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Star-Crossed Missionaries: Valley Sees "Wave" of Messianic Proselytizing

Reprinted with permission of the Jewish News of Greater Phoenix.

Feb. 2, 2007

They're bold, sometimes direct, sometimes covert, and they seek out opportunities to schmooze with Jews.

"They" are Christian missionaries who often call themselves messianic Jews and are reaching out in greater numbers to mainstream Jews.

A messianic congregation owns a Judaica store in Carefree, for example. A representative of a messianic congregation regularly attends public social gatherings of Jewish people in the Valley and creates the impression that he is mainstream. The Web site of a proselytizing organization called Tikkun Ministries has pages devoted to "Jewish integration"--Christians immersing themselves in Jewish education and customs.

"I think (messianic activity) goes in waves, and it seems like there is a wave going on right now," said Rabbi Barton Lee, director of Hillel Jewish Student Center at Arizona State University. The uptick in activity "could be because of an influx of cash or a new marketing ploy."

Hanukkah surprise

Fred Barlam of Ahwatukee was surprised to discover that a messianic missionary attended a Hanukkah party last December that Barlam had organized for a new Jewish social group.

"There was just something about him that made me suspicious," Barlam said. "He struck me as not being Jewish, yet he told us he was Jewish.

"I looked him up on the Internet and found his name attached to the Tikkun Ministries Web site. I e-mailed him and said, 'You deceived us.'

"He never denied that he is messianic or apologized for presenting himself as a mainstream Jew. He simply said, 'I hope we can still be friends.'"

The missionary is John Glueck, who leads a messianic congregation in Mesa.

"I did not indicate I'm messianic at the Hanukkah party because I just met (the other guests) for the second time there," Glueck said. "I wanted to engage them personally before trumpeting (my beliefs)."

Glueck said all members of his congregation are encouraged to interact with Jewish people.

"We're reaching out to (Jews) by means of (establishing) relationships," he said. "Some people are offended by (our message), but we can't quit doing what we do because of that. We believe in the God of Israel."

Barlam was alarmed enough about Glueck's attendance at the Hanukkah party to write a letter to the Jewish News.

"This letter is a wake-up call to my fellow Valley Jews," he wrote. "Please be aware that local messianic congregations are currently trying to infiltrate Phoenix-area Jewish organizations. Their goal is to learn Jewish ways so that they can be more successful in their effort to convert Jews to Christianity."

Tactics revealed

Tom Gagliano of Glendale agrees with this assessment. He is a former messianic congregation leader who, along with his wife and two children, has undergone an Orthodox Jewish conversion. He has since changed his first name to Yossi.

"Christians want Jews to believe in (Jesus)," he said, "because that is a prerequisite for the second coming of the messiah. That is the whole basis of messianic activity."

Here is some of what appears on the Tikkun Ministries Web site:

"Filtered through Yeshua ... we can connect to ... the people in whose shoes we now stand as a part of the Jewish people. ... We need to connect with the visible Jewish community. This means taking classes at the Jewish Community Center or Adult Education at a nearby synagogue, going to Jewish music concerts, going to an occasional synagogue service, or whatever way fits in with your personal interests. This sort of contact is essential in learning how to communicate well with Jews who don't yet know the Messiah."

Gagliano said the most effective way to counteract this philosophy is for Jews to educate themselves "about what the Torah really teaches and about Jewish concepts of sin and repentance. What I discovered is that every (convert to a messianic orientation) didn't become a believer because of knowledge and understanding. Their decision was based purely on emotion.

"Most of the members (of my messianic) congregation were Jews whose parents were nominally religious and maybe went to High Holiday services, but had no answers to their kids' spiritual questions. Then, years later, there was someone messianic on the (grown kids') doorstep giving them all the answers."

Church seeks out Jews

Amy Laff of Scottsdale has a very strong Jewish identity but has experienced understated proselytizing firsthand. A few years ago, she said, she and her husband, Eugene, attended a lecture at the invitation of a friend at Scottsdale Bible Church. Seated next to Amy was Cathy Wilson, who has been engaged in proselytizing activities for at least 14 years.

"She was wearing a necklace with a combination of Christian and Jewish symbols," Laff said, "and she indicated in somewhat vague terms that she ministers to Jews."

