Tuesday, August 10, 2004

Dozens of evangelists with Jews for Jesus will hit the streets of Washington starting next week for a monthlong campaign at Metro stops, downtown areas and college campuses aimed at the Washington area’s 215,000 Jews.

More than 600 people took an evangelism-training course last month at the 10,000-member McLean Bible Church to prepare for the “Behold Your God” campaign. The blitz also will involve radio and newspaper ads.

“We want to make the messiahship of Jesus an unavoidable issue to Jewish people in the Washington area,” said Stephen Katz, Washington director of Jews for Jesus. “We want to ask them: Is He our Messiah or not?”

Jewish leaders are retaliating with counterevangelism workshops and countermissionary efforts on downtown streets, college campuses and Jewish nursing homes.

“The best defense against Jews for Jesus is education,” said Ron Halber, executive director of the Jewish Community Council of Greater Washington. “What they are preaching is certainly not Judaism and certainly not Christianity.”

The “Behold Your God” campaign in Washington, part of a five-year effort to reach 66 cities around the world — each with a Jewish population of more than 25,000, runs Aug. 18 to Sept. 18. It will overlap the High Holy Days, the holiest part of the Jewish year beginning Sept. 15.

It also will be the largest evangelistic effort in Washington in the 31-year history of the San Francisco-based Jews for Jesus, targeting the nation’s sixth-largest Jewish community.

“It’s high time our people take an objective look at whether Jesus is the Messiah,” Mr. Katz said. “They usually ignore the issue or just believe what their rabbi says. We say, ‘Talk with us. There’s a real discussion here. There’s a family feud. There’s been one for 2,000 years.’ ”

McLean Bible Church, home to 150 to 200 Jews who have converted to Christianity, will be the hub of the evangelistic effort. Seventy-five of these converted Jews attended an evangelistic workshop in the spring to prepare for the campaign, said senior pastor the Rev. Lon Solomon, who grew up in a Conservative Jewish household.

“My goal is 1 million pieces of literature handed out in four weeks,” Mr. Solomon said. “I’d like to see 500 Jews and Gentiles alike pray and ask Jesus into their life.”

“I love doing this,” said Mr. Solomon, the former chaplain of Jews for Jesus’ yearly evangelism campaigns in New York and a veteran street evangelist. “There’s never been anything like this in Washington.”

Ten other churches, including several local congregations of “Messianic” Jews who have converted to Christianity, will contact potential believers reached by the campaign. Three board members of Jews for Jesus, including Mr. Solomon, will be part of the campaign, but the organization is not releasing information on where it plans to hand out literature.

“A prominent representative of a Jewish organization asked me as to where we will be leafleting,” Mr. Katz said. “‘Isn’t that public record?’ he asked me. I told him that I knew from past experience that groups like his will disrupt our efforts. I said, ‘Can you promise me that you won’t disrupt our efforts?’ He admitted they are still planning to.”

A series of counterevangelism meetings is scheduled for Aug. 16 at the Jewish Community Center (JCC) of Northern Virginia in Fairfax, Aug. 17 at the JCC of Greater Washington in Rockville and Aug. 23 at the JCC in the District.

“Jews for Jesus are more an annoyance than a threat,” Mr. Halber said. “In other cities, they have been a stimulus to get more Jews involved in the Jewish community.”

Even so, the Baltimore-based countermissionary organization Jews for Judaism is training local Jewish leaders to prepare for what Washington Jewish Week is calling the “evangelical attack.”

Scott Hillman, executive director of Jews for Judaism, says his organization has shut down several Jews for Jesus campaigns.

“These people are telling the Jewish community what it means to be Jewish,” he said. “When you dress up fundamentalist evangelicals in Jewish clothing and tell them this is Judaism, we find that problematic.”

“These aggressive and deceptive tactics demonstrate a lack of religious tolerance and respect,” said Rabbi David Bernstein, director of the Washington office of the American Jewish Committee. “Jews for Jesus uses what we consider deceptive practices: Jewish garb and symbols to attract Jews into a different religion.”

Mr. Katz responded that evangelists on the street will be wearing bright-colored T-shirts with slogans such as “Jews for Jesus,” “Jews and others for Jesus” or “Jews and Gentiles for Jesus.”

“We’re accused of being deceptive, but we always identify ourselves on our shirts,” he said. “It can’t get more straightforward than that.”

Rabbi Stuart Weinblatt of Congregation B’nai Tzedek in Potomac said some mainstream Protestant groups are sympathetic to their cause. He cited a meeting last week between local Jewish and Presbyterian leaders over a vote at the national assembly of the Presbyterian Church USA (PCUSA) that approved a Presbyterian-sponsored Messianic congregation in Philadelphia.

“Our goal is to get Christian groups to condemn these practices,” he said.

Several Christian denominations have issued statements criticizing evangelism of Jews, including the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America, the United Church of Christ and the PCUSA, which said in 1988 that Jews have their own covenant with God. In 1996, Pope John Paul II said Jews shouldn’t be targeted for conversion.

In 1987, the Interfaith Conference of Metropolitan Washington condemned proselytizing of Jews by Christians.

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