Messianics thrive in Bay Area, but S.F. rabbis arent worried

When Jews for Jesus hit the streets of Berkeley and San Francisco in the early 1970s, many Bay Area Jews reacted to the new missionary tactic with panic and disgust.

More than two decades later, however, fewer local Jews consider such explicit Christian proselytizing a serious threat.

"I don't hear much about them out here," said Rabbi Alan Lew, president of the Northern California Board of Rabbis. "It's not worth worrying about."

In the meantime, an offshoot of the '70s missionary movement has spread quietly through Northern California. A handful of small self-described Messianic congregations, which wed traditional Jewish rituals and liturgy to the worship of Jesus, have sprung up here since the 1980s — though at a slower pace than in such cities as Los Angeles, Philadelphia or New York.

Up to 60 congregants regularly attend Friday-night services at San Francisco's Congregation Tiferet Israel, Northern California's largest Messianic congregation.

Scott Rubin, an ordained Baptist minister and the congregation's leader, officiates at those services, held in Park Presidio Bible Church in the Richmond District. With a few exceptions, Rubin said, all the congregants were either born Jewish or married Jews.

Worshippers wear kippot, recite the Sh'ma in Hebrew, and read parts of the weekly Torah portion in English. During the service, children attend Hebrew and Bible-study classes to prepare for their b'nai mitzvah. But one critical deviation sets those services outside of Judaism.

"We're gathering to worship Jesus," said Rubin, who attended Reform and Conservative congregations as a child.

In fact, the congregation's name comes from a reference in the Book of Luke to Jesus as the "Consolation" or "Glory" of Israel.

The congregation began in the 1980s as a weekly Bible-study class sponsored by Jews for Jesus. It became an independent congregation affiliated with the Baptist General Conference in 1990.

Tiferet Israel is one of a half-dozen Messianic congregations in Northern California, according to Messianic leaders. The others are located in Sacramento, Daly City, Los Gatos, Monterey and Fresno.

Less-formal fellowship groups meet in Livermore, Walnut Creek and Marin County. The Berkeley branch of Jews for Jesus also runs Bible-study sessions in its Purple Pomegranate Bookshop, which opened on Telegraph Avenue in late 1992.

Estimates of the actual number of Messianic Jews in Northern California vary. Even top Jews for Jesus leaders disagree, citing figures ranging from 1,100 to 8,000. The latter figure includes children born into Messianic families.

According to Jews for Jesus, most Northern California believers do not belong to Messianic congregations. For those who do, however, the congregations fill a critical need.

Rubin, who accepted Jesus as the messiah in 1979, said he tried out various Christian churches after his awakening but never felt he entirely fit in.

He wasn't alone. In the 1970s, missionary groups such as Jews for Jesus converted Jews and then plugged them into local Christian churches. But some of those new converts didn't feel at home and gradually lost their new faith.

"You'd find yourself with people who weren't ready to make that cultural leap," Rubin said.

As a result, the missionary movements decided to try tailoring Christian worship to Jewish tastes. Instead of just offering Christian-inspired celebrations for major Jewish holidays, they created congregations that borrowed from Jewish liturgy and infused it with Christian theology.

Messianics call Jesus by the Hebraicized name of "Yeshua," and refer to Mary as "Miryam." They read the Christian Bible and refer to it as the Brit Chadasha, Hebrew for New Covenant. Many don't even use the term conversion when referring to Jews accepting Jesus as the messiah. They instead employ the phrase "completing yourself."

For some Messianics, Rubin said, the congregations "act as a way station" before those members permanently move on to mainline Christian churches. Others join out of a desire to stay connected to Judaism, or to give their children a Jewish identity that will supplement their faith in Jesus.

Susan Perlman, associate executive director of Jews for Jesus, said she was kicked out of a Marin County synagogue in the mid-1970s after her position with the missionary group came to light. For several years, she attended a Baptist church in San Rafael. Now she belongs only to Tiferet Israel.

"My Jewish heritage is not…for show," said Perlman, who works out of the Jews for Jesus international headquarters at the foot of San Francisco's Haight Street. "The liturgy does something for me. I like affirming the Sh'ma."

Today, Jews for Jesus is considered the world's largest ministry focusing specifically on Jews — with 155 staff members, an annual budget of $13 million, and offices in nine U.S. cities and eight other nations, including Israel.

Perlman still hopes that Messianics will one day be accepted as part of mainstream Judaism.

"Who wants to be considered an outsider in your own community?" she said.

David Fleischer, who describes himself as a "Messianic rabbi," also yearns for acceptance. Fleischer even lists his Congregation B'nai Brit HaMashiach (Children of the Messiah's Covenant) under "Synagogues" in the San Francisco Yellow Pages.

Individual congregants belong to Hadassah, give to the Jewish National Fund, attend Israel Independence Day celebrations and donate food to Jews in the former Soviet Union, he said. Yet Fleischer, whose congregation meets for Saturday-morning services at a private home in Daly City, said he rarely identifies his beliefs or his congregation in public, in an effort to avoid problems.

"I would like to be able to be open," said Fleischer, whose ordination came via the International Alliance of Messianic Congregations and Synagogues.

But the organized Jewish community's position toward such missionaries, while certainly calmer, has not changed dramatically since the 1970s.

Earl Raab, who was then executive director of the S.F.-based Jewish Community Relations Council, said the initial response to groups like Jews for Jesus was horror.

At the time, cults such as the Moonies were attracting a seemingly disproportionate number of college-age Jews.

"The additional dimension of Jews for Jesus was a real subversion," he said. "Jews for Jesus had special shock and offense."

As a result of those concerns, the Northern California Board of Rabbis issued this statement in March 1972:

"The view that [the Jews for Jesus Movement] is an alternative within the Jewish religious community is wholly untenable…Their protestations to the contrary notwithstanding, they are apostates and entirely outside of the Jewish religious community. To claim otherwise can only be based on total ignorance."

Lew still agrees with that basic view, calling the Messianics "extremely dishonest" because the movement is funded and backed by Christian evangelists.

"The facade of it being a Jewish movement is a sham," he said.

But Lew said he'd be much more concerned about those missionaries today if they were as active, visible or vocal in the Bay Area as they are in other parts of the country.

In addition, he said, today's Jewish community has more pressing problems than any threat from Messianics. The menace of such missionary groups as Jews for Jesus is just "a drop in the bucket," the rabbi said, compared to the overall lack of Jewish affiliation to synagogues.

"We have much more important things to worry about, which is Jews just not being Jews," he said.

Rabbi Doug Kahn, executive director of the S.F.-based Jewish Community Relations Council, agreed that battling missionaries isn't among the community's top concerns.

"I think the Jewish community has rightly put its energy into Jewish continuity and Jewish education," he said, noting that a well-grounded Jewish education is the strongest defense against proselytizers.

"Our best response is to help Jews feel absolute pride in their Judaism," he said.

Moishe Rosen, the founder of Jews for Jesus who stepped down as its executive director in May, in some ways appreciates the lack of active opposition from the Bay Area Jewish community. Foes here don't smash windows, slash tires, spray-paint graffiti or make harassing telephone calls, he said.

"This is probably the most tolerant Jewish community in the country," said Rosen, who still comes into the office even though he stepped down from his position in May after two decades. "The attitude here is live and let live."

But Lew noted that the Jewish community's reaction to Messianic proselytizing is primarily a reflection of the missionaries' relatively low profile here and the Bay Area's overall liberalism.

"This is such a tolerant, open atmosphere," he said. "It's hard to come out against any group, no matter how abhorrent its views may be."