Messianics covertly invading Jewish life

James Cowen's face is familiar to the Jewish community in Virginia's capital.

An active member of Richmond's Jewish Community Center, he has served on its personnel committee for about two years.

He is also the "rabbi" of Tikvat Israel, Richmond's self-described "Messianic Jewish" congregation, which is housed in a former synagogue building and offers Hebrew-language worship Saturday mornings.

Cowen and his 170 congregants wear kippot and prayer shawls, read from a Torah scroll and pray to Yeshua, which is Hebrew for "salvation" but is a reference to Jesus.

Many of Cowen's congregants also belong to the JCC, and a couple of the women belong to the local Hadassah chapter.

"We see ourselves as part of the Jewish community, and that's our primary focus," Cowen said.

He regrets that many in the Jewish community "think we're out to convert everyone and that they'll lose their Jewishness."

The "longer we're around and show that we're a viable Jewish organization, then [the better] we'll be accepted," he said.

People such as Cowen call themselves Jews. They assert that one can believe Jesus is the messiah and still be fully Jewish.

But they are not considered Jews by rabbinical leaders and most Jews. Judaism calls anyone who accepts Jesus as the messiah either a Christian or a convert to Christianity.

The Messianic groups, in fact, are funded and supported by evangelical Christian organizations whose main goal is to convert as many Jews as possible to the Christian faith.

Jewish leaders worry that Messianics are trying new tactics to covertly invade Jewish organizations and synagogues in order to win over more converts.

Messianic congregations themselves vary in style and practice. Some meet in mainstream churches while others have their own buildings that incorporate Stars of David instead of crosses into stained-glass windows.

Some groups' services use Christian prayers spiked with Hebrew terminology. Other groups conduct what appears to be a very traditional Jewish worship service.

Many Jews mistakenly believe that the San Francisco-based Jews for Jesus is the umbrella group for all Messianics.

Though Jews for Jesus is, in fact, the largest missionary group aimedspecifically at Jews, it is only one of hundreds of organizations and congregations working to blur distinctions between the faiths.

The Messianic movement isn't new. What is a relatively recent phenomenon however, is the attempt of Cowen and others to become part of the larger Jewish community and to become an accepted alternative to the Reform, Reconstructionist, Conservative and Orthodox movements.

Efforts to integrate and thus convert more Jews are on the rise because missionaries believe Jesus may return to earth at the turn of the millennium, said Rabbi Mark Powers, director of the Baltimore-based anti-missionary group Jews for Judaism.

The Messianic strategy is two-pronged: to make worship as seemingly Jewish as possible and to blend into the Jewish communal mainstream — even using clandestine means if necessary.

According to the New York-based Forward and other Jewish newspapers, examples of Messianics trying to quietly infiltrate the organized Jewish community have cropped up again and again over the past year:

*The former president of Conservative Temple Beth El in Utica, N.Y., was forced to resign from the board this spring after his Messianic beliefs were disclosed.

*Two Hadassah chapter leaders in San Antonio, Texas, acknowledged their belief in Jesus as the messiah.

*A Houston rabbi discovered that a potential convert studying with him was actually a Messianic evangelist. The rabbi had repeatedly asked whether the potential convert believed in Jesus but failed to inquire whether that person accepted "Yeshua" as the messiah.

*Hundreds of Hebrew school children in East Brunswick, N.J., were mailed a full-color issue of a magazine called Messianic Times, which celebrated Jerusalem 3000.

*The Messianic Jewish Alliance of America offered $50,000 to the Jewish National Fund to plant a forest in Israel. At first, the JNF said the group's plaque could include only the initials MJAA. But in late spring, the JNF decided to reject the missionary money altogether.

The S.F.-based Jews for Jesus also has stepped up its outreach efforts since May when David Brickner replaced executive director Moishe Rosen, who led the group since he founded it in 1972.

Brickner, a Baptist minister who previously ran the Jews for Jesus office in New York, simultaneously kicked off a new leaflet, poster and billboard campaign there in the early summer.

