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Missionaries Set Messianic Sights on Russian Jews in Germany

December 29, 2006
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It seemed like a perfect Chanukah gift — hundreds of Hebrew-Russian Bibles for new Jewish immigrants to Germany. But Rabbi Chaim Rozwaski was not so gullible. “This man calls up and wants to supply us with Bibles,” Rozwaski, one of Berlin’s main rabbis, told JTA. “I said, ‘Before I take anything I want to see what it is.’ “

Sure enough, a few days before Christmas, this “gentleman and a nice lady” arrived at the Pestalozzistrasse Synagogue bearing Russian editions of the King James Bible.

“I told them no,” Rozwaski said. But “that is their mission in life. And they are not going to be deterred by one man.”

Germany’s mainstream Catholic and Protestant organizations have tried to stop the missionaries. Both bodies officially reject proselytizing aimed at Jews, in light of the Holocaust. For them it’s more important to build good interfaith relations than to suggest that Jews are somehow incomplete.

Nevertheless, Germany has become an important frontier in the work of Christian missionaries who target Jews. They particularly direct their efforts at Russian Jewish immigrants, often exploiting their lack of Jewish education and their instability or loneliness as new arrivals.

The missionary groups’ main message is clear: Jews can believe in Jesus and remain Jewish. It’s a teaching that goes against Jewish tradition and is rejected by all mainstream Jewish denominations.

Yet for some Jews, the temptation is real.

Larissa was a successful doctor in Berlin with a young daughter. Her world fell apart when her husband left her.

“I was in bad shape,” says Larissa, not her real name. Then, “a Jewish friend who is married to a Christian, she listened to my problems and said, ‘Come with me to my synagogue. It’s really nice. Bring your child.’ “

So Larissa went.

“The rebbetzin, she was such a beautiful girl and was such a good singer. And the rabbi himself was nice, and everything was in Russian,” said Larissa, whose parents emigrated from the former Soviet Union. “The people started telling me their stories one after another, and they were all interested in me. All of them were immigrants, there were Jews and non-Jews, but they were at least all related to a Jew by marriage.

“But they never said it wasn’t a Jewish thing. Everything was the same, the songs, the prayers. Everything was the same — except that Jesus is the Moshiach,” or messiah.

Recently the congregation she visited, Beit Sar Shalom, took a step forward in its mission. Supported by the U.S.-based Chosen People Ministries, Beit Sar Shalom opened a new messianic center in Berlin.

In October, some 1,000 supporters, some wearing kipot and tallitot, attended a fund-raiser for the new center at a Berlin church.

They swayed with arms raised as a Torah was brought down from the altar. While a band played, the congregation sang along with the words projected on a screen: Hebrew prayers and songs spiked with the name of Jesus.

Red velvet collection bags were passed around so guests could help pay off the mortgage of the new messianic center, which will offer classes for children, a resource center for people of all ages — and a sanctuary with Torahs.

To start, the aim is to get Jews to bring their children to music and art classes, Vladimir Pikman said. Pikman, 37, Beit Sar Shalom’s spiritual leader, spoke to the crowd from the altar, a cross and an Israeli flag behind him.

Those who attend such programs form a bridge to the rest of the Jewish community, said Pikman, who comes from a Jewish family in Ukraine and recently finished his training at the Dallas Theological Seminary in Texas.

Pikman, who has a winning smile and a gift for putting people at ease, recalls how a friend convinced him that he could believe in Jesus and still be a Jew. It was a hard sell, but by 1995 he and his bride, Inna, were married in a messianic congregation in Kiev, a branch of the Chosen People Ministries. Eventually he would become a founding member of Beit Sar Shalom in Berlin.

There are about 2,000 “Jewish believers” in Germany, “about the same as in Israel,” Pikman said.

Outreach can take many forms.

“Sometimes we go out in the streets, or people have conversations, we use the media, like Russian newspapers, and we try to get people on our mailing lists,” Pikman said.

“But the best way in Germany is the friendship way, through relatives and friends. Jewish people in Germany are bound in a sort of network It’s not just a strategy,” he added. “It’s what we love to do.”

One small problem: Pikman’s own parents aren’t convinced. They still wish he had become an economist. And Pikman worries about them being saved.

Beit Sar Shalom is one of many outposts around the world trying to deliver what they consider to be the truth about the Messiah. It also tries to clear the way for fulfillment of prophecies in what Mitch Glaser, president of the Chosen People Ministries, calls the “Brit Chadasha,” or New Testament.

