The smell of fried latkes permeates Darrin and Sharon Speck’s two-story townhouse in this Washington suburb. It’s the second night of Chanukah, and the couple have gathered some friends and neighbors to celebrate.
Three-dimensional Stars of David dangle over the entrance to a living room scattered with chocolate gelt. Small children, including two of their own, crawl around and babble.
The only incongruous element is the Marty Goetz CD. The Jewish-born former Catskills singer found Jesus in 1978, and now his rendition of “Ma’oz Tzur” blends seamlessly into “Hark, the Herald Angels Sing.” Otherwise there are few cues in the room that the Specks are Christian.
With the music playing quietly, a dozen people gather around the menorah.
“Baruch atah Adonai – ” begins one of their friends, a tall man in his 30s with a dark, bushy mustache. He recites the traditional blessings in Hebrew and English, then lights the candles and carefully replaces the shamash.
“B’shem Yeshua HaMashiach,” he concludes in an improvised flourish, using a Hebrew phrase that means “in the name of Jesus the Messiah.”
The Specks are part-time staffers at Chosen People Ministries, an international organization dedicated to bringing Jews to Christ. They practice “friendship” or “relational” evangelism: trying to win converts by building intimate connections with neighbors, friends and clients.
Relational evangelism is a time-consuming process that often involves personal conversations followed by invitations to a church or religious-themed event — in the case of the Specks, their annual Passover seders and Purim and Chanukah parties.
Practitioners are less likely to interact on a street corner and more apt to invite potential converts to their homes. They are also more likely to be effective, Jewish and Christian experts say.
Darrin Speck, a 30-year-old remodeling contractor from a blue-collar family in Canton, Ohio, welcomes the guests into his home. Blue eyed and small framed, he has a firm bear hug and a strong jaw that frames a gap-toothed smile.
Speck projects an utter absence of guile: During months of interviews with JTA, he answered scores of personal questions at length, never seeming to measure his words. He and Sharon, who works with him, can hold down their end of a conversation on Talmud, holiday rituals or modern Israeli history. Both deplore the confrontational tactics of street evangelists. They call themselves “postmodern missionaries.”
“The reason we like to celebrate Chanukah, as believers in Jesus, is because there wouldn’t be a Christmas without Chanukah,” Darrin says to his friends. “Throughout history, people have wanted to wipe out the Jewish people — just look at Iran in our day. If the Jewish people in the world were wiped out, there would be no Jesus. And if there was no Jesus, there would be no savior of the world.”
Soon the adults have settled into a serious game of dreidel. Even within a missions movement that is gravitating toward relational evangelism, the Specks’ approach is particularly gentle.
“I’m not out to offend people,” Darrin says. “I want people to enter a dialogue and think for themselves whether or not Jesus is the Messiah. I can give you an argument, but that doesn’t mean anyone’s going to buy it. People need to search it out on their own.”
Darrin Speck was floundering at Chicago’s Moody Bible Institute when he took his first Jewish studies course in 1999. A machinist who had quit his job making plastic injection molds, he had enrolled at Moody in the hopes of doing international missionary work.
“When you go to Bible college, you go all on fire and excited. Then you start to study things purely in terms of academics. You parse it, you slice it in a million pieces," he says, adding later that "you can tend to lose sight of people.”
Discouraged by the abstract approach, he considered quitting.
Jewish studies “revolutionized my life,” Darrin says. Moody is one of the key training grounds for Christian missionaries who want to proselytize to Jews. One course, for example, offers “practical techniques for culturally sensitive Jewish evangelism.”
Moody also provides short-term training for Jews for Jesus volunteers and teaches its students the Jewish roots of Christianity.
“My faith made sense when I understood Jesus wasn’t a blond, blue-eyed boy,” Darrin says. “Jesus was this Jewish guy from the House of David.”
Around this time he befriended Sharon, a Chicago-area native with a soft, round face and long blond hair. Sharon had studied mathematics at Illinois State University before a calling to ministry led her to Moody.
