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FOCUS ON ISSUES Evangelical Christians dig deep, raise vast sums for Jewish causes

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NEW YORK, Sept. 14 (JTA) – Carolyn and Fritz Brandt, who live in an Arkansas hamlet nestled among the Ozarks, have donated about $50,000 during the last three years to the United Jewish Appeal. What makes their gift unusual is that they are people of modest means – they cashed in retirement savings to make their gifts – and they are not Jewish. They are evangelical Christians. And they aren’t alone. A growing number of evangelicals, including a high-profile pastor in Texas, are making significant contributions to UJA and other Jewish causes. The Brandts made their contribution through the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews, a Chicago-based organization that raises money from evangelicals to help fund the emigration of Jews from the former Soviet Union. This year the International Fellowship expects to donate $5 million from 60,000 individual donors to UJA, nearly double the $2.7 million it gave in 1996, according to its founder, Orthodox Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein of Chicago, and UJA sources. The money the group raises is given directly to a local Jewish federation, in this case the Jewish United Fund of Metropolitan Chicago, and then passed on to UJA. Their contribution makes the International Fellowship the Chicago federation’s largest single contributor, according to Jeffrey Cohen, the United Fund’s vice president in charge of the fund-raising campaign. And while people of many faiths and ethnicities give to the Chicago federation, no other single religious group makes a donation as large as the evangelicals, Cohen said. Unlike most donations to Jewish federations, which are divided between local, Israel-related and other overseas needs without input from the giver, the Christian contributions are donor-directed – given specifically to underwrite the cost of aliyah of Jews from the former Soviet Union. They do it to be a blessing to the Jewish people, they say, to fulfill the Jewish and Christian biblical prophesies that they regard as part of God’s plan, which include the migration of Jews to Israel. “Studying the Bible, we know that the time of redemption is near for the Jewish people, and we want to be part of helping them,” Carolyn Brandt said in an interview from her office in Bellavista, Ark., where she works as a real estate agent. “The Jews, outside of us Christians, are the only ones who worship the living and true God. Even though the Bible says that the messiah is Jesus, and they think it will be someone else, it’s OK. “We all worship the same God, and I know that they are special in his sight.” At a time when the pool of Jewish donors is shrinking, the evangelical population seems like a potentially new market for Jewish charities to tap. Yet leaders of Jewish charities are uncomfortable about accepting money from Christians who are motivated by theological concepts that have been used at times to harm Jews. Many, though not all, of the same evangelicals giving money to Jewish groups also fund the work of the “messianic” groups that aggressively try to convert Jews to believe in Jesus. Are evangelical Christians “a growth market,” asked Shimon Pepper, UJA’s assistant vice president in charge of campaign operations. “Could be, but our leadership has been ambivalent. “They’ve instructed me not to be proactive.” According to Bernie Moscovitz, UJA’s executive vice president, “Some of our leadership think it is perfectly all right to accept money from people even if their motivation is not identical to our own, and others think it’s better for Jews to take care of themselves. “Our position is that we say `thank you’ for what they are doing,” and that is all, Moscovitz said. One organization, that raises money from evangelical Christians to help transport Jewish children to Israel from areas affected by the Chernobyl nuclear explosion used to give that money to the Chabad- Lubavitch organization, which has focused its attention on the youth affected since the reactor there blew up in 1986. But when an Israeli anti-missionary organization accused the Cedar Springs, Mich.-based Blossoming Rose ministry of being associated with proselytizers, Chabad said it felt forced to sever the connection. That was two years ago. Since then, UJA has been accepting the funds – $25,000 this year. Rev. John Hagee, pastor of the San Antonio, Texas Cornerstone Church, which has 17,000 members, donated $550,000 to UJA earlier this year through the Houston Jewish federation. Hagee has been raising money for Jewish causes in Israel since 1981, when he organized a rally to honor Israel after the country bombed a nuclear reactor in Baghdad, Iraq, and was excoriated in the American media for doing so. “I felt Israel had done humanity a service,” said the pastor. Hagee filled a local convention center with more than 3,000 people, and through a “free will offering” that night raised about $10,000. It was donated to Hadassah. Then several months ago, he heard about Operation Exodus, the effort to rescue and resettle Jews from the former Soviet Union in Israel. Though UJA retired the Operation Exodus campaign among Jews two years ago, it continues to be discussed in the Christian community. Hagee recorded a single, 30-minute television show about Operation Exodus and as soon as it was broadcast recently, Hagee said, “the phones melted off the wall.” Within a few days, his viewers had donated more than half a million dollars. Hagee takes hundreds of Christians to Israel every other year and expects to fill a plane to its 500-seat capacity next year. And he has sold more than 100,000 tallitot, or Jewish prayer shawls, to evangelical Christians through his television and radio shows. Some evangelicals – though a small minority – wear the tallitot in worship every week, Hagee said. Hagee and his church do not missionize Jews, he said, nor do they have any connection at all with the “messianic” Jews who claim to be Jewish even though they believe that Jesus was the messiah. “The Jewish people had the word of God before we even knew it existed,” Hagee said in a telephone interview. Hagee is unusual among evangelical Christians in his belief that Jews do not need to believe in Jesus to be blessed by God. “Gentiles come to God through Jesus Christ because that’s the only way we can get there,” Hagee said, “but there are some Jewish people who have a relationship with God by divine election.”

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