Messianics use survivors in latest ads, enraging Jews

"The survivors know that they're getting on in years, and they wanted to be able to tell their stories for another generation to hear after they're gone."

A reasonable statement at which no Jew could take offense, right?

Hardly. Plenty in the Jewish community are fuming — not at the message but at its source: Jews for Jesus.

For the first time, the messianic group is using Holocaust survivors as its latest salvo to spread the message that you, too, can believe in Jesus yet still remain a Jew.

"They have every right to publicize their organization but to use Holocaust survivors is a cheap shot," said Rabbi H. David Teitelbaum, executive director of the Board of Rabbis of Northern California.

Not so, said Susan Perlman, associate director of the Jews for Jesus. What she said above, in an interview with the Jewish Bulletin, is her justification for the use of Holocaust survivors in advertising.

Jews for Jesus has made its national headquarters here in the Bay Area for its almost 30 years of existence, beginning in Berkeley in 1973 and then later moving to San Francisco.

Ever since its founding, it has incurred the wrath of the Jewish community, for positing the contradictory message that one needn't compromise one's Jewish beliefs by accepting Jesus as the messiah.

Logically, one cannot believe that the messiah has not yet come, as traditional Jews do, and that he also has come, as Christians believe. Therefore, being a "Jew for Jesus" is a contradiction in terms, according to Rabbi Doug Kahn, executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Council.

"One can be a Jew who converted to Christianity," said Kahn. "The concern that has always existed is that [Jews for Jesus tries] to distort that fundamental impossibility that one can be both a Jew and a Christian at the same time."

Kahn reported hearing little outcry about the latest campaign but he nonetheless called it "tasteless and offensive."

Commenting that he didn't know whether timing it to coincide with Holocaust Remembrance Day was deliberate, he called the campaign offensive because most survivors have clung to their Jewish identity, and "the 6 million who died died because they were Jews."

Perlman said there are 11 Bay Area billboards currently carrying the group's message. It will be taken to other cities nationwide in the coming months.

In addition, dozens of followers were in the streets of San Francisco this week handing out literature extolling the virtues of Jesus, whom they call "Y'shua."

Area campuses were hit too, with Seth Brysk, director of San Francisco Hillel, reporting he saw at least three people with Jews for Jesus' T-shirts Monday on the San Francisco State campus.

Adam Weisberg, director of Hillel at U.C. Berkeley, had not seen any by Tuesday morning.

Both Hillel directors said they weren't doing anything specific to counteract the missionaries.

Jews for Jesus' latest campaign marks the beginning of a 65-city effort around the world, targeting cities with significant Jewish populations.

The Bay Area street drive is planned for at least a month, and if the response is good, it will go on even longer, said Perlman.

This is the first time such a massive campaign has happened in the group's "own backyard," she added.

"Those of our people who are interested in exploring further whether Jesus is the messiah of Israel or not are welcome. This is a city where diverse ideas are able to be expressed and where the minority viewpoint is not squelched."

The San Francisco Chronicle and San Jose Mercury News both ran full-page Jews for Jesus ads last week, as did such national magazines as Time, Newsweek, The New Yorker and People.

In the ad and on the billboard, the grandmotherly face of a woman named Marion Parkhurst says, "Before you dismiss my belief, you should hear my story."

Parkhurst is one of seven survivors who tell how they found Jesus in a Jews for Jesus-produced video called "Survivor Stories."

The blurb in the ad identfies Parkhurst as a survivor of the Holocaust, and says: "My decision to embrace Jesus came only after many years of soul searching and study. All I ask is that you hear my story and those of several other remarkable Jews who have suffered greatly and now truly believe in Jesus."

Parkhurst, who lives in Northern California but did not want to identify where, is originally from Germany, and her family fled to Amsterdam after Hitler came to power. A survivor of Bergen-Belsen, she and her husband did not affiliate with the Jewish community after they arrived in the United States.

"I assumed I believed in God but was very, very angry at God that all these things could happen," she said. "Most people felt like this; we had a terrible hatred in us."

Then she met some Jews who believed in Jesus. She remained non-religious but allowed them to take her daughter to church. Once her daughter began coming home with Bible verses and songs, Parkhurst began to study the Christian Bible, until finally, she believed in the truth of what she read.

