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Behind the Headlines: Messianic Jewish Groups Targeting Soviet Jews Ignorant About Judaism

In a rented school auditorium in Brooklyn’s Brighton Beach neighborhood, known as “Little Odessa” because of the large numbers of Soviet immigrants who have settled there, Sid Roth is preparing to lead 50 or so people in Sabbath morning services.

Standing in front of an Israeli flag temporarily gracing the wall, Roth, the congregation’s leader, starts off by reciting the Shema, the key Jewish prayer declaring belief in one God.

Then, with a Bible in his hand and a yarmulka on his head, Roth launches into a two-hour sermon about the Jews, the Bible, the rabbis of old — and why Jews should believe that Jesus was the Messiah.

“The day will come very soon when many Russians in Brooklyn will have the spiritual scales come off their eyes and will know the truth,” he booms, pacing up and down exuberantly. His words, carefully spaced, are translated into Russian by a young woman wearing a Star of David necklace.

“Our job is in living to present the truth,” he says. “Their job is to open their heart to the truth and the spirit of God will make it true.”

And open their hearts they have. Under Roth’s “messianic” guidance, dozens of Soviet Jews have discovered Jesus, while other “messianic Jewish” and evangelical Christian groups are successfully targeting Soviet Jews in the United States and elsewhere.

The influx of Soviet Jews into the United States — this year up to 40,000 are being allowed to immigrate here — is being warmly welcomed by messianic Jewish groups, who claim one can both be Jewish and believe that Jesus was the Messiah.

‘VERY EXCITED ABOUT THE RUSSIAN JEWS’

“Messianic Jews are very excited about the Russian Jews. They feel it’s important to convert them, because here’s a big segment of the Jewish population that until recently they couldn’t get a hold of,” says Rabbi Michael Skobac, New York director of Jews for Judaism, a monitoring and counter-missionary organization with seven branches across the country.

The number of “messianic Jews,” or Hebrew Christians, in North America is estimated to be between 80,000 and 100,000, less than 2 percent of the 6 million Jews in North America.

But the number is deceptively small in relation to the influence of their ideology, Skobac and others say.

Some evangelical Christian groups, such as the Assemblies of God, with 2.1 million members here and 23 million worldwide, also support this particular approach to missionary work among Jews, monitors and church members say.

Evangelical Christians, along with messianic Jews, are believed to be behind much of the funding for the 140 messianic Jewish congregations in North America and the dozens of groups that promote Jewish believers in Jesus.

Evangelical Christians “are promoting this because they understand that the alternative approach — Jewish people being offered conversion out of Judaism — is not an appealing alternative to Jews,” says Skobac, who puts the total annual budget of messianic groups at $100 million.

“Instead, they say that by accepting Christianity, you don’t leave Judaism but become a better Jew,” he says.

Jewish “believers,” as the call themselves, often reflect this duality in their tendency to retain the trappings of Judaism in their lives.

They will have their sons circumcised, keep kosher and celebrate the major Jewish holidays, But they reinterpret the prayers and customs in line with their belief that Jesus was the Messiah.

A MORE ACTIVE APPROACH

Experts say it is these trappings which make messianic Jews so appealing — and therefore dangerous — for Soviet Jews, who may not know the difference between authentic Judaism and messianic Judaism.

Although no exact estimate of the number of Soviet Jews in the United States who believe in Jesus is available, literature obtained from messianic Jewish and evangelical Christian groups shows that a great effort is under way to missionize among Soviet Jews.

In addition to running advertisements in Russian newspapers and printing materials in Russian, many messianic Jewish groups take a more active approach to finding Soviet Jews.

Ariel Ministries, a California-based messianic Jewish group with an annual budget of $500,000, is about to start its second annual summer camp program for Soviet Jews in upstate New York.

Jews for Jesus, the leading messianic Jewish outreach group, with an annual budget of around $8 million and close to 20 years of experience, prints some of its materials in Russian, for distribution both here and overseas, says Susan Perlman, information officer for the group.

“There’s a real demand for it,” she says.

Lederer Messianic Ministries, a Baltimore-based Messianic publishing house with about 25 books on its list, is putting together a book in Russian that will have essays dealing with Israel, what it means to be a Jew, and Jesus, says the executive director, Barry Rubin.

Messianic Jews say Soviet Jews tend to be more open than American Jews to the message of salvation through Jesus, a sentiment echoed by American Jewish monitoring organizations.

‘GROUND LEVEL ZERO’

“I don’t want to stereotype, but generally I find a responsiveness, openness and willingness to consider Christ more so (among Soviet Jews) then in the West,” says Sam Nadler, president of the North Carolina-based Chosen People Ministries, a messianic Jewish group dating back to 1894.

“We’re dealing with ground level zero,” says Roth, whose congregational members sometimes hand out literature on Brighton Beach’s board-walk.

“Because they are not prejudiced, there’s more potential for them to listen to the facts and ruach ha-kodesh (blessed spirit) to enter them.”

Philip Abramowitz, director of the Task Force on Missionaries and Cults for the Jewish Community Relations Council of New York, calls the Soviet Jews “very vulnerable.”

Referring to the messianic Jews, he says, “They see really fertile ground because the Soviet Jews basically have little knowledge of Judaism. Everything is done under distortion and deception.

But Skobac of Jews for Judaism warns: “The fact that we are so easily deceived is not all their fault, but partly our fault, because we have presented a generation that is Jewishly illiterate.”

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