When two youngsters blocked a bus traveling in downtown Minsk recently, they turned around so the passengers could read the words on the backs of their shirts: Jews for Jesus, written in Russian.
The reaction they got was astonishing.
“Those Yids have robbed us of everything – and now they’re even taking away our Jesus,” one woman said angrily, according to Eduard Paryzh, a Belarus Jewish leader affiliated with Chabad Lubavitch who witnessed the scene.
The anti-Semitism in the passenger’s reaction is nothing new in this part of the world – but this time the Jews took a stand.
Paryzh convinced the city council that missionaries like Jews for Jesus are provoking interethnic tensions, and persuaded the council to ban Jews for Jesus members from Minsk streets.
The episode in the Belarussian capital is just one example of the Lubavitch community’s increasingly active stance against the “messianic Jews” who have proliferated in the former Soviet Union during the past 15 years.
Chabad members have been following Jews for Jesus activists to cities in the region, disrupting their campaigns.
Chabad publishes counter-advertisements in newspapers, informs the local Jewish community of the events and calls on Russian Orthodox Church officials to speak out against the “messianic Jews” – with some success, in fact, because the church also has little stomach for Jews for Jesus.
Chabad members even try to convince local authorities to cancel the events.
In the most recent move, the Lubavitch sponsored a conference in Moscow on “The Missionary Threat and How to Struggle Against It.”
At the conference, Jewish leaders from across the former Soviet Union demonstrated rare unanimity, agreeing to establish a counter-missionary group called Magen – Hebrew for “shield” – to coordinate their activities. They also established an educational center to counteract the “messianic Jewish” threat.
“It is a real and serious danger. They are catching Jews who don’t know anything of their own culture and tradition,” said Roman Spector, the leader of a Russian Jewish umbrella group called the Va’ad.
Representatives of a variety of Jewish groups are participating in Magen, but the Lubavitch clearly are leading the fight – and they have a lot to combat.
The first Jews for Jesus began appearing in Moscow in the mid-1970s, without any substantial financial help from U.S.-based organizations.
Since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, the international movement of Jews for Jesus and other “messianic Jewish” groups have stepped up their efforts, pumping dollars into the former Soviet republics.
The situation is worrisome from the mainstream Jewish point of view, especially in Ukraine.
More than 1,000 Jews come to weekly Sabbath celebrations arranged by “messianic Jews” in Kiev, the Ukrainian capital, according to Alexander Lakshin, the Lubavitch coordinator of counter-missionary activities in the region.
The Ukrainian city of Berdichev is home to several thousand Jews, but half reportedly are members of “messianic Jewish” communities.
The messianic campaigns target younger Jews – apparently with some success.
More than 40 percent of the “messianic Jews” in Riga, Latvia, are between 16 and 25 years old, according to Jewish sources in Riga.
Jews for Jesus also has taken its campaign to the airwaves.
New programs aimed at Russian-speaking Jews, whom they call “the lost sheep of the House of Israel,” air each Saturday in Belarus and Ukraine.
Some of the programs feature Sid Roth, a well-known minister among “messianic Jews,” while other programs feature born-again Jews who tell how they have experienced the supernatural power of Jesus, or tell of healing experiences.
Jews living in Russia are not left out. The same programs have started to air on St. Petersburg TV, and soon are slated to air on one of Russia’s national TV channels.
During commemorations of the Soviet Union’s defeat of Nazi Germany in World War II, “messianic Jewish” groups published ads in newspapers equating it to Jesus’ victory over evil.
All this is pushing the Jewish community – and particularly the Lubavitch movement – to act.
“We can’t be silent anymore,” said Berel Lazar, the Lubavitch leader and one of Russia’s chief rabbis.