All four major synagogue denominations are putting their weight behind an effort to counter an unprecedented missionary campaign by Jews for Jesus here this summer.
The movements say they’ll work to put out positive information about Judaism in the face of what they term as "spiritual deception" by the missionary group.
"This is a first," Rabbi Eric Stark, director of the Union of Reform Judaism’s Greater New York Council, said of the interdenominational education efforts. "Our feeling is that a strong and vibrant Jewish community is the best response to any of the missionary groups. As at any time of the year we encourage our members to strengthen their commitment to Judaism and Jewish life."
To culminate a five-year evangelical campaign next month, Jews for Jesus is gearing up for a massive outreach effort in the Metropolitan area.
"They have committed $22 million in five years and have pretty much kept up their schedule," said Scott Hillman of Jews for Judaism, a Baltimore anti-missionary group. "They have decided that this year in New York would be unprecedented, running nine campaigns at the same time at [a cost of] $3.1 million."
While it’s become a familiar ritual of summer to encounter Jews for Jesus missionaries handing out fliers on the sidewalks of Manhattan, in Russian-speaking areas like Brighton Beach and at events like the Salute to Israel Parade, this summer the missionary group expects to send thousands of volunteers to places like Yankee Stadium, malls in Westchester, beaches on Long Island and Jewish singles events in Queens, according to the group’s Web site. Of particular interest to the group are Russian immigrants and Israelis.
"If it’s summer in New York, then expect our Jews for Jesus staff and volunteers to be out on the streets, handing out colorful pamphlets and greeting seekers and skeptics alike," said David Brickner, executive director, Jews for Jesus, in an e-mailed statement Tuesday. "Only this summer, to paraphrase Leo Rosten, Jews for Jesus will have its annual evangelistic campaign, only more so." The goal is less to win people over immediately than to place a message in the Jewish consciousness, says Craig Miller, head of the Jewish Community Relations Council’s anti-missionary task force in New York.
"They are not out to get millions of converts," says Miller. "They are trying to educate, to convince a portion of the Jewish public that it’s legitimate and you can be more Jewish by accepting Jesus. Our response is to take an opportunity to Jewishly educate."
Rather than denounce the missionaries, Miller said the Jewish ad campaign would focus instead on positive messages. "We’re saying that Judaism is complete and that we are strengthened by identifying with Judaism. We’re not out to slam Christianity and this is not about Jews vs. Christians. This issue is about deception."
The JCRC anti-missionary group, known as the Task Force on Cults and Missionaries, has now been renamed the Spiritual Deception Prevention Project.
The Jews for Jesus effort here comes on the heels of the mailing of 80,000 DVD’s in heavily Orthodox areas in New York and New Jersey. Entitled "Days of Moshiach," the DVD was packaged to look like a Jewish production, critics say, with stories from the Torah, but contains messages about Jesus as messiah.
According to the Jews for Jesus Web site, the worldwide Behold Your God campaign launched five years ago has succeeded in making 50,000 "contacts," including 13,640 Jews.
For its New York campaign this summer, the group will aim its familiar colorful pamphlets and youthful emissaries at beaches, malls, baseball games, Jewish singles groups and Yankee games, as well as sponsor billboards and newspaper ads, the Web site says.
Specific outreach efforts will be aimed at Russian-speaking Jews and Israelis. "For the first time in our history, an Israeli, Hebrew speaking team of Jews for Jesus will campaign among the 200,000 Israelis living in New York," the Web site says. That will include Hebrew pamphlets, music concerts, surveys and a special Israeli Web site as well as Hebrew billboards and home visits.
An early flyer produced by the JCRC has the rare distinction of being emblazoned with the logos of the Jewish Reconstructionist Federation, the Orthodox Union, the Union for Reform Judaism and the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism (groups that rarely find common cause) as well as JCRC and the New York Board of Rabbis.
Titled "Many Jews, One Answer: Yes To Judaism," the pamphlet calls on Jews to learn Torah, connect with a synagogue, light Shabbat candles, give charity and do tikkun olam (actions designed to improve the world).
A similar ad is set to run in Jewish newspapers as well as community newspapers. Jews for Judiasm and the JCRC group will also recruit volunteers for counter-leafleting.