On the morning of August 12, 2015, residents of a predominately Jewish neighborhood in San Antonio, Texas awoke to swastikas, Ku Klux Klan and other anti-Semitic graffiti spray-painted on their cars and homes.
At the epicenter of the rampage sits Congregation Rodfei Sholom, an Orthodox synagogue that is the spiritual home for over 300 families, led by Rabbi Aryeh Scheinberg. When news of the anti-Semitic vandalism surfaced, the rabbi immediately received a visit from one of his closest friends.
“As soon as I heard this had happened,” recalled Pastor John Hagee, “my wife and I came down immediately to express our solidarity with the rabbi, with his congregation and the Jewish community of San Antonio. I want to say to all of the Christians in America, we stand with the Jewish people. An attack against this synagogue is an attack against Christians everywhere. We are united.”
A world-renowned Evangelical pastor, Hagee’s telecasts on Global Evangelism Television reach over 150 million homes in the United States. These days, Hagee may be equally well known for his support of Israel and the Jewish people.
Nearly ten years ago, Hagee founded Christian United For Israel. Today, CUFI is the largest pro-Israel organization in the world with over 2.5 million members. But without Rabbi Scheinberg, there would never have been a CUFI and nearly $100 million raised to help the people of Israel.
Last month I sat down with Pastor Hagee and Rabbi Scheinberg in San Antonio. Before I left Chicago, one rabbi told me, “I don’t trust him,” and another warned me to “be careful with Hagee.”
Sitting with the pastor, the rabbi, and CUFI Communications Director Ari Morgenstern, the love and joy in the room were undeniable. Exchanging beaming smiles that lit up the room, Hagee and Scheinberg greet each other and embrace with a hug that could break a rib.
The pastor and rabbi first met in 1981. At the time, Hagee approached the Jewish Federation in San Antonio about his desire to host a Night to Honor Israel.
“The Jewish community was vetting me out of concerns about my agenda,” Hagee explained.
Following Hagee’s initial conversations with the Federation, Scheinberg met the pastor and was “convinced that it was worthwhile to give this person an opportunity. I told the Federation that I was very impressed with the pastor and we should give his idea a shot. At that point I think the community was ready to participate in a Night to Honor Israel.”
I asked how CUFI’s work would be impacted today if Scheinberg hadn’t given his blessing to Hagee’s idea.
“There would never have been a Night to Honor Israel or a Christians United For Israel that now has over 2.5 million members. And if we hadn’t been successful in that first meeting, $95 million for humanitarian causes would never have been donated to Israel,” said Hagee.
Rabbi Scheinberg quickly jumped in after the pastor’s comments, determined to make it clear that his faith, “G-d’s plan for us,” is what brought these men together. “In Jewish thought, we believe that you connect with people with your heart and soul and then your mind kicks in to process that relationship. When I met Pastor, it wasn’t me saying let’s give it a chance—There was something about him. I knew we were going places—I felt it. When I went back to the Federation it wasn’t just to recommend that we give it a try. I told them that this person was going to do something wonderful for our people.”
I asked Scheinberg if the first phone call from Pastor Hagee was bashert, the Yiddish term for divine providence. “I think it was,” he said. “G-d has a plan for all of us.”
After that first Night to Honor Israel, Rabbi Scheinberg began accompanying the pastor and his congregation on trips to Israel.
“We’d take about five or six hundred people each time. At night at the hotel, Rabbi teaches. And then on the Sabbath, minus the microphone, he walks the audience and teaches,” said Hagee. “My favorite thing with the rabbi in Israel is going to the Western Wall. We’ve had some wonderful prayer time there together, and I knew G-d was listening.”
Scheinberg started going to Israel with the pastor almost 30 years ago. “Some of our most memorable trips were during the intifadas when the pastor went, 500 to 600-strong. Jewish groups weren’t going as regularly as before, but there was Pastor leading, as we marched together. And the Israeli people were so appreciative because of the decline in tourism.”
It was at this moment that eyes began welling up with tears as Ari Morgenstern recounted a more recent trip to Israel. “There is a moment when the rabbi and pastor are walking arm in arm with hundreds behind them in the streets of Jerusalem, and a shopkeeper comes down, he’s in tears, and he throws rose petals! You couldn’t have painted a more pristine picture.”
Hagee’s motives have been questioned ever since his first outreach to the Jewish community nearly 35 years ago. Detractors of Christian support for Israel would perhaps sing a different tune if they understood the acts of loving-kindness flowing from this relationship.
“When we started construction on our current building, times were good,” said Rabbi Scheinberg. “Then there was a downturn. Pastor came to me and said, ‘I’m going to give you a donation’ – which was half a million dollars. This allowed us to move forward with our building.”
Realizing that his support may be regarded as “controversial,” Hagee reassured Scheinberg that “this can be just between the two of us,” recalls Scheinberg. “This was one time I did not listen to Pastor because I recognized the historic consequence of that moment. More than just a donation, it was a sign for all to see that it was part of a movement – a reconciliation of love between Christians and Jews. That is what Pastor is all about.”
Pastor Hagee’s work supporting Israel and the Jewish people has at times been met with contempt and mistrust. He describes the beginning of his pro-Israel work as “a constant barrage of religious artillery designed to obliterate everything I was trying to do.” Receiving grief from both sides, Christians would ask him impatiently, “When are you going to convert the Jewish people?” And Jews wanted to know when Hagee was going to try and convert them.
He laughs when he recalls the “razor’s edge” he had to walk for well over a year. “To this day, there are Christians who will not participate in a Night to Honor Israel event because we are very vocal about treating the Jewish people with mutual respect when they come to an event to honor Israel and we do not target Jews for conversion. And there are people who just will not tolerate you if you don’t do that.”
Scheinberg remembered the call he got from Hagee’s wife, Diana, asking him to pray for them. At the time, Rev. Jerry Falwell was “going after” the pastor for not targeting Jews for conversion. In his national newsletter, Falwell actually accused Hagee of being a “heretic.”
Years later, when Hagee explained to Falwell “the Biblical basis for what I was doing, he became reconciled that it was properly motivated, and immediately said, ‘I want to help you.’ “
Falwell would eventually become a CUFI board member and “to his dying day was a strong supporter of what we were doing.”
Rabbi Scheinberg acknowledged that not all Jews would be ready to embrace “the altruistic love.” But each year, as people have come to know Pastor Hagee, fewer and fewer rabbis and Federation directors have needed convincing that there isn’t a “hidden agenda.”
Hagee knows he will always have detractors. “After CUFI’s 34 years of Nights to Honor Israel, our 2.5 million members ready to stand up, speak up, and stand with Israel, having raised tens of millions of dollars for Israel, and you don’t think we are sincere, there is no common ground.”
Hagee has learned to grow a thick skin over the years. He has withstood threats against his life, a bomb scare at that first Night to Honor Israel, and his car windows being shot out.
Rabbi Scheinberg is convinced that G-d placed him in San Antonio to be part of something special. Giving Pastor Hagee all the credit for being the visionary of their work together, Rabbi Scheinberg believes “to the depth of my soul that Pastor has been touched by the hand of G-d.”
Paul Miller is president and executive director of the news and public policy group Haym Salomon Center.