Raising a question of faith

Religion: Area Jewish leaders argue against a Messianic Jewish congregation's inclusion at a Columbia interfaith center.

November 16, 2003|By Laura Cadiz | Laura Cadiz,SUN STAFF

Columbia's four interfaith centers embody the planned community's vision of bringing together diverse groups, providing a place to worship in a tolerant environment.

More than 5,000 congregants - including Buddhists, Muslims, Jews and Christians - attend services at the centers weekly.

A congregation of Messianic Jews - who believe that Jesus is the Messiah - is building a fifth interfaith center in Columbia's last village of River Hill. And that has ignited a debate over freedom of religion in the town that was developed in 1967 as a home for people of all races and backgrounds.

Area Jewish leaders say that Emmanuel Messianic Jewish Congregation undermines Columbia developer James W. Rouse's philosophy - which gave birth to the interfaith centers - and believe the group should not occupy a building intended for diverse faiths. They argue that Messianic Jews evangelize to convert Jews to Christianity under the guise of Judaism, a move they call blasphemous.

"They are deceptive and aggressive," said Rabbi Susan Grossman of Beth Shalom Congregation in Columbia. "Proselytizing doesn't have a place in the interfaith community."

But Rabbi Barry Rubin, who leads Emmanuel Messianic, said such fears are "antiquated ... going back to the Middle Ages, which I understand, but it's not necessary." He said his congregation's practices aren't any different from those of other churches or synagogues that want people to come to their services.

"For some reason - I just think it's a prejudice - when we talk to people about our place of worship, to join with us, it seems threatening," he said. "We're just teaching what we teach. If people want to come, fine. We can't convert anybody."

The Rouse Co. sold the 2-acre lot to River Hill Interfaith Center Corp. for $65,100 in 1999. After a financial partner backed out of the deal - halting construction last year - the corporation now consists of Emmanuel Messianic Jewish Congregation, Oak Ridge Community Church in Columbia and the Lederer Foundation, a Messianic Jewish publishing house in Baltimore that Rubin heads.

All land for interfaith centers is sold at a "pretty significant discount," said Dennis Miller, a Rouse Co. vice president and general manager of Columbia, because "we think that having religious organizations in Columbia is part of the fabric of Columbia."

Religious affiliation is not a factor in the Rouse Co.'s decision to sell land to congregations. "The definition of a religious organization is not my determination," Miller said.

"Ultimately, it's all protected under the First Amendment," he said.

Columbia's interfaith centers were envisioned by James Rouse as another tool of social engineering when he created Columbia in the 1960s. They have proved successful, housing 10 congregations representing 13 denominations, said George W. Martin, chairman of Columbia Religious Facilities Corp., which facilitates the land used for the centers.

At the centers, "people talk to one another, and people do things together," he said.

"It's not just sharing the building, but they share ideas and social action," he said.

Perceived threat

Rubin hopes construction of the River Hill interfaith center, named the Gathering Place, will resume before the end of the year and will be completed in time for his congregation's observance of Rosh Hashana next year, when the center will be home to at least six groups. Columbia International Christian Centre and Dunamos Ministries in Baltimore have signed on to lease space there, said the Rev. George Sebek of Oak Ridge Community Church.

Preliminary estimates show that constructing the 25,000-square-foot building could cost about $3.8 million to $4 million, Sebek said.

Rubin describes his 100-member congregation as "pro-Torah and pro-Jewish." It resembles a melding of Judaism and Christianity.

Members follow the Torah and observe Shabbat, but they also read from the New Testament and recite prayers that close with "in the name of Yeshua Ha Mashiach" (Jesus the Messiah).

William Taft Stuart, a University of Maryland professor who studies Messianic Judaism, said Jews see Messianic Jews as "wolves in sheep's clothing." He said the religion is not as large a threat to the Jewish population as marrying outside the faith but, "symbolically, it's far more threatening."

"They're not only backsliding from their appointed Judaism, they are considered traitors and examples of betrayal," he said.

Scott Hillman, director of Jews for Judaism in Baltimore, said Messianic congregants are outside the Jewish community because they've accepted another faith. He admonishes Rubin for calling himself a rabbi.

"To say to the Jewish community, `Accept me, I'm part of the community,' when he's preaching Christian theology is very problematic," Hillman said.

`False advertising'

Rabbi Mark Panoff of Temple Isaiah in Columbia said Messianic Jews engage in "false advertising," as they spread their message that Jews are not fulfilled unless they accept Jesus as their savior.

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