When Leonid Gorelik came out of the subway station at a downtown Moscow square during Chanukah, he was approached by two youngsters who asked if he was Jewish.
When he said yes, they handed him a flier.
“I thought the youngsters were just regular Chabadniks distributing information on Chanukah celebrations,” says Gorelik, 32.
The flier was indeed about Chanukah, but it was definitely not produced by Chabad-Lubavitch, a fervently Orthodox group that is leading the fight in the former Soviet Union against Christian missionaries.
The flyer explained that since Chanukah is a Festival of Lights and Christians consider Jesus to be the Divine Light, Chanukah should be considered Jesus’ festival and Jews should turn to him “to light up your heart with the light of the truth.”
It also invited Jews to take part in Chanukah and Sabbath celebrations and other events organized by “messianic Jews,” as these missionaries are known. The fliers suggested that attendees at such events might receive economic assistance.
Gorelik never took up the offer to attend.
But his experience is typical of what is happening across the former Soviet Union, where missionaries such as Jews for Jesus and other groups are proliferating.
The number of communities across the former Soviet Union where missionaries are active has doubled during the last four years, when they first being operating under then-Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev.
Eighty-two percent of Jewish communities in Ukraine — and 52 percent in Russia — have reported messianic Jewish activity.
In Belarus, messianic Jews forced into the shadows by legal restrictions have begun to operate in private apartments, imitating the Jewish underground of the 1970s and 1980s. The number of such groups in Minsk, Belarus’s capital, grew to 30 during the past year.
“They are acting like a computer virus, infiltrating the community,” Gorelik says.
Some 4,000 to 5,000 Jews come to weekly Sabbath celebrations arranged by messianic Jews in Kiev, the Ukrainian capital, according to local Jewish sources. In contrast, the combined attendance at “normal” Sabbath celebrations in the city’s four synagogues is 10 times less.
“The situation is worrisome,” says Alexander Lakshin, standing in his Moscow office against the background of a huge map of a former Soviet Union with small flags indicating where missionaries are active.
The flags are scattered from Belarus in the west to Siberia in the east — and grow denser in the south and northwest of Russia, in Ukraine and in Moldova.
Lakshin, 45, is the main countermissionary activist in the former Soviet Union.
Born in St. Petersburg, the mild-mannered academic emigrated to the United States in 1992. He returned to Russia with his wife and two children at the invitation of one of the country’s two chief rabbis, Berel Lazar, to fight missionary activity.
In May, Lakshin established, with the help of the Lubavitch, a group called Magen — Hebrew for “shield” — to coordinate anti-missionary activities throughout the former Soviet Union.
The group operates like an anti-missionary ambulance: When there is an appeal for help from a region where the messianics are increasing their activity, Magen offers immediate organizational, informational and legal assistance to local Jewish communities.
In December, for example, a rabbi from the Russian city of Perm said the messianics came to his synagogue and offered humanitarian help to people there — and a community leader from Yakutsk in Siberia asked for help after a messianic community was established in his city.
In both cases, Magen advised the communities not to accept any help from the missionaries, to gather the Jewish community and explain the groups’ real goals — converting Jews. The communities were also told to advise local Jews not to take part in any missionary activity.
In November, when appeals from Ukraine multiplied, Lakshin went to Kiev to establish a branch of the organization.
Given the usual fractiousness of Jews in the region, the result was a bit unexpected: Dozens of rabbis and Jewish officials representing most of Ukraine’s major Jewish organizations established an all-Ukrainian Magen League.
In addition, the group issued a stern warning to Jews that “people who systematically participate in the events organized by the missionaries” would be denied any help from the Jewish communities.
The conference also called on the Israeli Embassy in Kiev to deny these people the right to make aliyah under the Law of Return, which guarantees immediate Israeli citizenship to anybody with at least one Jewish grandparent.
According to Ukrainian Jewish activists, these statements are a necessary reaction in Ukraine, where in some cities half of the local Jews reportedly participate in messianic Jewish activities.
Last December, Magen members went to Kishinev, the capital of Moldova, where missionaries reportedly have established themselves in virtually every region.
Despite his group’s efforts, Lakshin is pessimistic, in part because of a lack of money.
The combined annual budget of Jews for Jesus and Hear, O Israel — the two main messianic Jewish bodies operating in the former Soviet Union — total millions of dollars and is comparable to the budgets spent in the region by such major Jewish organizations as the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee and the Federation of Jewish Communities.
Magen’s annual funding comes from a private sponsor and doesn’t exceed $100,000 for the entire region, according to Lakshin. Organized Jewish groups have unified behind the cause, but have not provided much money for the effort, he said.
“We are probably fighting an uphill battle,” he added.
Though underfunded and understaffed, the anti-messianics have in Russia a strong ally — the Russian Orthodox Church, which in many places means de facto state support.
“We are viewing the so-called messianic Jewish organizations as sects, which means we are definitely against them,” Father Vsevolod Chaplin, a Moscow-based church official, told JTA.
In fact, bans on missionary activity that are in place in several cities in the region have proved effective.
But the most powerful source of support for the anti-missionary fighters is the near-unanimous backing a wide range of Jewish groups are giving the effort.
“We strongly oppose the missionaries’ activities and believe they must be countered in all possible ways,” said Joel Golovensky, the head of the Moscow office of the JDC.
The Archive of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency includes articles published from 1923 to 2008. Archive stories reflect the journalistic standards and practices of the time they were published.