Messianic Jews shepherd emigres to Christian churches

At the Hope of Israel Messianic Center in the heart of Brooklyn's Brighton Beach, the phone is answered with a hearty "Shalom," and several dozen students attend ESL classes where they also receive instruction in Christianity.

The teachers were all born in the former Soviet Union as Jews. But today they describe themselves as Messianic Jews — that is, Jews who believe Jesus is the messiah.

Missionaries have been proselytizing Russian-speaking Jews in the United States since the 1970s, and targeting Brooklyn's growing immigrant Jewish community since the late 1980s. But only in the last two years have they been focusing their efforts on English-language courses.

The teachers at the Messianic Center do more than instruct their former Soviet Jewish students in English grammar. They offer them help finding apartments and jobs, give them gifts at holiday time, and shepherd them into the "Messianic Jewish" and evangelical Christian churches in the area.

Outside of class, the missionaries hand out literature on the bustling sidewalks of Brighton Beach Avenue, and visit Russian Jews in their apartments to counsel them.

An estimated 80,000 Jews from the former Soviet Union live in the neighborhood, which has become known as "Little Odessa."

No one knows for sure how many have become involved with the Christian groups, said Craig Miller, director of the Council of Jewish Organizations of the Brooklyn's Bensonhurst section.

Although the majority seems to remain indifferent to the overtures of any religious group, a substantial number are attracted to the missionaries' efforts, said Miller, former director of the anti-missionary Jewish Action Group.

In San Francisco, by contrast, outreach by Messianics apparently has met with less success, though a Russian-speaking Jews for Jesus staff member has been working in the area.

The emigre population, raised in the former Soviet Union under a regime that prohibited religious expression, is generally uneducated when it comes to Judaism.

Some cannot distinguish between authentic Judaism and the syncretic combination of Judaism and Christianity presented by the Messianic Jewish missionaries.

In the former Soviet Union, Messianic Jewish missionaries are actively targeting Jews for conversion, staging large-scale musical shows in athletic stadiums in major cities. In Moscow alone, 13,000 attended a revival led by Jonathan Bernus, a self-described Messianic rabbi.

Around the United States as well, Messianic Jews are actively reaching out to the immigrant community.

Congregation Tikvat Israel in Richmond, Va., runs Russian Immigration Services, which helps emigres with legal advice and government paperwork to acquire visas, social services and drivers' training, in addition to English-language instruction.

That congregation's spiritual leader, James Cowen, who calls himself a rabbi, said he is establishing a Russian cultural center with a library and Russian-language television beamed in from New Jersey.

In the San Francisco Bay Area, however, Messianic Jews apparently aren't as focused on former Soviet Jews as their counterparts are in other metropolitan areas.

Jews for Jesus, a missionary group aimed specifically at Jews, has its international headquarters in San Francisco. Yet only since December has a full-time Russian-speaking outreach worker been assigned to the city's Richmond District, where a large number of emigres live.

Moishe Rosen, who recently stepped down as executive director of Jews for Jesus after heading the organization for a quarter of a century, said San Francisco's emigres have not been especially responsive to such initial overtures as an ad in the Russian-language Yellow Pages

He estimated that 75 to 125 emigres in San Francisco have come to accept Jesus as the messiah. Many of them attend one of two Baptist churches; just a couple attend services with a local Messianic Jewish congregation called Tiferet Israel.

Jews for Jesus workers leave literature in the city's Russian neighborhoods and occasionally offer English classes. But Susan Perlman, associate executive director of Jews for Jesus, said the Bay Area's mainstream Jewish agencies seem to step in more quickly to help emigres than similar agencies in other parts of the country. This means missionaries here have less of a social-services gap to fill.

Rosen didn't rule out future outreach in the Bay Area, however. "We're just beginning here," he said.

Local Jewish leaders tend to believe Jews for Jesus has yet to make much impact in the Bay Area.

Anita Friedman, executive director of the S.F.-based Jewish Family and Children's Services, said evangelical Christian missionaries periodically try to reach emigres, mostly by handing out free food. But that doesn't mean the emigres turn around and embrace Jesus.

"Basically, they're not much interested in these things," said Friedman, whose agency aids newly arrived emigres.

Lubavitch Rabbi Bentzion Pil, who was born in the former Soviet Union and now lives in San Francisco, said he's seen quite a bit of Christian proselytizing in the Richmond District. Missionaries distribute clothing and Russian-language Christian Bibles, he said. But the rabbi wasn't sure how much of that activity was tied to the Messianic Jewish movement.

Pil occasionally offers lectures to emigres about missionary efforts but wishes the Jewish community would do more to combat missionaries.

"It's a little bit our fault that we don't do enough against this," he said.

Across the continent, missionary groups recently began offering English-language training to Brooklyn Jews. That happened after Orthodox yeshivas and women's seminaries, which were providing English and Judaic studies classes to more than 10,000 emigres, lost their federal funding; investigators discovered the institutions were claiming more federal money than they were entitled to receive.

Eighteen Jewish schools lost funding from the Pell Grant program in February 1994. That was when the missionary ESL classes first appeared, said Aidel Sarah Hornig, who late last year founded counter-programming that offered English-language instruction in a Jewish environment.

Hornig's effort were intended to keep emigres from ending up in church pews.

Sophia Kordit, a 57-year-old Jewish immigrant who lives in Brighton Beach, was in one of Hornig's classes recently, but also has attended the Hope of Israel Messianic Center. Kordit said she was attracted to the missionary group because she "saw many Russians sitting there."

"They gave us English and Bibles," she added.

Hornig's program, dubbed the Jewish Immigrant Lifeline, now offers English classes and Jewish studies to some 1,800 emigres, most of whom are over 50 and ineligible for other ESL courses designed to train immigrants for the workplace.

She runs the program on a shoestring; the 19 teachers are paid sporadically. When there's money, they earn $10 an hour. They buy supplies and photocopies themselves.

Efforts to raise cash with which to continue those classes have been stymied by Jewish agency executives, who say they can only fund programs for young people, Hornig said.

Yet working with older immigrants is a long-term investment, she contended.

The seniors "have a big influence over their grandchildren," Hornig said. "While their children are out trying to attain `the American dream,' [the seniors] are the ones who take care of the kids."

The Messianics "are not stupid," she noted, "and [will] do whatever they can to grab a Jewish neshama [soul]. They don't care whether it is a 75-year-old or 7-year-old. Each Jew is their ticket to Gan Eden," the Garden of Eden, or heaven.

"The ESL classes are the most effective tool to fight against them. These are Yidden [Jews] who are really being lost."