"It changed my life," she said. "My hate went away. I had love instead of hate. Hate destroys you, not the other person."

Parkhurst said she has since belonged to a church, and has experienced no hostilities from any other survivors who might disagree with her. But then, she said, she hasn't met any. If she were to meet some, she undoubtedly would hear a different story.

Mark Schickman, president of the Holocaust Center of Northern California, said he got several calls from survivors who were anguished about the ad.

Schickman, a Berkeley resident who is the son of survivors himself, said he did a double take when he saw the ad in the Chronicle.

"I see it in terms of pandering to fear, to the most vulnerable, weakest reaction to what people go through."

Although the missionary tactics used by the group were nothing new to him, Schickman said, "pulling people away from their faith in an entrepreneurial way is not what religion should be about. I can't say it surprised me, but it's a new low."

Jonathan Bernstein, regional director of the Anti-Defamation League, said he, too, had received a few angry phone calls from people wondering what they could do.

"They have the First Amendment right to say whatever they want, but we have the First Amendment right to be offended," said Bernstein. "Just when you think they've gone too far over the edge and can't go any further, they pull something out of their hats that's even worse."

The video is like many documentaries that feature survivor testimony, showing the familiar footage of the cattle-car trains, the camps, the corpses. The survivors all tell their individual stories, but then, unlike in other such videos, they talk about how they came to believe in Jesus.

Specific verses from the Hebrew Bible are flashed on the screen, and the video ends with the narrator telling the viewer to say a prayer in which one accepts Jesus. Then, the words "mazel tov" flash on the screen, followed by contact information for Jews for Jesus, both for new believers and those who want to know more.

Louis De Groot, a survivor who lives in Berkeley, said that if Jewish children who spent the war in hiding with Christian families chose to remain the religion of their rescuers, it was not for him to pass judgment.

But since that was not the case for any of those in the video, he said, the tactics used by Jews for Jesus in this case were "shameful and disgusting."

"It's almost a desecration of the people who were murdered," he said. "I find it very low to use [the Holocaust] in advertising."

Perlman of Jews for Jesus, who is also the executive producer of the video, disagreed.

The survivors in the video "don't feel in any way exploited, and anyone who watches this documentary will see this. We tried to deal with it very respectfully," she said.

"As Jews we feel emotional about it, but we're not shying away from the subject of the Holocaust. Out of suffering and despair can come hope for the future. These stories of Holocaust survivors who have come to believe in Jesus is a story that must be told."

Others don't think so. While most of those interviewed for this story said no matter how dismayed they were by the message, they recognized that Jews for Jesus had the right to express its views, one rabbi planned to write in protest to the newspapers that published the ad, as well as the billboard company.

Rabbi Shlomo Margolin, who works with the Russian emigre community in San Francisco, said he wanted those publishing the ads to know they were offensive to the mainstream Jewish community.

"If people don't respond, it comes off as unnoticed," he said. "Maybe it won't have an immediate effect, but the Chronicle will know next time. It makes them more sensitive."

Margolin said the Russian-speaking community was particularly susceptible to falling prey to groups such as Jews for Jesus because they often don't have much Jewish knowledge.

Calling Jews for Jesus "opportunists of Jewish ignorance," Margolin said, "The whole marketing thing is to package it as the Jewish religion, so it makes Russian Jews who don't really know much very vulnerable."

Margolin said he hoped to set up a task force to deal with the issue more effectively.

Nonetheless, response to the ad campaign has been overwhelming so far, said Perlman. The video hotline has been inundated. "The response has been much higher than we could have imagined, we're averaging about 1,500 calls a day."

Maybe so, but many of those calls may be from people like Schickman, who wants to see the video out of curiosity but has no plans to accept Jesus as his personal savior.

"Religion ought to reach toward people's hopes and aspirations, not their doubts and fears," he said. "That's why this depressed me so much."

Alix Wall
Alix Wall

Alix Wall is a contributing editor to J. She is also the founder of the Illuminoshi: The Not-So-Secret Society of Bay Area Jewish Food Professionals and is writer/producer of a documentary-in-progress called "The Lonely Child."