According to the New York newspaper The Jewish Week, missionary pamphlets include likenesses of disc jockey Howard Stern and comedian Jerry Seinfeld, images apparently used without the permission of those Jewish stars. Billboards, including one over an entrance to the Brooklyn Battery Tunnel, state "Be More Jewish. Believe in Jesus."

Rosen endorses his successor's actions, especially using the billboards, which Rosen said he never would have done.

"Already he's bolder than I am. The boldness is needed. I'd become too cautious over the years," Rosen said. "He's made some really terrific decisions."

The Jewish Community Relations Council of New York responded to the stepped-up proselytizing by launching a counter-missionary campaign with leaflets, T-shirts and subway ads, according to The Jewish Week.

The jury is still out as to any effect either campaign might have. Regardless, Craig Miller, former executive director of the anti-missionary Jewish Action Group, predicted the Messianics will continue to seek acceptance in order to convert more Jews.

"The reality is that they are an arm of the evangelical church to convert Jews, period," added Miller, who is now director of the Council of Jewish Organizations of the Bensonhurst section of Brooklyn. "Their theology is defined by a fundamentalist Christian agenda. This Messianic Judaism hides the Christian evangelical message in Jewish symbols."

Most troubling to Miller is his belief that the Messianics' integration efforts are increasingly successful.

"They are gaining credibility as a legitimate religious expression" of Judaism, said Miller, whose spiritual search led him first to Jews for Jesus and ultimately to Orthodox Judaism through the outreach efforts of a Lubavitch rabbi.

Complicating the issue is the Messianics' strong support for Israel.

Their staunchly pro-Israel activities "help them get close to Jews and [make] the Messianic congregations much more acceptable to the Jewish community," Miller said.

Such an approach is dangerous to Jews, said Rabbi Tovia Singer, who founded Outreach Judaism, another group that counters missionary activity.

Although evangelical Christians may support similar political goals to those of some Jews, "their agenda is not our agenda," Singer said.

The current situation didn't spring up overnight.

In the early 1970s, Christian missionary groups first began weaving Jewish culture and ritual into their theology. Before then, existing groups were up front about their connections to evangelical Christianity and called themselves "Hebrew-Christian," according to those who have studied the movement.

The term "Messianic Judaism" was first used in 1972 and came into heavy use in the mid-1980s, experts say. Today, nearly all references to Christianity have been expunged from the names and promotional materials of those missionary groups.

The attempts at infiltration likewise began in the mid-1970s, according to Carol Harris-Shapiro, a Reconstructionist rabbi whose doctoral dissertation examined a Philadelphia-based Messianic group.

When the Hebrew-Christians were discovered in local Hadassah chapters and Jewish community centers back then, Harris-Shapiro said, they were kicked out. As a result, they created their own parallel institutions.

Using their own congregations, as well as a few day schools and social centers, as a springboard, Messianics across the nation are trying again to dive into the Jewish community's mainstream.

Part of the Messianics' renewed boldness comes from their growing presence.

The number of Messianic congregations has grown dramatically during the past two decades. In 1973, there were three known congregations in the United States. The number jumped to 30 in 1980 and to 144 in 1994, according to news accounts.

The Messianic Times has listed more than 200 of those congregations.

The Messianic Jewish Alliance of America offers an even higher worldwide figure, stating that 350 Messianic congregations exist across the globe.

Countries with a Messianic presence include Canada, Australia, England, Holland, Israel and the former Soviet Union, where missionary groups are extremely active in recruiting converts.

The number of Messianic congregants is growing, too. A generation ago there were only a handful, say observers. Today, Miller said, there may be as many as 150,000.

Despite that growth, the movement's critics and insiders agree a relatively small percentage of these congregants were born Jews. Most are non-Jews interested in Christianity's Jewish roots.

About 6,000 Americans who were born Jewish would describe themselves as either Messianic Jews or Hebrew-Christians, according to both Miller and Susan Perlman, associate executive director of Jews for Jesus.

Given the relatively small number of adherents drawn from Judaism per se, why do those groups prompt so much fear in the Jewish community? Because those numbers are slowly but steadily increasing, say anti-missionary activists.

Each year, about 1,000 more Jews in North America begin to describe themselves as Messianic Jews, Miller estimated.

"They want to convert us," Singer said, "and that is the bottom line."