During her junior year, she had landed a summer internship in Vladivostok, Russia, where she led Bible-study sessions for college-age adults. This, in turn, helped spark her interest in Chicago’s Russian Jewish community, where she interviewed Orthodox women and attended her first seder.
The couple married in 2001. The next year, Chosen People Ministries hired them to reach young adults around Washington, D.C. They have since moved to nearby Fairfax.
They were given wide latitude about how to do their work, and from the outset they decided that street evangelism Jews for Jesus-style would be a losing approach.
“In the ’70s, people were confrontational,” says Sharon, who is as reserved as her husband is ebullient. “You hand them a crazy cartoon and they’ll argue about it. Walking down a street corner, I don’t even take a coupon, let alone something spiritual. I’m on my way somewhere; I don’t want to stop and talk, let alone to a stranger.
"The ’70s was a unique period, and it’s not going to be re-created here today with the postmodern generation.”
Instead they figured that busy Washington professionals most craved human contact. So they hosted Shabbat dinners at their apartment, hoping to build friendships with Jews, which in turn would allow them to talk about their beliefs.
“We call it a village, especially in an area where everyone is single and working crazy 70, 80 hours a week,” Sharon says. “You have a place where you can have deep friendships and relationships, a place where you feel safe and comfortable, in the midst of a big city.”
Likewise, in the service of fostering community, they help organize “Simcha,” a four-day retreat in Carlisle, Pa., featuring Messianic worship and Shabbat ritual. This year’s retreat, held over Memorial Day weekend, featured a keynote speech by Michael Rydelnik, a Moody professor who helped inspire Darrin’s studies.
Jewish leaders find this relational approach no less offensive than street encounters.
“One is the harder sell, one is the soft sell, but they’re both trying to sell you a false set of goods,” says Scott Hillman, former executive director of Jews for Judaism, a two-decade-old organization that was established as a response to the efforts of those who target Jews for conversion..
By claiming that believers in Jesus can remain Jewish, Hillman says, friendship evangelists are just as deceptive as their more aggressive peers.
The Specks insist that they are not trying to deceive but rather to reach out to those who already are spiritually curious.
“I think evangelism should happen on the basis of trust: You’re my friend because you’re my friend, not because I have any other agenda,” Sharon says. “I’ll share with you my spiritual journey as you share with me yours. It’s in that trust relationship that you can talk about those things and not feel that you’re being forced to change or go somewhere you don’t want to go.”
One of the Specks’ Shabbat guests was 32-year-old David Schauder, who grew up with a Jewish father and a non-Jewish mother. By Orthodox or Conservative standards, he would not be considered Jewish unless he converted.
“My dad would stress the cultural history of being Jewish,” he says. “But since we knew nothing of the actual religion, we were very weak in terms of identification.”
As a software engineer, Schauder says, “I believed in critical analysis,” but it left little room for faith. Nonetheless, in 2004, he accepted a friend’s invitation to attend a Shabbat dinner.
Schauder came away moved by the Specks’ hospitality.
“I was amazed how open and willing to talk about their faith they were,” he says. “It was an opportunity for me to examine the stereotypes I had about organized religion.”
Schauder returned for more dinners and, with the Specks’ subtle encouragement, started researching his own Jewish heritage. Last year he married Nicole Tigno, a devout Catholic. The couple now study the Old Testament with the Specks, using an English translation from the Jewish Publication Society.
Darrin is leery of Nicole’s Catholicism, with its veneration of the Virgin Mary, but feels grateful that she has helped warm her husband to Jesus.
Over time, Schauder has found his skepticism waning. He attends Mass with his wife, and the couple pray together at home.
Whether he will become Christian remains an open question.
“I still feel like a beginner,” he says. “Even though I have my doubts, I think my faith is increasing. But I don’t know what that faith is.”
Schauder is the closest the Specks can claim to success. That’s not unusual: Missionaries do not win over many Jews.