On the church's Web site, there is this entry under the link "Outreach": "Cathy Wilson ministers to the local Jewish community ... to share with them how they can be reconciled to God through Jesus the Messiah."

Wilson said that over the years, she probably helped persuade about 10 to 15 people who initially identified as Jewish to accept Jesus as the messiah.

Lee suggests that anyone who is approached by a messianic or Christian missionary not to engage with the person. "The truth is that far too many Jews don't have the foggiest notion of the differences between Judaism and Christianity," he said. "They don't understand that the crux of the argument (against a belief in Jesus) rests on two pillars: that the job description of the messiah is not met by Jesus and that Judaism and Christianity have very different concepts of sin and repentance."

Messianic messages

Laff recently visited the Jerusalem Marketplace shop in Carefree, thinking it was a mainstream Judaica store.

"I walked in and saw a copy of the Jewish News placed prominently at the front of the store," she said, "and kippot and mezuzot for sale. I innocently asked the clerk who the owner of the store is and she said, 'It's hush-hush, but it's owned by messianic Jews.'"

The Jerusalem Marketplace is owned by Beth Yachad, a messianic congregation in Scottsdale. The store opened less than two months ago in the Los Portales Indoor Mall in Carefree and, in addition to a small selection of traditional Judaica items, sells jewelry with a combination of Jewish and Christian symbols, Christian crosses and messianic books with titles such as Answering Jewish Objections to Jesus and Born a Jew, Die a Jew: The Story of a Pioneer in Messianic Judaism.

Wilson said messianic activity and Christian outreach have increased in recent years.

"More messianic congregations and more churches are (trying to help people realize) that the context of Jesus' ministry is very Jewish," she said.

Education vital

Barlam believes it's critical to be aware of the stepped-up messianic activity in the community. "Education and exposure is the way to combat these (tactics)," he said.

Gagliano agrees that education is key. "Messianic believers typically will leave Jews who are highly educated about Judaism alone," he said. "(Members of) the Jewish community shouldn't fear these evangelicals. They simply must educate themselves on the truths of Judaism."

Amy-Jill Levine, Ph.D. is a New Testament scholar at Vanderbilt University and a member of an Orthodox synagogue in Nashville. She recently published a book called The Misunderstood Jew that explores both how Jesus fit within first-century Jewish culture and how synagogue and church separated.

She points out that the effort to bring Jews into the Christian fold has its roots in the New Testament. "For an early example (of a) missionary technique ... see Paul's first letter to the Corinthians," she wrote in an e-mail response to questions from Jewish News. "Paul says: 'To the Jews I became as a Jew, in order to win Jews. ... I have become all things to all people that I may by all means save some.'"

Levine added, "It is important for the missionary to know that we Jews do not consider our tradition to have gaps that only Jesus can fulfill, that Judaism already proclaims a loving deity always ready to forgive the repentant sinner, and that Judaism actually has a very old and very strong proclamation of the resurrection of the dead."

Derived from the Greek word for "assembly," a Jewish house of prayer. Synagogue refers to both the room where prayer services are held and the building where it occurs. In Yiddish, "shul." Reform synagogues are often called "temple." Hanukkah (known by many spellings) is an eight-day Jewish holiday commemorating the rededication of the Second Temple in Jerusalem at the time of the Maccabean Revolt of the 2nd Century BCE. It is marked by the lighting of a menorah and the eating of fried foods. Plural form of "mezuzah" (Hebrew for "doorpost"), it now refers to a small box containing a scroll (of the Hebrew text of the Shema prayer) which is affixed to the doorposts of Jewish homes. Strictly speaking, mezuzah only refers to the scroll itself, not the case in which it's housed. Plural of "kippah," Hebrew for "skullcap," also known in Yiddish as a "yarmulke," the small, circular headcovering worn by male Jews in most synagogues, and female Jews in more liberal congregations. Traditional Jews were kippot (plural of kippah) all the time. Hebrew for "my master," the term refers to a spiritual leader and teacher of Torah. Often, but not always, a rabbi is the leader of a synagogue congregation. The first five books of the Hebrew Bible (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy), or the scroll that contains them.
Debra Morton Gelbart

Debra Morton Gelbart is a freelance writer in Phoenix.

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