CARY, N.C. (JTA) – The Shabbat morning service at Congregation Sha’arei Shalom in this suburb of Raleigh has a familiar feel to anyone who grew up in a mainstream American synagogue.
Sixty adults and a handful of children have gathered in a sanctuary adorned with seven-branched menorahs and an Israeli flag. Many of the men wear yarmulkes and tallitot; the women are dressy but not ostentatious.
After morning prayers and a silent Amidah, a congregational leader opens a small ark and removes a Torah scroll. He holds it aloft as the room fills with the familiar chanting of the “Shema” and “Echad Eloheinu.”
Before the Torah procession begins, the worshipers recite an additional prayer in Hebrew: “Yeshua hu ha-Mashiach hu adon hakol,” meaning “Jesus, He is the Messiah, and He is Lord over all.”
Sha’arei Shalom, which meets in a Southern Baptist church, is part of the burgeoning phenomenon: Messianic “synagogues” that blend Jewish liturgy with a Christian message.
In the 1970s, no more than a handful of these congregations existed throughout the United States. Now there are more than 300 nationwide – the Association of Messianic Congregations says 438 – plus another 100 in Israel.
Congregations are found across the former Soviet Union and in countries as diverse as Argentina, the Netherlands and Zambia. Last fall, 1,000 people attended a fund-raiser for a new Messianic center in Berlin launched by the Chosen People Ministries and aimed at reaching Russian immigrants.
Many of these congregations sponsor Torah studies, b’nai mitzvot, klezmer concerts, kosher food pantries, Shabbat dinners, singles gatherings and Hebrew schools. They encourage Jewish-born members to maintain their identities and participate in events sponsored by the larger Jewish community. They call Jesus by the Hebrew name “Yeshua,” and the New Testament “B’rit Chadashah.” They welcome interfaith couples.
The goal, movement leaders say, is to create an atmosphere where Jews feel more receptive to a Christ-centered theology.
“A lot more people are coming to faith in Yeshua through Messianic congregations than ever would through street evangelism,” says Mitch Glaser, president of the New York-based Chosen People Ministries. “It not only brings Jewish people face to face with the message, but it brings them heart to heart with people who have been impacted by the message.”
Evangelists call this “contextualization,” presenting the Gospel in a cultural format that welcomes potential converts. In Muslim countries, Christian missionaries sometimes fast during Ramadan, prostrate themselves during prayer and refer to their churches as “Jesus mosques.”
Though it is not a new strategy, missionaries have used contextualization with increasing skill and subtlety. To Jewish watchdogs this goes beyond old-fashioned “witnessing,” or sharing of faith. They say it smacks of fraud: the use of familiar practices and symbols to lure people away from their faith.
“This is Jewish identity theft,” says Scott Hillman, former executive director of Jews for Judaism, a Baltimore-based organization that tracks missionary efforts. “What kind of witness is it for what you believe to be true if you have to use deception to sell it?”
Hillman says he does not oppose evangelizing per se, as long practitioners are upfront about their Christianity.
“But the moment you put up a sign saying ‘Yeshua’s the Messiah; fulfill your Judaism,’ that’s when I have a problem,” he says.
Most mainstream Jews believe that Christianity and Judaism are mutually exclusive, no matter what evangelists claim.
“Belief in Jesus as the Messiah places you outside the Jewish community’s self-definition,” says Lawrence Schiffman, chair of Hebrew and Judaic studies at New York University. “That is a fact.”
The theological differences between Judaism and Christianity are deeper and more complex than the issue of Jesus’ messiahship. For instance, Judaism says God forgives repentant sinners; Christianity describes an irreparable breach that could have been bridged only by Jesus’ death.
Judaism has the righteous of all nations as being saved; Christianity says heaven is reserved exclusively for those who recognize Jesus as Messiah. When the two religions diverge, Messianic Jews tend to side with Christians.
This is no accident. The Messianic movement is rooted in evangelical Christianity. Even today, many Messianic congregations are aligned with conservative Protestant denominations. The Southern Baptist Convention, Assemblies of God, Seventh-day Adventists, International Church of Foursquare Gospel, Evangelical Church of America, Lutheran Church Missouri Synod and Presbyterian Church in America all sponsor Messianic congregations.
Ray Gannon, who directs Jewish outreach for the Assemblies of God, says his denomination initially tried to assimilate converts from Judaism without much success.
“It became clear to us that we would not be able to plant our new Jewish believers in established churches because of cultural differences,” he says. “They’d say, ‘We’re Jews, and we want our children and grandchildren to be Jews. We want to have bar mitzvahs.’ ”
Today, Gannon says, “We’re not interested in filling our churches with Jewish people. We’re interested in enabling Jewish people to enjoy the best things of Jewish life while at the same time entering a real relationship with God.”
One of Gannon’s converts, Esther Rosenberg, was suffering from a painful spinal disease in the 1970s when in desperation she attended an Assemblies of God church. Receiving her attendance card, Gannon contacted her and invited her to a Torah study at a Jewish-Christian home.
It was at that study, Rosenberg claims, that her symptoms lifted.
“I felt the ‘ruach Elohim,’ I felt the Spirit of God, come upon me,” she says. “It was a big thing, a big tzimmis. For the first time I could sit in a chair for more than 10 minutes without excruciating pain.”
Now affiliated with a Foursquare Gospel church, the 78-year-old Rosenberg also attends two Messianic congregations, “so I don’t lose my Yiddishkeit. I was not intending to be a goy, a shiksa, because I had accepted my Messiah.”
