WEST PALM BEACH, Fla., Feb. 13 (JTA) The steeple at West Palm Beach’s First Baptist Church lit up like a beacon in the newly darkened sky, the doors kept invitingly open.
But for the 60 Jews gathered outside, the sight of such a disarmingly friendly setting only brought home the warnings about ‘messianic Jews’ they’d been bombarded with in recent weeks.
“Now we understand why we have to do something,” said Mike Salomon, 17. “We can’t just sit back and just let this go on.”
Salomon was objecting to last weekend’s conference that drew hundreds of “messianic Jews” and Southern Baptists to Palm Beach County.
Hosted by the Chosen People Ministries, the Feb. 8-Feb. 10 event, “To the Jew First in the New Millennium: A Three-Day Conference on Jewish Evangelism,” was designed to make Jewish evangelism a priority of the millennium, according to a flier. It featured testimonies from “messianics” about why they accepted Jesus.
“Messianic Jews” follow many of the basic tenets of Judaism, but accept Jesus as the messiah.
“The conference was designed to encourage and exhort the church to become a more active participant in the mandate of Romans 1:16, which states that the gospel message is ‘to the Jew first, and also to the gentile,’ ” said Chosen People Ministries President Mitch Glaser from the group’s New York City offices.
But it was a message that troubled local Jewish leaders, who worried that conference organizers were targeting them for conversion to Christianity. In recent weeks, Jewish groups have blitzed local high schools and community groups with presentations that take issue with the belief that people can be Jewish and accept Jesus as their messiah.
“It’s a spiritual Holocaust,” said Robin Isaacson, co-director of the Palm Beach branch of Torah Life & Living. “It is so wrong to believe that the New Testament is the logical continuation of the Old Testament.”
Jewish community leaders had agreed not to call more attention to the conference with massive protests and newspaper tirades. Instead, they staged the small demonstration Saturday outside the conference’s closing event, a concert and candlelight vigil for peace in the Middle East.
“We decided to leave the face-to-face encounter for the people who were trained, such as Torah Life & Living,” said William Rothschild, director of the Palm Beach office of the Anti-Defamation League. Boca Raton-based Torah Life & Living works to educate people about “messianic Jews,” cults and missionaries.
Outside the conference, Jewish protesters sang Jewish songs and passed out fliers that emphasized the differences between “messianic Jews” and Judaism.
Scattered throughout the group were more than 40 teen-agers who had spent the night at a Shabbat-long workshop at Temple Emanu-El in Palm Beach designed to combat the effects of the weekend-long conference. Isaacson said groups like Chosen People Ministries often prey upon teens for conversion, targeting an age group that can be fraught with confusion and pressure.
“It’s the pressure to succeed, plus a need for acceptance, that makes teens a key target for ‘messianic’ groups,” said Alexis Konigsberg, 16, a student at the Dreyfoos School of the Arts in West Palm Beach, adding that she knows “kids who have been to one of these services and they’ve gotten letters asking them back. They’re kids who I went to Jewish day school with and you’d never expect to be in this position, but they’re teen-agers and they’re vulnerable.”
At the shabbaton, members of Torah Life & Living held services, educational workshops and social gatherings.
Newly armed with information on “messianic” tactics, the teens then marched to a Havdalah service outside the conference site.
“We drew such a crowd that people came outside,” Isaacson said. “I think it made a difference.”
“We spoke to them and asked them to read our brochure, to call us and to make an educated decision,” she said.
Isaacson said it is not the message of Jesus but the “messianics’ ” way of wrapping him in a Jewish cloak that concerns her and other Jewish leaders. To her, the most disturbing part of the conference was its Jewish ambience.
Inside the church, speakers donned kipot, showed videos of Israel and referred to Jesus as “Yeshua,” the Hebrew word for salvation. The crowd danced and sang Hebrew songs, including Israel’s national anthem, Hatikvah.
“They basically talked as if they were proud Jews,” said Luis Fleischman, director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of the Jewish Federation of Palm Beach County. “They were offended that we called them non-Jews. They run their lives as regular Jews, participating in the JCC and feeling connected to Israel.”
Fleischman characterized the conference attendants as “naive” and the speakers as “shrewd and misleading.”
He said only Al Mohler, president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky., clearly explained that he was delivering a Christian message.
“Mohler’s discourse was Christian; he was clearly embracing gospel,” Fleischman said. “He was the only one with no ambiguity.”
But Chosen People’s Glaser insists that the conference was not designed to blur the line between Judaism and Christianity. He said participants simply wanted to share their belief that Jesus is the Jewish messiah.
“When I look at the news and see an Israeli motorist ambushed and two Palestinians killed in the West Bank, I am even more convinced that the world must know that true and lasting peace can only come when the world knows that Jesus is the messiah for all people Jews, Arabs and gentiles,” he said.
Konigsberg says she wasn’t fooled by the handshakes and warm words offered by the Chosen People Ministries staff.
“They’re not torturing people,” she said. “They’re going straight for their souls.”