Conversing Or Converting?
Palm Beach County
1 esus is the reason for the season," goes the saying
that took on special meaning just before
Christmas in this south Florida enclave for Jews of
all ages, not just retirees. The Chanukah spirit was
rivaled by a few dozen evangelic missionaries eager to
spread the Jews for Jesus message to the Jewish young pro-
fessionals moving into Palm Beach County and the Jewish
high school and college students visiting on winter break.
The intent was to convert — there's no mistaking that.
The thrust? That it's possible to be Jewish and believe that
Jesus, whose teachings spurred Christianity,
is the Messiah of Israel.
Disciples of the 32-year-old, San
Francisco-based movement call themselves
messianic Jews — typically Jewish-born
Christians who believe Jesus fulfilled
Hebrew prophesies of the Messiah. Backed
by many churches, they say they teach the
gospel in a way that engages Jews.
And they had the ear of Palm Beach
County's Jews from Dec. 8 to 22 via an
outreach effort — door-to-door, on the
street cornet, with Hebrew songs — in
West Palm, Lake Worth, Delray Beach and Boca Raton.
I visited Boynton Beach, smack in the middle, as
the calculated sweep of indoctrination wound
down. I relied on local news reports for the flavor
of the religious confrontation.
for Jesus to mobilize. He says Jews for Jesus has committed
$22 million to Behold Your God, an aggressive five-year
push. One of 900 North American missionary groups,
Jews for Jesus claims hundreds of conversions over the
I liked how Hillman put it to the Palm Beach Daily
News: "Their claim that we can be more Jewish by believ-
ing in Jesus is like saying you can become a better vegetari-
an by eating steak. Jews for Jesus seeks to blur distinctions
between two faith systems: Judaism and Christianity."
Stan Meyer, co-leader of the Behold Your God
Campaign in south Florida, wasn't deterred by such dis-
sent. In an open letter to residents, he called the counterof-
fensive a hopeful sign: "Why? Because it tells us there are
Jewish people in Palm Beach County wondering if Jesus is
the Messiah of Israel. Why else would the Jewish
Federation feel so threatened?"
It's no surprise Jews for Jesus zeroed in on south Florida; it
has the second-highest number of Jews in the country.
More than 500,000 full-year Jewish residents live in Palm
Beach County and the two counties to the south: Broward
and Miami-Dade. In contrast, 96,000 Jews live in metro
Palm Beach County is home to four Jewish day
schools, three Jewish community centers, a high
school yeshivah and more than 40 synagogues.
The Palm Beach Post reports that it has five mes-
sianic synagogues, where Jewish customs like
lighting Shabbat candles and keeping kosher are
What grabbed headlines was the Palm Beach
portrayed as compatible with Christian belief. It
County version of the Behold Your God campaign,
also was the place that Chosen People Ministries
whose main tenet is to espouse Christ-based
held a 2001 forum on Jewish evangelism.
Judaism — a contradictory, specious term as far as
Jews for Jesus boasts a $15 million annual budg-
I'm concerned. Believers vow to tout their view in
et and is nothing if it isn't adept at mass-market-
more than 65 diaspora communities with Jewish popula-
ing Christianity wrapped in a Jewish cloak. It brands itself
tions of 25,000 or more. It's not wild-eyed to think they'll
as "100 percent Jewish and 100 percent Christian."
target Detroit Jewry before the campaign ends by 2006.
Followers may wear kippot and use Hebrew terms to
Christianity is an important mainstream religion that
appear authentic. They strive to draw you into discussion
Jews respect for its Judeo-Christian ethics. In
and woo you to their way of thinking.
Detroit, Jews and Christians have joined forces for
Their hope is that you'll see the light that makes
the greater good in groups like the Ecumenical
it possible to be Jewish and Christian simultaneously.
Institute for Jewish-Christian Studies and the
The longevity of Jews for Jesus indicates that
National Conference for Community and Justice. I
some Jews are so out of sync with the essence of
have high regard for these groups and their leaders,
Judaism that they're willing to let their tenuous tie
who seek a unity of purpose, not of religion.
wither in the presence of what Rabbi Moshe
Christianity is different than Judaism — to the
Scheiner of Palm Beach Synagogue calls "a form of
core. That was highlighted in the Palm Beach
County newspaper accounts of the south Florida-
The question of "Who Is A Jew?" continues to
based Christian recruitment campaign.
reverberate among Jews inside and outside Israel.
Palm Beach Rabbi Isaac Jeret of Temple Emanu-
So-called messianic Jews also consider it a light-
El saw through the veil of deception. "Jews for Jesus and
messianic Judaism on the whole perpetuate a theological
"There's no rabbi in West Palm Beach who's going to be
fraud on the Jewish and non-Jewish American public," he
the arbiter of what the Jewish religion teaches," Susan
told the Palm Beach Daily News. "In particular, there is no
Perlman, associate executive director of Jews for Jesus, told
viable Judaism or Christianity which can have Jews remain-
the Palm Beach Post. "There's no pope of Judaism."
ing Jewish while believing in Jesus as the Messiah. The two
We don't have a pope, but rabbis do interpret halachic
principles for us.
County rabbis teamed with the Jewish Federation of
Even more significant is our 3,300-year-old tradition. It
Palm Beach County, the American Jewish Committee and
embraces, at its core, a belief in God, who gave the divine-
Jews for Judaism to publicly counter the deception.
ly inspired laws of Torah to Moses on behalf of the Jewish
Scott Hillman, executive director of the Baltimore-based
people — not a belief in Jesus of Nazareth as the Messiah
of Israel. E
Jews for Judaism, warns not to dismiss the ability of Jews
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