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Jews and Jesus (part 5): English Language Classes Targeted by Messianics Recruiting Russians

At the Hope of Israel Messianic Center in the heart of Brighton Beach here, the phone is answered with a hearty "Shalom" and several dozen students attend English as a second language classes, where they also get instruction in Christianity.

The teachers were all born in the former Soviet Union as Jews. But today they describe themselves as "Messianic Jews," or Jews who believe that Jesus was the Messiah, which is a Christian belief, according to Judaism.

Although the missionaries have been proselytizing Russian Jews in the United States since the 1970s, and targeting the growing Russian Jewish community in Brooklyn since the late 1980s, only in the last 18 months have they been focusing their efforts on the English courses.

The teachers at the Messianic Center do more than instruct their Russian Jewish students in English grammar; they offer them help finding apartments and jobs, give them gifts at holiday time and shepherd them into the "Messianic Jewish" and evangelical Christian churches in the area.

Outside of class time, the missionaries hand out literature on the bustling sidewalks of Brighton Beach Avenue and visit Russian Jews in their apartments, to "counsel" them.

An estimated 80,000 Jews from the former Soviet Union live in the Brighton Beach neighborhood, which has become known as "Little Odessa."

No one knows for sure how many have gotten involved with the Christian groups, said Craig Miller, director of the Council of Jewish Organizations of the Bensobhurst section of Brooklyn.

Although the majority seem to remain indifferent to the overtures of any religious group, a substantial number are attracted to the missionaries’ efforts, said Miller, who until recently was the director of the anti- missionary Jewish Action Group.

The emigre population, raised in the former Soviet Union under a regime that prohibited religious expression, is generally uneducated when it comes to Judaism.

They are often unable to distinguish between authentic Judaism and the syncretic combination of Judaism and Christianity presented by the Messianic Jewish missionaries.

In the former Soviet Union, Messianic Jewish missionaries are actively targeting Jews for conversion with large-scale musical shows held in the spring and summer in athletic stadiums in major cities.

Jonathan Bernus, a self-described Messianic rabbi and his Hear O Israel Ministries ran the "Revival in Russia Messianic Jewish Festival" in Moscow, St. Petersburg and other cities in 1994 and 1995.

In Moscow alone, 13,000 people came to his revival and several thousand Jews were converted over a run of several nights, says Bernus in a video about his efforts in the former Soviet Union.

In other parts of the United States, too, individual Messianic Jewish "rabbis" are actively reaching out to the immigrant community.

In Richmond, Va., for example, Congregation Tikvat Israel runs Russian Immigration Services, which helps emigres with legal advice and government paperwork to get visas, social services and drivers education, in addition to English language instruction.

The "rabbi" there, James Cowen, said he is establishing a Russian Cultural Center with a library and Russian-language television beamed in from New Jersey.

"This is primarily for the elderly who have nothing to do all day. They’re lost, so this will provide them a place to go during the week," Cowen said. "about 100 have come to our prayer services."

In Brooklyn, the missionary groups began to offer English-language training to Jews after the Orthodox yeshivas and women’s seminaries that were providing English and Judaic studies classes to more than 10,000 emigres, lost their federal funding after investigators discovered that the institutions were claiming more federal money than they were entitled to receive.

Some of the programs were little more than "Pell Grant mills," registering dozens of phantom students, according to one federal investigator who testified before the Senate Committee on Government Affairs in 1993.

Eighteen Jewish schools lost the funding from the Pell |Grant program in February 1994. That was when the missionaries’ ESL classes first started to appear, said Aidel Sarah Hornig.

Late last year, Hornig founded a program that offers English language instruction in a Jewish environment. Her effort is intended to provide the emigres with what they need, so that they do not end up sitting in church pews.

Sophia Kordit, 57, lives in Brighton Beach and was in one of Hornig’s classes recently, but has attended the Hope of Israel Messianic Center.

She said she was attracted to the missionary group because she "saw many Russians sitting there."

"They gave us English and Bibles," she also said.

A visitor asked whether it was the Christian or Jewish Bible they gave students.

"It was just the one Bible. There is only one Bible for everyone," said Kordit, fingering a tiny gold Star of David necklace.

The visitor asked whether Jesus was in the Bible she studied there and Kordit said, "Sure, but it’s the Bible for everyone. We are all one people, one religion. It’s all the same thing."

Hornig’s program offers English classes and Jewish studies to about 1,800 emigres, most of them older than 50, who are eligible for other ESL courses that train immigrants for the workplace.

Hornig’s program, dubbed the Jewish Immigrant Lifeline, offers dozens of classes at nine synagogues in the Brighton Beach area.

She runs the program on a shoestring; the 19 teachers get paid sporadically. When there’s money, they earn $10 an hour. They pay for supplies and photocopying out of their own pockets and each of the educators has had to hit up their own families for donations, said Devorah Kozlik, one of the teachers.

These teachers, too, do much more than teach the fundamentals of English grammar.

After a recent class for about 120 recent arrivals, who sat in long rows of chairs in a synagogue basement, a half-dozen lined up to seek Hornig’s counsel after class in a fractured combination of Yiddish and elementary English.

One woman needed help understanding a letter from a government agency. Another’s grandson had gone to the hospital with an emergency the night before, so she needed help with dealing with the medical system.

Although the New York Association for New Americans and local Jewish agencies also run brief ESL programs, which have long lists of emigres waiting to enroll, Hornig and her colleagues say that it is not enough.

Their efforts to raise some money to provide these classes have been stymied by Jewish agency executives, who say that they can only fund programs for young people, not those already out of the work force, Hornig said.

Yet working with the older immigrants is also a long-term investment in the Jewish connection of their families.

"They have a big influence over their grandchildren," Hornig said. "While their children are out trying to attain `the American dream,’ they are the ones who take care of the kids, so it’s not just the older generation being lost" to the missionaries, she said.

The Messianics "are not stupid and do whatever they can to grab a Jewish neshama," said Hornig, using the Hebrew word for "soul."

"They don’t care whether it is a 75 year old or 7 year old. Each Jew is their ticket to Gan Eden," said Hornig, referring to the Garden of Eden, or heaven.

The ESL classes are the most effective tool to fight against them," Hornig said. "These are yidden (Jews) who are really being lost."

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