Baptist conversion effort is open hunting of Jews

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NEW YORK — From the perspective of many Jews, it was bad enough when the 15.7 million-member Southern Baptist Convention last week appointed a minister to head up its effort to evangelize the Jews.

But it signaled a new and dangerous era to many in the Jewish community when the largest Protestant denomination in America then adopted a resolution singling out the Jewish people as a target for Christian evangelism.

It is now "theological open-hunting season on Jews," said Rabbi James Rudin, the American Jewish Committee's director of interreligious affairs.

He described the development as a "form of spiritual arrogance of the highest order."

The resolution adopted by the 14,000 Southern Baptists attending the group's annual convention, held last week in New Orleans, said, in part: "Our evangelism efforts have largely neglected the Jewish people, both at home and abroad."

It went on to decry the "dual covenant" position held by Catholics, most mainstream Protestant denominations and other Christian groups, that God has a unique, irrevocable bond with the Jewish people and as a result, Jews are not required to believe in Jesus as the Messiah to be divinely blessed.

"There has been an organized effort on the part of some either to deny that Jewish people need to come to their Messiah, Jesus, to be saved, or to claim, for whatever reason, that Christians have neither the right nor obligation to proclaim the gospel to the Jewish people," the resolution said.

The resolution urged Southern Baptists to evangelize Jews and to pray "for the salvation of the Jewish people."

"There is evidence of growing responsiveness among the Jewish people in some areas of our nation and our world," the resolution said, referring to the Jews who have converted to Christianity in recent years.

Although no one knows the exact number of conversions, the 1990 National Jewish Population Study found that 20 percent of American Jews integrate some Christian practice into their lives.

At a time of growing assimilation among American Jews, Rudin said the best response the Jewish community could offer is to educate Jews about their heritage.

There has been controversy in the past surrounding the attitude of the Southern Baptists toward Jews.

In 1980, Bailey Smith, then president of the denomination, said, "God doesn't hear the prayers of Jews."

Though the denomination historically has been a strong supporter of the state of Israel, some interreligious affairs experts said that support stems from the Southern Baptists' theological goal of bringing about Jesus' second coming.

Those in the Jewish community expressing serious alarm over the Southern Baptists' new policy included leaders of the Conservative and Reform movements, which together represent between 85 percent and 90 percent of American Jews; Agudath Israel of America; the Anti-Defamation League; B'nai B'rith International; the National Jewish Community Relations Advisory Council; and the Simon Wiesenthal Center.

But Phil Baum, executive director of the American Jewish Congress, expressed little more than bemusement.

"Being perennially optimistic, we look forward to future resolutions from our brethren of the Southern Baptist Convention acknowledging the gospel truth that Judaism should be respected and that Jews are not put on earth just to give employment to missionaries."

Yechiel Eckstein, an Orthodox rabbi who founded and runs the International Fellowship for Christians and Jews, which tries to build bridges between the evangelical and Jewish communities, said the new policy would probably have little impact on the work the group now does.

"There has been pressure from within the convention against some people who preach the `double covenant' idea," he said, adding that "this was intended to reaffirm the commitment to evangelizing all people, including the Jewish people."

Had the SBC been serious about converting Jews, Eckstein said, it would have earmarked far more than $100,000 out of a budget of millions.

But Rabbi Eric Yoffie, president of the Reform umbrella group the Union of American Hebrew Congregations, urged SBC president Tom Elliff in a letter to reconsider the campaign.

The mission to Jews "reminds us of practices of an earlier era when anti-Semitic sentiments were often at the root of Christian missionary work," Yoffie said.

The Southern Baptist Convention's new coordinator of Jewish ministries who wrote the latest policy is James Sibley, a minister who has spent the last 13 years in Israel leading several of the nearly 40 messianic congregations there.

Sibley said in a telephone interview that his first order of business will be to educate Southern Baptists about Judaism and Jewish sensitivities to terms such as "Christ" and "evangelize."