianic Jewish leaders, who also call themselves rabbis.
Still, while that line between evangelicals and messianic Jews may be distinct in the United States, in Israel, it has become fuzzier as the country reaches out for political support wherever it can get it.
Beth Hallel’s Rabbi Robert Solomon says his congregation is the oldest and largest messianic Jewish synagogue in Georgia and one of the largest messianic congregations in the world. “The congregation comes from many different backgrounds, including all branches of traditional Judaism as well as many denominations. While the majority of our member families come from a Jewish background, we have a strong minority of non-Jewish members as well.”
How many messianics are Jews?
Al Lopez, the leader of the Olive Tree Messianic Congregation in the Atlanta area, who, in contrast to Rabbi Solomon says he was ordained as a pastor, says most of his congregants are non-Jewish. Both messianic Jewish leaders say congregants come to them through word of mouth, through friends who spread the word. They claim they do not go into the Jewish community looking for new members.
They say, that in many cases, intermarried couples find their way to messianic congregations. In other cases, they assert, Jews who feel alienated from their heritage and traditional Jewish synagogues are attracted to messianic Judaism. Atlanta’s Beth Ha’Mashiach calls itself a congregation of Jews and Gentiles “together worshipping Adonai in a unique blend of church and synagogue.”
At Beth Hallel, beyond the Israeli new member, congregants were comprised of many nationalities and races, oftentimes couples with small children, all raising their hands to the Lord as they sang along with words provided on an overhead screen. Some messianic Jewish leaders acknowledge that, not only is the combination of religious practices confusing for potential new members, but it is a real problem for the movement.
According to Needham, Massachusetts-based messianic Rabbi Richard Nichol, this underlines a “foundational weakness in messianic Judaism. If there are a significant majority of non-Jews, this trivializes the enterprise. This is a problem for us. We must be consciously aware of who joins our synagogues and make it clear that this is a home for Jewish people. It needs to be Jewish space.”
Jewish space? While some some traditional Jewish prayers are recited on Shabbat and tallit, kipot and tefillin are worn by some, the Beth Hallel congregants also praise Jesus as the Messiah and are asked to place money in envelopes that were then collected at the end of the aisles.
Jan Jaben-Eilon is a long-time journalist who has written for The New York Times, Business Week, the International Herald Tribune, the Jerusalem Report and Womenetics. She was a founding reporter for the Atlanta Business Chronicle and was international editor for Advertising Age before she fulfilled a lifelong dream of moving to Israel. Jan and her Jerusalem-born husband have an apartment in that city, but live in Atlanta.
In February, a shocking mixture of Jewish and Christian symbols in a videotaped Sunday ceremony at the New Birth Baptist Missionary Church in an Atlanta suburb attracted national attention and wide criticism. Colorado-based, self-proclaimed Messianic Rabbi Ralph Messer wrapped Atlanta Baptist Bishop Eddie Long in a Torah and carried him on a throne, annointing him king. Even the major messianic groups issued a press release, condemning “Messer’s flagrant disrespect of the Sefer Torah in this ritual and his misrepresentation of Jewish tradition. We assure the rest of the Jewish community that this ceremony would seem as bizarre and offensive within our congregations as it would within yours.”
Indeed, Nichol says, 30 years ago Jewish leaders would have called messianic Judaism a “fringe” group. But the “Jewish community today is very broad. Why shouldn’t there be room for the messianic community even if it is a minority voice? After all, Orthodox rabbis do not consider the converts of any other sect of Judaism to be genuine converts.” Nichol adds that not only is messianic Judaism making inroads on the Jewish community, but “we have (also) had a profound impact on an important segment of the Christian church, the evangelical community,” in which messianic Judaism has its roots.
Which groups are acceptable to U.S. Jewish community?
This may trouble many Jewish leaders. As reported in JewsOnFirst.org, in 1996, the Southern Baptist convention (SBC), the largest Protestant denomination in the United States claiming more than 16 million members, resolved to focus on converting Jews – specifically to “direct our energies and resources toward the proclamation of the Gospel to the Jews.” In 2007, we reported that the SBC intends to evangelize Jews through the Southern Baptist Messianic Fellowship (SBMF). “The ‘messianic’ – Jesus worshipping – congregations endeavor to appear ‘Jewish’ in order to provide a reassuring display of Jewish symbols to potential converts.”
