NEW YORK (Jun. 19)
Igor Gugil, a 22-year-old Soviet Jew who attends a “messianic Jewish” congregation in Brooklyn’s Brighton Beach neighborhood, sees no contradiction between the Star of David hanging around his neck and the name Jesus written inside it.
“But a year ago, if someone had told me that I would be wearing a star with the name of Jesus, I would kill myself,” he says, laughing as he fingers the symbol of his newfound faith.
Gugil became a messianic Jew — or a Jew who believes Jesus was the Messiah — under the influence of his Soviet Jewish wife, who was converted by Russian Pentacostalists over a year ago while waiting in an Italian transit center to come to the United States.
Messianic Jews have greeted the exodus of Soviet Jews with great joy and have been working actively to convince them to believe in Jesus.
This worries American Jewish organizations, for whom the phrase “messianic Jew” is a contradiction in terms. They say it wrongly implies that a believer in Jesus can remain a Jew. Most Jewish groups prefer the phrase “Hebrew Christian” to describe these people.
Soviet Jews, who usually have had little if any Jewish education, are more likely than American Jews to become “Jewish believers” in Jesus, says Rabbi A. James Rudin, the American Jewish Committee’s national director of interreligious affairs.
Rudin and others monitoring the problem point out that for Soviet Jews, anyone wearing a yarmulka or celebrating Passover, as many messianic Jews do, appears to be a Jew.
Although much of the proselytizing takes place in North America, where an estimated 100,000 messianic Jews and tens of millions of evangelical Christians share similar views about Jesus and the Jews, the Soviet Union is increasingly becoming an important stop for these groups.
Until recently, many missionizing groups first approached Soviet Jews while they waited for months in Italian transit centers for permission to come to the United States.
But as the Soviet Union started easing emigration restrictions and transit centers were shut down, messianic and evangelical Christian groups discovered they could proselytize directly in the Soviet Union.
Over the past two years, an increasing number of missionizing groups have taken advantage of this new freedom, organizing special “holiday tours” and other trips to the country, where religion was banned for over 70 years.
According to literature put out by these groups, hundreds of Soviet Jews recently have become believers in Jesus in little more than a day during the missionizing missions.
Estimates as to the number of Jews in the Soviet Union who have become believers in Jesus range in the high thousands out of an estimated Jewish population of up to 3 million.
While this percentage may seem small, it is an important first step for the missionizing groups, according to Rabbi Michael Skobac, New York director of Jews for Judaism, a counter-missionary organization with seven branches nationwide.
Sam Nadler, President of the North Carolina-based Chosen People Ministries, a messianic Jewish group dating back to 1894, says he often travels to the Soviet Union to meet Jews and provide them with money, Bibles, food and other items.
BUREAU IN ODESSA
In an interview last year with The Messianic Times, a Toronto-based quarterly publication with a circulation of 25,000, Nadler said that during one of his trips, the group spread the word of Jesus “on the streets, in Red Square, at Moscow’s popular McDonald’s and in a Moscow synagogue.”
He told the Messianic Times that in Kiev, “70 Soviet Jews accepted Yeshua.”
Nadler, who says his organization has an annual budget of $4 million, called for more work to “plant” congregations in the Soviet Union that would reach out to Jewish “non-believers.”
Jews for Jesus, a resource-oriented group with 20 years of experience in this field, has translated many of its publications into Russian for distribution in the Soviet Union, says Susan Perlman, the group’s information officer.
Those who monitor proselytizing activity in the Soviet Union say Jews for Jesus has opened a bureau in Odessa.
Members of messianic groups, who often take a strongly pro-Israel stance, say they have also traveled to the Soviet Union to encourage Jews to immigrate to Israel.
Like evangelical Christians, messianic Jews tend to believe that Jesus will appear a second time once the majority of Jews have returned to Israel. Love for Israel is therefore a strong part of their religious and cultural identities.
Sid Roth, the leader of a messianic congregation in Brighton Beach founded to reach Soviet Jews, went to the Soviet Union last year to encourage Jews to leave the country because he fears a rise in anti-Semitism.
“It was not evangelistic,” says Roth, who opened his congregation a few months ago.
Countermissionary groups have likewise increased their attention on events in the Soviet Union. Jews for Judaism has sent its own missions to explain to Jewish communities the goals of these messianic movements and how to counter them.
“Basically, we try to prepare them for the invasion,” Skobac says.
But missionizing among Soviet Jews — either in the Soviet Union or the United States — is only one part of the activities of these groups, whose numbers, and influence, are growing in the United States.
Twenty-five years ago, there were a handful of messianic synagogues in North America. Now there are 140.
The publisher of The Messianic Times, Zev Isaacs, says that congregations “are just springing up all over the place. It started small, but they are just growing.”
Philip Abramowitz, director of the Task Force on Missionaries and Cults for the Jewish Community Relations Council of New York, says that “it’s mind-blowing how many millions of dollars have been spent to reach out to the Jewish community.”