Over the past two years, some Messianic leaders have questioned whether their movement is too aligned with evangelicals. The opening volley came in 2005 when theologian Mark Kinzer published a book called “Post-Missionary Messianic Judaism,” arguing that accepting Christ does not release a Jew from certain religious obligations such as keeping kosher and observing Shabbat.
Kinzer is president of the Messianic Jewish Theological Institute, which is based in Clermont, Fla., and is building a campus in Los Angeles. He believes that congregations have an obligation to preserve those practices — not as a form of “contextualized” Christianity but rather as what he calls an authentic Judaism.
“God’s covenant with Israel necessitates a certain way of life,” he says. “It’s not an option. Any message that alienates Jews from Judaism is not the Gospel. You haven’t saved a Jewish soul.”
Kinzer agrees that Messianic Jews are “summoned” to share their faith, albeit in a manner sensitive to the long legacy of Christian anti-Semitism. Unlike many of his peers, Kinzer does not necessarily believe salvation is at stake.
“I’m less confident of the negative spiritual status of the wider Jewish world,” he says. “I’m willing to believe there are many Jewish people who are right with God.”
Kinzer has a core of supporters, but he remains in a minority. Loren Jacobs, a self-described evangelical Protestant who serves as senior rabbi at Congregation Shema Yisrael in Bloomfield Hills, Mich., calls Kinzer a “heretic” for suggesting, among other things, that mainstream Jews might have a place in heaven.
Even some Messianic moderates say Kinzer’s ideas sound too much like “interfaith dialogue,” in which proselytizing is sacrificed for peaceful relations.
“I can agree to give up the word ‘missionary.’ It provokes intense dislike among most Jews,” writes retired economist David Stern in the journal Kesher, published by the Union of Messianic Jewish Congregations. “Nevertheless, the New Testament’s Great Commission commands us to go into all the world and make disciples. Failure to do so is the worst form of anti-Semitism.”
Michael L. Brown, a prolific speaker on the evangelism circuit, says Messianic congregations serve one primary purpose.
“We’re not here to recover our Jewishness,” says Brown, president of ICN Ministries in Harrisburg, N.C. “We’re not here to teach Christians how to recover their Jewish roots. We’re here to send a message to the Jewish community about Jesus.”
Brown believes that this congregational approach produces more “lasting fruit” than missionary blitzes like Jews for Jesus’ 53-city “Behold Your God” campaign, which ended in the summer of 2006.
Some Messianic congregations do perform street evangelism. At Shema Yisrael, members distribute brochures at art fairs and the local Thanksgiving parade. Most take a more intimate approach, urging members to bring friends to Shabbat services and social gatherings.
“The best way of telling other people about Jesus is through our web of personal relationships,” says Glaser of the Chosen People Ministries. When Jews attend congregational events and come away touched, he says, “it’s more powerful than trying to disseminate forensic or provable truth.”
Smart programming helps, too. On New York’s Long Island, Melech Yisrael Messianic Synagogue used the 2006 movie “The Da Vinci Code” to attract prospective members from the surrounding Jewish community.
Before the film’s opening, Melech Yisrael sponsored a four-week discussion group that culminated in a screening and dinner.
During one meeting “we read samples from the Gnostic Gospels,” congregation leader Kiel Cooper wrote in a recent issue of Kesher. “Several people then asked if we could read a Gospel from the Bible to see what it had to say. When was the last time a Jewish person asked you to read Matthew with them?”
Members of Sha’arei Shalom insist their goal is not to proselytize. Still, the North Carolina congregation was founded by Chosen People Ministries, a group zealously devoted to winning Jews to Christ.
“Every Messianic congregation needs to do proclamation and outreach,” says Glaser, the organization’s president. “It’s a biblical command. It’s not elective.”
That perspective is reflected in Sha’arei Shalom’s guest preachers. One frequent speaker has been Seth Postell, a doctoral student at Golden Gate Baptist Theological Seminary in Mill Valley, Calif.
A former Jews for Jesus street campaigner, Postell also did missionary work in Israel for nine years, and says he received a criminal citation there for distributing copies of the New Testament on a beach. He returned to Israel in June to lead a nine-day trip featuring “prayer walking and beach evangelism.”
To watchdog groups, preachers like Postell confirm the impossibility of separating Messianic congregations from more traditional missions such as Jews for Jesus.
“Even if they aren’t constantly proselytizing to their friends and neighbors, they’re still hearing that message about how we need to support those who spread the Gospel,” says Hillman, the former Jews for Judaism director.
On a windy day last fall, members of Sha’arei Shalom listened to a message about the importance of evangelism from Michael H. Brown, pastor of Adat Y’shua Ha Adon, a congregation in Woodland Hills, Calif.
Using the New Testament as his reference, Brown cast Noah, using the Hebrew name Noach, as an early evangelist preaching righteousness to his neighbors as he built the ark.
“It’s very clear from the Scripture that Noach wasn’t just working by himself,” says Brown, who is not related to the ICN Ministries’ Michael L. Brown. “There were people coming up to him saying, ‘What in the world are you doing?’ And he was witnessing to people for maybe up to 120 years.”
Likewise, Brown says, Messianic believers are called to proclaim their faith, particularly to Jews.
“I wonder what ark God is wanting you to build in your life,” he says. “Could it be to witness to some co-worker or some family member?”
Brown acknowledges this is difficult work: “Noach didn’t have any converts for 120 years.”
That, he says, doesn’t lessen the imperative.
“We need to be a verbal witness to people around us,” he explains. “I’m not saying shove it down their throat. I’m not saying beat them over the head with it. But people need to know where we stand.”