On the other hand, the SBMF has pledged, “We will abstain from the use of trickery or deception in presenting the message of salvation through Messiah Yeshua. Also, it is not our intent to forcibly present this message during our attendance at traditional Jewish places of worship, religious gatherings, or at pubic or private events which are organized by the traditional Jewish community.”
In fact, in 2011, when Kaylene Rudy launched Americans United with Israel in Atlanta and quickly gathered a wide range of co-sponsors from the community—including the Consulate General of Israel in Atlanta and several churches and synagogues—for a mega pro-Israel rally, among the donations she received was one from Beth Hallel. Realizing that its contribution might upset Jewish groups, Beth Hallel declined to be publicly recognized. And Rudy, a Christian who lights Shabbat candles on Friday nights, received her first lesson in which religious groups were acceptable to the Jewish community, she says.
The established Jewish community is obviously wary of any attempts to convert its members either to Christianity or to messianic Judaism. But as JewishIsrael.com, an organization which takes a critical look at Israel’s alliances with fundamentalist Christian groups and monitors evangelical missionary campaigns directed at Jews, points out, the “overwhelming political and economic support for Israel which comes from the very same parties which have and continue to target Jews for conversion has confused Jewish leadership and has blurred the line between friend and foe.”
CUFI increasingly acceptable
Not every Jewish leader would agree. An increasing number of Jewish federations have enthusiastically joined Christians United for Israel (CUFI) in rallies for Israel. Four years ago, former Union of Reform Judaism President Rabbi Yoffie said Reform Jews should not work with CUFI and its leader, Pastor John Hagee, because political alliances “demand of us a higher standard and require both common values and common interests.” Today Yoffie contends that groups such as CUFI must first meet two requirements: they must not attack Muslims and they cannot support settlement activity throughout Greater Israel. CUFI, he says, has adjusted its public statements to meet the two criteria. And CUFI has participated in rallies in Israel, including last year’s Restoring Courage rallies headlined by former Fox New personality Glenn Beck.
Indeed, according to Earl Cox, a Christian advocate for Israel and head of Israel Always, an increasing number of Israeli leaders “are now understanding the differences between the evangelical or conservative Christians and those who hold to the falsehood of Replacement Theology,” which asserts that Christianity has replaced Judaism. Cox says the Replacement Theology claims that modern-day church is “spiritual Israel” and that God is finished with literal Israel. He says this view justifies the growing belief that Israel is occupying land that rightly belongs to the Arabs; in effect, contending that the very existence of Israel is a main obstacle to peace. Cox says this has created a gulf between the pro-Israel and anti-Israel segments of Christianity.
Certainly, the evangelical community contributes significantly to Israeli tourism, a fact that has not gone unnoticed by the Israeli government. The Israeli Tourism Ministry has produced a video that suggests that tourists can walk in the footsteps of Jesus, see where he preached and performed miracles. gave his life on the cross and rose again. The video received wide attention when it was shown at the conservative National Broadcasters convention in 2011, where, among others, a messianic Jew was a speaker. The Tourism Ministry also gave an award to Jay Sekulow, known for his ties to Jews for Jesus.
Acknowledging the support of the evangelical community, in January 2012, Earl Cox, along with Rabbi Shlomo Riskin of Efrat were named by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu as Good Will Ambassadors from Israel to Jewish and Christian communities around the world.
“Doors which have been traditionally closed tight to Christians have now begun to open as Israel’s leaders, religious and governmental, come to recognize that the evangelical Christian community of the world is the best friend Israel has in all the world,” Cox says.
Messianic congregations support Israel, operate there
Messianic Jews are similar to evangelicals in their support of Israel and have opened many messianic congregations in Israel. Over the last 10 years, Chernoff of the Messianic Jewish Alliance says, the messianic community has contributed $100 million in aid to Israel. However, he notes, messianic Jews are not allowed to make aliyah and as long as they don’t pass out literature to Israelis, the government quietly welcomes their support.
