Jews for Jesus brings campaign to city

Religion: The Messianic group plans a three-week mission here, raising concerns among mainstream Jews.

August 18, 2005|By Matthew Hay Brown | Matthew Hay Brown,SUN STAFF

The way David A. Finkelstein sees it, he's only trying to share the good news with his people.

Raised Jewish in Pikesville, Finkelstein says he didn't know the presence of God until he found Yeshua. Now he believes that this Jew who lived 2,000 years ago is the messiah promised by God - and that accepting him as his savior has fulfilled his Jewish self.

Finkelstein, the spiritual leader of the Am Yeshua Messianic Jewish congregation in Reisterstown, is one of several local believers planning to join a missionary group targeting Baltimore-area Jews for conversion to Christianity.

For three weeks beginning Sunday, Jews for Jesus will be blanketing downtown and the Inner Harbor with leaflets, chatting up fans outside Orioles and Ravens games, making telephone calls and knocking on doors. Baltimore is the latest stop in the San Francisco-based ministry's global "Behold Your God" campaign, a five-year push to bring the Christian gospel to all 65 metropolitan areas outside of Israel with a Jewish population of more than 25,000.

"Without Jesus, my Jewish people are dead in their sins, without hope," Finkelstein said. "To believe in the messiah just makes me much more of a Jew than I ever was."

Such testimony has drawn concern from mainstream Jewish leaders - and some of their Christian counterparts - who accuse Jews for Jesus of deceiving would-be converts with what they say is Christianity dressed in Jewish garb. They say such missionaries prey on the vulnerable - the young, the old, recent immigrants - culling from the community those who are unsure of their faith with the disputed claim that they can accept Jesus as their savior and still remain Jewish.

"Look, we live in America," said Scott Hillman, Baltimore director of Jews for Judaism. "Everyone is free to try to convert everyone else. So if someone wanted to put up signs all over the place saying Jesus is the answer, convert to Christianity today, we wouldn't have a problem with that.

"Of course, if you put up a sign saying Yeshua is the messiah, fulfill your Judaism, we have a problem."

Jews for Jesus says its missionaries do not prey on the vulnerable or employ subterfuge to gain converts.

"Charges of deception are a cheap shot," spokeswoman Susan Perlman says. "We are people who have come to believe that Jesus is the messiah sincerely. We think what we're doing is the most loving thing we can do, sharing this good news with our fellow Jews."

Estimates of the size of the Messianic Jewish community vary. Jews for Jesus places the number at between 75,000 and 100,000 worldwide. Jews for Judaism says Christian groups specifically targeting Jews have converted 250,000 in the past 25 years.

Ancient divide

The conflict over that missionary work goes to the heart of the 2,000-year-old divide between the two faiths. Christians believe that Jesus is the son of God, sent to redeem mankind. Most Jews believe the messiah promised to them by God has not yet come.

"It's not our place to judge any other belief system," Hillman said. "Judaism has a path, and we're supposed to stay on the path. That's our relationship with God."

The battle for souls is pitting the Christian injunction to spread the Gospel against the Jewish imperative to survive.

"Protestants, Catholics are not worried about disappearing," said Jonathan Sarna, a professor of American Jewish history at Brandeis University in Waltham, Mass. "Jews, who lost a third of their membership in the Holocaust, and are very small and not growing, are, of course, deeply concerned."

Messianic Jews say they pose no threat to Judaism, but rather its fulfillment. They note that Jesus was a Jew, as were most of his early followers. Through belief in him, they say, Jews and Christians can become one people.

"What you have is the picture of God's heart for humanity," Finkelstein said. "He never wanted any separation between Jews and gentiles. The cross has done away with any separation."

Most Jews reject the idea that Jews can accept Jesus and remain Jewish.

"It's not possible," said Rabbi Elan Adler, president of the Baltimore Board of Rabbis. "When you accept Jesus as your messiah, you become a Christian."

Many Christians agree.

"Both of our traditions established a wall of separation that made it very clear that we belong to two different covenantal communities," said the Rev. Christopher Leighton, a Presbyterian minister who is executive director of the Institute for Christian and Jewish Studies. "To pretend that you can somehow get around an anguished history is to falsify the foundational affirmations of both communities."

A panel of Catholic and Jewish scholars appointed by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and the National Council of Synagogues concluded in 2002 that Jews are in an eternal covenant with God, and renounced missionary efforts directed at converting them to Christianity.

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