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Reprinted with permission of Intermountain Jewish News.
Jan. 26, 2007
FORT COLLINS, COLO.--A lecture by a prominent counter-missionary drew a crowd of about 75 to CSU's Lory Student Center last Thursday night, January 18--including many Christians.
Rabbi Bentzion Kravitz, founder of Jews for Judaism, International, an organization which works to keep Jews out of the hands of evangelists, missionaries and cults, spoke for nearly two-and-a-half hours before taking questions from an audience of students and community members.
The event, which was co-sponsored by the Chabad Jewish Student Alliance at CSU, was advertised as being "heavy" and "confrontational" in a press release put out by Chabad Jewish Center of Northern Colorado Rabbi Yerachmiel Gorelik.
Most participants, however, seemed to come through the door with an open mind and brought few challenges to Rabbi Kravitz's assertions.
Kravitz did his part to defuse any sense of controversy that may have preceded the event.
"There are so many misunderstandings between us," he said, referring to Jews and Christians.
"My work is not about fighting Christians," Kravitz told the IJN. "Our goal is to keep Jews Jewish and respond to the manipulative and deceptive practices so many of these missionary and Messianic groups use. We have a right to criticize when they are being deceptive."
Kravitz didn't pull any punches when talking about the tactics of the missionary and Messianic groups, and much of his lecture was devoted to exposing the lies of proselytizers.
He cited several examples of pamphlets and posters put out by organizations like Jews for Jesus and Chosen People Ministries that contained quotes from the Zohar and Rashi that were "100% fabrications."
"I will give $1 million to anyone who can find in the Zohar the quote that Jews for Jesus used in their pamphlet," he told the crowd.
The bid was upped to $2 million for anyone who could find the Rashi quote.
"It just doesn't exist," he said.
Kravitz's efforts eventually convinced both ministries to change their literature.
Evangelism has become more dangerous in recent years, Kravitz told the IJN.
"Jews for Jesus created a certain model of talking to Jews. They present Christianity as the authentic Judaism and now lots of evangelicals have changed their tactics. They don't try to make Jews convert to Christianity--they tell people you can stay Jewish and accept Jesus, too. It's changed the face of evangelism of Jews in America."
That new face of evangelism is often encountered on the plaza in front of the Lory Student Center on the CSU campus, and Jewish students find themselves facing off with missionaries often.
"We had 40 students for Shabbat lunch last weekend," Rabbi Gorelik said in an interview Monday.
"Rabbi Kravitz asked them how many had been approached by missionaries or Messianics on campus. Every single student raised their hand. One student said, 'Three times this week!'"
Rabbi Gorelik agrees with Rabbi Kravitz that one of the biggest problems with missionaries is the deceptive tactics they often employ.
"Some are aggressive, some are not," said Gorelik, "some are your best friend. Many Jews don't know the difference and get sucked in. They run around dressed like me, an Orthodox rabbi. Their whole life is a deception."
Mike Foxman, a Jewish student at CSU, got caught up in the world of Messianic Judaism and feels that his life was changed by Rabbi Kravitz's lecture.
Foxman, 36, is studying construction management and real estate at CSU. He was raised Jewish and even attended a Jewish elementary school in Australia, but found himself embroiled in Messianic Judaism after a good friend joined a Messianic congregation and proselytized to Foxman.
"When the people in his 'church' found out I was Jewish--a legitimate Jew by birth--I was like a gold mine for them. I got the whole treatment, from CDs with Jewish-sounding music about Jesus to constant pressure.
"My friend had taken an eight-week training seminar in how to convert Jews. He had all these tricks, and it was all very compelling. As a Jew I asked myself, if there are billions of people who accept this, maybe there's something to it," Foxman said.
But as Foxman got more involved in the Messianic milieu he felt in his heart that something wasn't right.
"You could tell it was a cult," he says, referring to a Messianic congregation in Fort Collins, which he last visited about two years ago. "It wasn't normal."
Foxman was glad to have his misgivings clarified and supported by Rabbi Kravitz.
"He affirmed everything that I thought. I wasn't going in looking for a way out, but I was looking for answers to my questions. He answered every single one of them."
"Everything Rabbi Kravitz pointed out was 100% contrary to what they were saying to me," Foxman said.
"I had already started to question before I came to the presentation. When I walked in there I was looking for affirmation of what I knew in my heart--something was wrong, these people were being deceptive, they weren't being truthful.