Riskin founded the Center for Jewish-Christian Understanding when he recognized that the only tourists still coming to Israel during the Second Intifada were evangelical Christians. He has written that he believes the world is experiencing its fourth world war,
a religious struggle between the free world and the world of fundamentalist Islam which believes in a god of will, world domination and jihad. I see the present day rapprochement between Christianity and Judaism after almost 2,000 years of enmity as one of the critical signs of the fateful times in which we are living and a strong ray of light through the darkness emanating from Iran, Al Quaida, Hezbollah and Hamas. A sea change has occurred during these last several decades. Christians are sincerely trumpeting the call that G-d remains faithful to His initial covenant with Israel, and that the Biblical prophecy is continually being fulfilled through the people of Israel living in its covenanted land.
JewishIsrael.com says that Riskin is “riding on a messianic wave of ‘theo-political’ ideology which couples the threat of radical Islam with wishful thinking that prophetic times are upon us as evidenced by what he sees as an unprecedented outpouring of Christian love for the Jewish people.” And, it warns that while the lines between evangelical and messianic groups remain somewhat distinct outside of Israel, once these groups and leaders come to Israel, the walls come tumbling down, with a blurring of lines and interchanging of definitions.
A good example of this is occurring on the banks of Lake Kinneret (the Sea of Galilee). Both Sekulow and Riskin, along with CUFI’s John Hagee, conservative Christian leader Gary Bauer, and Christian Broadcast Network’s Pat Roberston, are listed among the endorsees of the Galilean Resort and Spa designed as a Christian center to help Christians “experience Israel through Bible study, educational courses, cultural programs and life-changing experiences.” Built on the northwest shore of Lake Kinneret, the resort was founded by Anne Ayalon, the evangelical-born wife of Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon, formerly Ambassador to the United States.
Israel upgrades Christian evangelical status
With the help of Ayalon, the Foreign Ministry two years ago sponsored a bid to upgrade the status of evangelicals in Israel and recognize them as a sovereign group or an independent church, which JewishIsrael.com warned could open the floodgates to Christian groups that either want to convert Jews or are striving for a theological unification between Judaism and Christianity.
At the same time, JewishIsrael points out the crossover between evangelical “Christian Zionists” and messianic missionary endeavors. “There is a reluctance on the part of rabbinic and Jewish community leadership to draw red lines or issue guidelines to govern the interfaith relationship,” notwithstanding Rabbi Yoffie’s two criteria. Comments JewishIsrael: “It seems that nobody wants to alienate ‘good friends’ who are not aggressively proselytizing but rather are ‘sharing their faith’ through ‘outreach projects’ to a very vulnerable Israel.”
As Atlanta Conservative Rabbi Neil Sandler of Ahavath Achim Synagogue points out, oftentimes, the “only thing that Jewish organizations and Christian organizations see eye-to-eye with is Israel.” Sandler, who was one of the rabbis who participated in the Americans United with Israel rally in Atlanta last year, says he “took his cue” from the Israeli consulate.
AIPAC reaches out to Christian groups
The American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) is another group which is known for taking “its cues” from the Israeli government. The powerful lobby now has a full-time employee whose job is to reach out to the Christian evangelical community, states Sandler. It was reported in the Jewish newspaper, the Forward, that AIPAC has launched an outreach program to Christian groups that support Israel.
In Atlanta, when the community Jewish newspaper, the Atlanta Jewish Times, formerly the Southern Israelite, came under new ownership earlier this year, the owner announced that he planned to promote the newspaper to “people of all faiths and backgrounds who are interested in Jewish causes, values, culture and Israel.” Just as Israel believes that it needs all the friends it can get in a world which it contends is out to delegitimize it, AIPAC and the Atlanta Jewish Times understand that to grow the number of their supporters, they must reach out to Christians.
But as Americans United with Israel’s Rudy – now also director of business and community relations at the Atlanta Jewish Times – acknowledges, one must be cautious about which Christians or so-called synagogues are acceptable to the established Jewish community. When Rabbi Sandler says he was introduced at the pro-Israel rally reception last year to Beth Hallel’s Rabbi Solomon, he voiced his “concern to Earl (Cox) about which evangelical groups” should be included under the pro-Israel tent. Sandler says Cox understood his note of caution. “He’s worked hard to find a level of acceptance with the Jewish community.”
The dividing lines are increasingly hard to draw, however. Messianic Jewish Alliance of America’s Chernoff, who says his group is friends with CUFI, adds, “We consider Christian Zionists a blessing; they get it, that God put us back in Israel. They want to stand with us and Israel needs that help.”