“Hasidic Jews are dedicated members of the Jewish community who are unreached with the Gospel. It is our hope and prayer that we might touch their lives through the new Messianic Center in Brooklyn.” Thus reads a statement on the website of the Chosen People Ministries, a prominent “Messianic Jewish” organization that is in the midst of renovating a building on Coney Island Avenue and Avenue P in the heart of Flatbush, Brooklyn, with one primary purpose – to serve as a base that will target the area’s large Orthodox Jewish community for recruitment to its services, and ultimately for conversion to its decidedly non-Jewish beliefs.
The idea of Christian missionaries attempting to lure Jews into their religion by blending Christian beliefs with Jewish rituals and motifs is nothing new, to be sure. Since 1894, when the American Board of Missions to the Jews was founded in Brooklyn, a slew of “Hebrew Christian” groups have utilized both the personal approach and the full range of available media to try and convince Jews that they can still “be Jewish” and at the same time maintain a belief in the Christian deity. And to some degree, they have been successful – many unsuspecting Jews have been gradually drawn into the movement over the years, believing that their adoption of Christian tenets has made them into more fulfilled Jews.
But the movement’s latest push to reach out to Orthodox Jews – who are generally regarded as rock-solid in their faith due to their thorough religious education and practice – has raised eyebrows even among professionals who are highly experienced in counter-missionary work. “Chosen People Ministries works hand-in-hand with Jews for J,” explains Ruth Guggenheim, Director of Jews for Judaism in Baltimore, a leading anti-missionary organization. “Because of the greater challenge involved, these groups feel that if they are even able to persuade a small number of Orthodox Jews to think along their lines, they have scored a major coup. Therefore, they have become increasingly sophisticated in their outreach to religious Jews, even employing a high-level Yiddish in some of their marketing material.”
Guggenheim goes on to note that the Hebrew Christian organizations are able to find an opening in the Orthodox community these days due to the greater prevalence of at-risk youth and families in crisis, who become vulnerable to the overtures of a group that offers a somewhat familiar Jewish atmosphere combined with an abundance of apparent “love” and personal warmth. “Jews for Judaism has actually handled such cases,” she notes. “We once dealt with an 18-year-old Chassidic young man who started to question the validity of his beliefs and was eventually thrown out of his home. Somehow a ‘Christian’ woman befriended him and got him to start attending a Messianic synagogue. At first, he loved the way the people there treated him – but when he found himself struggling emotionally with the situation, he contacted us, and we were able to help him.”
As Guggenheim delineates, the Hebrew Christian organizations go to extreme lengths to make their religious theology appear as Jewish as possible. “Most of the leadership of Chosen People Ministries is actually Jewish,” she says, “and 75% of them have some form of ‘rabbinical ordination.’ They fill their sanctuaries with many trappings of a regular shul, and utilize genuine Hebrew phrases during their services – saying ‘Rabbeinu (our rabbi)’ in reference to the Christian deity, for example – to attract Orthodox Jews.”
The anti-missionary leader’s concerns are thoroughly backed up by Chosen People’s marketing material. In one of its newsletters, the organization presents an analysis of the two largest Chassidic groups, Lubavitch and Satmar, and outlines why their followers would make ideal recruits to “Hebrew Christianity.” In the section on Chabad-Lubavitch, Chosen People points out how a significant portion of its Chassidim have taken on the belief that the late Lubavitcher Rebbe is the Jewish Messiah (Moshiach), and states that – to support this notion – Lubavitchers point to a passage in the Prophets that (according to Chosen People) speaks of the Messiah dying to atone for the sins of the people, yet coming back to life. “Their willingness to understand this passage as referring to an individual Messiah opens the door to speak about how J is the fulfillment of that prophecy,” the newsletter triumphantly claims. “Many of our staff members have shared this with Chabad Jewish people, and have had some very fruitful discussions.”
In its discussion of the Satmar community, the Chosen People newsletter notes how Satmar philosophy is opposed to the establishment of a state of Israel until the Messiah’s arrival, when the redeemer will restore the nation to the Jewish people. Chosen People then makes a comparison between this belief and its own, which is that the Christian Messiah will return to cleanse Israel of her sin and restore the kingdom. “With great thanks, we can report that there are indeed some believers in J among the Satmar community,” the newsletter shockingly boasts, “although most of them continue to live in the community as ‘underground’ believers.”
According to Guggenheim – while several individuals in the local community are beginning to sound the alarm about the coming Brooklyn center – there is too much complacency in the wider Orthodox Jewish world about the potential spiritual threat. “The missionaries are laughing at us,” she bemoans. “They raise $350 million yearly to target Jews for conversion, and we’re not taking them seriously enough.” The Jews for Judaism leader is heartened by those who have elected to get involved, citing presentations made at the recent Agudath Israel of America convention by Moshe Verschleisser, an anti-missionary activist, and Rabbi Moshe Shulman, executive director of the counter-missionary group Judaism’s Answer. But she emphasizes that much more is required to counter the danger.
“Regarding the new center in Brooklyn, I would recommend – rather than a group of angry demonstrators, which might just embolden the missionaries to proclaim that they are more genuinely loving – that we have ‘proactive counter-leafleters’ out there,” she says. “A group of Orthodox Jews should be giving out positive literature about our way of life, such as information about Torah classes and Shabbos meals.” As far as the threat posed by missionaries overall, Guggenheim feels that the Jewish community needs to create a central resource to focus on the problem of Hebrew Christian missionaries. “If we don’t come up with a strong collective response now,” she warns, “we may end up with a high percentage of frum converts to Christianity in the future.