Jews for Jesus last year wrapped up a 53-city campaign, called Behold Your God, targeting major Jewish population centers throughout the world. Representatives handed out 16 million broadsides, mailed Yiddish DVDs to Orthodox households and trained members of large evangelical churches. They set up kiosks in shopping centers and bought advertising in New York’s subway system.
According to the organization’s own statistics, a total of 1,227 Jews declared their faith in Jesus as a result of the five-year effort.
“If this were a corporate thing, they would have been shut down by now,” says Rabbi Gary Greenebaum, U.S. director of interreligious affairs for the American Jewish Committee.
Missionaries insist these low numbers don’t faze them, saying theirs isn’t a numbers game.
“It’s wonderful when a message falls on receptive ears,” says Susan Perlman, a co-founder of Jews for Jesus. “But what is important in terms of my own responsibility is that I am being faithful to get that message out in as broad and clear a way as I can.”
To appreciate why missionaries persist, it helps to understand Premillennial Dispensationalism, a 170-year-old theology drawn from the New Testament book of Revelations and embraced by many — but not all — evangelicals.
Popularized by John Nelson Darby, a 19th-century Anglo-Irish evangelist, it holds that the world as it now exists will end with the Rapture — the wholesale ascension of Christians to heaven — followed by seven years of war and natural disasters known as the Tribulation. During this period, 144,000 Jews are supposed to accept Christ and work as his earthly emissaries.
Dispensationalists believe that the Tribulation will pave the way for Christ’s Second Coming to earth, followed by his peaceful 1,000-year, or “millennial,” rule. Those Jews who have not converted will be relegated to hell.
Dispensationalism entered U.S. culture through the Scofield Reference Bible, first published in Great Britain in 1909.
“If you grew up inside the Protestant fundamentalist evangelical subculture, it seems like the most reasonable thing in the world,” says William Trollinger, a religious historian at the University of Dayton. “If you look from the outside, it looks bizarre.”
The Specks acknowledge that the scenario sounds peculiar, but they believe it nonetheless.
Dispensationalists view modern Israel’s creation as a sign that the Rapture is imminent. They also believe Christians have a role in this drama by seeking Jewish converts.
“Jesus will not return to Jerusalem to set up his Kingdom until his people — my people — welcome him back,” says Michael L. Brown, president of ICN Ministries in Harrisburg, N.C.
That does not mean wholesale conversions are necessary, Trollinger says. Missionaries believe they only lead prospective converts to a certain point, and the final push comes from God. That’s why they stress action rather than results.
“Evangelicals are very good at counting souls saved, but I don’t think, when it comes to Jews, that’s so crucial,” the historian says. “It’s more crucial that the effort be made.”
Lon Solomon, pastor of McLean Bible Church in Vienna, Va., and a board member of Jews for Jesus, frequently underscores this point during his sermons and lectures.
A Jewish-born reformed drug dealer, Solomon now leads a $90 million megachurch frequented by well-known Republican politicians, including former special prosecutor Ken Starr, U.S. Sens. James Inhofe (R-Okla.) and John Thune (R-S.D.), and former Commerce Secretary Don Evans.
In 2002, President Bush appointed Solomon to his Committee for People with Intellectual Disabilities, where the minister served four years.
“The Bible says that we’re going to share Jesus Christ with 144,000 Jewish people who are not going to come to Christ right now,” Solomon said at the Dallas Theological Seminary in October 2006. “They’re going to become the preachers of the Gospels and the representatives of Christ during the Tribulation period. And for all you know, you may be sharing with one of those folks.
“And, friends,” Solomon continued, “even if they’re not one of those folks, when we share Jesus Christ with Jewish people, we have done our duty by giving them the opportunity to hear the truth. What they do with it, that’s their business. But it’s our duty to share.”
For Darrin Speck, Jewish resistance is just part of the daily challenge.
“God called lots of people to do things, even in the Bible, that seemed totally futile,” he says. All he can do, Speck says, is obey God’s calling.
“It’s OK, I’m not a Billy Graham mass crusader," he says. "I believe God will take care of the numbers.”