"Rabbi Kravitz answered questions that I had about the Jewish perception of Jesus and the Messiah, and he affirmed what I thought and felt. It had a profound effect on me."
Rabbi Kravitz encouraged everyone in the audience, especially the Jewish students, to carefully consider the claims made by evangelicals. "You need to be very very careful when you read things not to accept them at face value," he warned. "This lecture is about critical thinking."
His challenge to the missionaries and evangelists was even simpler.
"Be up front about who you are." Rabbi Kravitz showed several examples of posters and magazines he found at hospitals and other buildings in Los Angeles. One pictured a man, his head draped in a tallis, blowing a shofar. The message on the cover? Shalom! The message inside? Christian evangelism.
Rabbi Kravitz knows of what he speaks. As a student at the University of Texas in Austin in 1973 he refused to take part in a prayer before a sporting event only to be targeted for proselytizing as a result.
This "painful encounter" led to his becoming a more observant Jew and informed all of his counter-missionary work that was to follow.
The important lesson he learned back then, he says, is that the answers are already there, in Judaism. "When you don't know where to look for answers, it is difficult," he said.
Rabbi Kravitz said that he is insulted by the assumption Christian evangelists often make about Jews. "When they call me an incomplete Jew," he said, "that gets me angry. It's manipulation, distortion, hypocrisy and deception."
"The real insinuation," he said, "is that we [Jews] don't have a relationship with God.
"I'm not here to bash someone else's faith," he said. "This is not about whether I am right or someone else is right, but you owe it to yourselves to know what these verses mean when you quote them."
"Don't discard us because we believe differently from you," he told the heavily Christian audience. "Look at our passion, our passion for God. Respect us for who we are."
Everyone seemed to be holding their collective breath when Rabbi Kravitz opened up the floor for questions, but any fears of confrontation went unrealized.
A few audience members offered challenges, such as how Jews can know the genealogy of the line of David, weren't Jews afraid of eternal damnation to Hell, and questions about the prophecies in Isaiah.
Only one question seemed to rattle the rabbi.
A man asked why it was OK for Kravitz and Jews for Judaism to approach Jews and try to convince them away from Jesus, but it wasn't OK for people to try and approach Jews to convince them to come to Jesus.
"There is nothing wrong with people approaching Jews," responded Rabbi Kravitz. "But I find it personally offensive when people think that my religion is not complete enough. We should be respected for our relationship to God. And 'no thank you' means 'no thank you.'"
Rabbi Kravitz ended the night well after 11 p.m. by asking a few of the Christian students who had come to the lecture to join him in a prayer circle.
Sage Morris Greene is a senior philosophy major at CSU and is co-president of the Chabad Jewish Student Alliance.
She says that her personal encounters with Messianic Jewish missionaries were more frequent when she was attending Tulane University in New Orleans, but the CSU campus in Fort Collins is a frequent home to evangelical preachers.
The Messianic evangelists are "much more pushy," she said in an interview Monday.
"Not only are they more pushy, they have less information to back up their claims."
She says she already takes Rabbi Kravitz's advice when she encounters missionaries. "If you tell someone you're Jewish, they usually back off. I'm Jewish and I'm really happy with it. I'm not interested in switching religions. Jewish is my culture, my upbringing, my whole way of life."
Rabbi Kravitz echoed Greene's own beliefs.
"He's right when he says you should critically think through everything before you do it."
As for the controversy, Greene was expecting more. "I thought there'd be some screaming going on," she says of the anticipated clash between Rabbi Kravitz and missionaries.
"I don't know that it's a big problem locally, but I think a lot of people get worked up about it because it's a problem nationally."
Greene said she appreciated that Rabbi Kravitz "took the time to point out that he wasn't trying to offend anyone or get into a fight."
"Sometimes they are more questioning," she said of the missionaries on campus. "Usually I end up walking away from them at that point. I've had a couple of people get more aggressive about it.
"I've seen Messianics out on the [Lory Student] plaza a couple of times. I just steer clear of them. Telling people about your religion because you think you have it right is fine. Belittling others into believing yours is the right one is a problem."
Justin Marks, a grad student in mathematics, identifies as a non-denominational, evangelical Christian and attended the lecture with five like-minded friends.
He saw an e-mail announcement of the lecture and decided to attend out of curiosity.
"I just came to listen and understand the other side, the Jewish point of view," he said.
Marks said the rabbi's lecture did affect him, in that he understands other beliefs more than he did before, but he says he is "still going to share my faith the same way I did before," adding that he does so respectfully.