Speaking during a pause at the recent Berlin fund-raiser, Glaser, born a Jew in Brooklyn, said signs point to the imminent coming of the Messiah: the return of Jews to Israel, and the threat of war and destruction.

“Don’t be frightened, trust God,” he told JTA.

“I have watched this ministry grow for the last 10 years plus,” Glaser added. “It is really marvelous to see that there is no separation in the minds of these Russian Jewish Germans, no separation between being Jewish and believing in Jesus.”

That’s exactly the problem, say leaders of Germany’s Jewish community. Many former Soviet Jews, who immigrate in search of a better life economically, have little or no knowledge of their Jewish roots.

Germany’s Jewish population has quadrupled since the fall of the Berlin Wall, to more than 120,000. The Jewish communities can’t always meet the needs of the newcomers. Many are stressed, some are lonely, some have trouble adjusting.

Some say Jewish communities must do more to meet the needs of these people.

“The answer is to be more attractive than the others,” said Anat Bleiberg, head of the Jewish community of Berlin’s social work office. “Look at Chabad: They make themselves attractive and they get lots of members.”

Stephan Kramer, general secretary of the Central Council of Jews in Germany, agrees.

“If Jewish communities are not attractive enough to keep people inside the community, neither a law nor any movement will help,” he said in a recent interview. And if the messianic groups are finding lonely people, “Why are they left alone? Why are the Jewish members of the community not helping each other?”

Leaders of Germany’s mainstream churches “have assured us that they try to avoid” missions targeting Jews, Kalmanowicz said. In 1999, the German Protestant Church and the Central Council of Jews in Germany issued a statement that if Russian-speaking Jews came to Protestant churches, they would be referred to the Jewish community.

But that hasn’t stopped the missionaries.

The experience at Berlin’s Beit Ohr egalitarian synagogue may be typical. From time to time, “someone will find a missionary leaflet in a Shabbat prayer book during services,” said Aharon Tahtinen, Beit Ohr’s gabbai.

“Then, a new person came to services who was very nice, and they said, ‘I’m not a Jew, but I want to pray.’ And then when they knew everyone, they started carefully to spread their message.”

Such guests never come back once they are discovered, Tahtinen said.

“One woman said to her, ‘Yes, this is a thesis of Messianic Jews, but it has nothing to do with Judaism.’ And the woman disappeared.”

It’s not just the new immigrants who are vulnerable, he said.

“In many families after the Nazi period, there was a total rejection of religion,” Tahtinen said. The children and grandchildren of survivors often are cut off from their Jewish roots.

In Germany, missionaries also appropriate the Holocaust in their arguments. A priest once told Glaser that God was giving Germans a second chance “to please God by loving the Jewish people instead of destroying the Jewish people.”

But constant outreach is “a kind of religious stalking,” says Superintendent Andreas Conzendorf of the Protestant community in the eastern German city of Chemnitz.

“If one repeatedly approaches saying ‘I love you,’ the problem becomes a burden,” said Conzendorf, who recently took flak from some in his congregation when he refused to offer communal space to a messianic group.

“I said, ‘I cannot and will not take part in that because it hurts and irritates the Jewish community,’ ” he said. “I cannot forget that the Jewish people from Chemnitz lost everything, in an indescribable way. We cannot return their lives, their property; everything was destroyed. And Christians were involved, and also witnessed it. So when it comes to [sharing Christianity], I am reserved. I would not stand in front of a synagogue and advertise.”

Meanwhile, Peter Ambros, vice chairman of the Jewish community of Chemnitz, visited the local messianic congregation to see if it was a real threat.

“My personal impression is, if people are impressed by it, they’re not savable,” he said. “They were already lost to the Jewish community before they were even a part of it.”

Lina — not her real name — is one of those.

“I have almost no one in my family,” she said during a pause in a recent service. “My husband and my son are both dead. Here I found rescue for my loneliness.”

In Russia, “we had no religion. It was forbidden. I saw the Bible for the first time here,” she said. “A Jewish friend told me I should not come here, but for me, this belief is the real belief.”

Georgi (not his real name) found the congregation through an ad in a Russian newspaper. He was depressed; his wife had left him, and his father had died. He now attends two or three times a week.

“Before, I was an atheist, and now I’m a member, and I’m happier,” he said.

Larissa went only once.

“When they sing, it’s very nice. But I was very cautious,” she said. “My parents always said to me, ‘You are a Jew, you are a Jew.’ …And it doesn’t matter what anybody else tells me.”

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