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Missionary Group Tours East Coast; Next Stop, Philadelphia
Perhaps that's why on Aug. 26, a group of Christians with broad, almost plastic-looking smiles, staked out positions on the promenade adjacent to the harbor road and waved to the passing traffic.
The six orange-clad men and women were not your run-of-the-mill missionaries: As indicated by their shirts and the banners they carried - one with the group's phone number, 1-800-MESSIAH - they represented Jews for Jesus.
It's a scene that has members of Philadelphia's Jewish community on edge. When the group wraps up its Baltimore visit in little more than a week, their contingent will head up Interstate 95 for a three-week stay in town.
The rumblings reach even farther than the area's five major counties.
"Jews cannot believe in J.C. and remain Jewish," said Mark Powers, a Harrisburg-based anti-missionary activist, purposely not pronouncing the name of Jesus Christ. As the American director of Magen, an organization that specializes in anti-missionary outreach in the former Soviet Union, Powers is lobbying the Philadelphia community to take up a tough stand against Jews for Jesus.
"There are some communities that feel you shouldn't give them the publicity, because it's just going to make people curious. There are communities who feel we need to fight them tooth and nail," said Powers. "What we have seen, though, is that ignoring them does not make them go away. If we sit back and let them have free reign, we lose members of our community."
'We're Here to Inform People'
According to its Web site, trained Jews for Jesus missionaries will arrive here on Sept. 9, bringing with them a campaign of door-to-door visits, telephone calls, mass mailings, street-corner handouts, a gospel-music concert geared to college students and a Russian-language video aimed at Northeast Philadelphia's Jewish population.
The Baltimore visit and the stop here are part of the organization's "Behold Your God" project, which seeks to establish a presence in cities worldwide with Jewish populations of more than 25,000.
Stephen Katz, director of the organization's office in Washington, D.C. - and one of those handing out pamphlets to passers-by in Baltimore - said that he and his volunteers are simply trying to give people some information.
"We're here to inform Jewish people of Jesus' claims to be our messiah," said Katz, 49, who added that he was raised in a Conservative Jewish home in Chicago, but was attracted to Christianity in college. "People can decide for themselves. We're here because we think there are Jews who want to know."
One man who clearly did not want to know was Dr. Hillel Grossman, a father of five who brought his family down from northern New Jersey to see Baltimore's sights.
Katz, who was wearing an orange shirt emblazoned with the words "Jews for Jesus," tried to hand Grossman a brochure encouraging the recipient to accept Jesus as the atonement for his sin; the Bergen County resident threw the pamphlet on the ground.
As he was walking away, Grossman explained that it was Katz's insistence that really got him steamed.
"I think they're highly offensive," said Grossman. "In this country, it's wonderful they believe what they want to believe, but any time they want to impose their beliefs, the underlying statement is that you're not entitled to your own belief."
He added that he felt that Katz waited until he was busy fetching a bottle for his baby daughter to step in and make his pitch.
"They wait for someone with a kipah," said Grossman, who was, in fact, wearing one, and who described himself as Orthodox. "I would not have thrown it back if he didn't push it in my face."
Other Activities on the Agenda
Jews for Jesus' activities in Baltimore have not been limited to simple literature distribution. According to Scott Hillman, executive director of Jews for Judaism, which is based in the Maryland state capital, evangelists have been going door to door in Jewish neighborhoods. In some cases, he said, they have deviated from their stated rule that its members always wear a Jews for Jesus shirt while on the job.
Fliers that showed up in Jewish families' mailboxes feature a picture of a purported Holocaust survivor named Marion Parkhurst who came to believe in Jesus after arriving in the United States following World War II.
Above Parkhurst's piercing eyes are the words, "Before you dismiss my belief … ." On the other side, the advertisement for Jews for Jesus' "Survivor Stories" video continues, " … you should hear my story."
Rabbi Joseph Menashe, director of Johns Hopkins University Hillel, said that the campus had not experienced any missionary activity since the beginning of the Jews for Jesus campaign - which runs from Aug. 21 to Sept. 10 - but that he expected them to show up some time this week.
On Monday, Jews for Jesus members were staffing a booth at the Maryland State Fair.
Burt Siegel, director of community relations for the Jewish Community Relations Council of the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia, said that he's expecting anything and everything in anticipation of the Jews for Jesus stop here. The JCRC and the local chapter of the Anti-Defamation League sent out letters last week to area rabbis and educators warning of the impending visit.
"Most 'Jews for Jesus' can 'talk the talk' of Jewish practice, professing to be fellow Jews who are simply following another path," stated the letter. "Such claims can be particularly effective with Jews who do not have a strong understanding of Judaism, especially immigrants from the former Soviet Union, who were cut off from their Jewish heritage and Jewish religious beliefs.
"Also, young people have proven to be susceptible to the group's message," the letter continued.
Siegel said last week that the community was satisfied with the letter, and that notifying Jewish leaders would be enough to counter the coming contingent.
ADL associate director Nancy Baron-Baer likewise said that nothing would be done on a visible level to deal with Jews for Jesus. Above all, she said, no one would be confronting them.
"There's no reason to get into a discussion," she said. "They believe what they believe. We believe what we believe."
Siegel added that he advised people to ignore them.
"These people are trained to make people feel comfortable - to make people think it's a Jewish conversation going on," he continued. "These people are better at debating these types of things than we are. They also want as much attention as possible."
Powers, who used to work as a co-director of Jews for Judaism with Hillman, vehemently disagreed.
"I have been in touch with several rabbis around the community, and we're holding a meeting on Wednesday to see what collectively we can do, whether it's providing information in Russian to the Russian Jews, or holding meetings at different venues," said Powers, who in his 27 years of anti-missionary work has led countless seminars and town meetings in cities across the United States.
"I don't believe that there is a Jewish community anywhere that is large enough that can afford the loss of one member, and certainly not if you're going to say that that one member is a member of your family," he added, before posing a question. "How would you feel?"
Rabbi Howard Alpert, executive director of Hillel of Greater Philadelphia, which is based at the University of Pennsylvania, said that his organization is ready for missionary activities, which may include a gospel concert a stone's throw from Penn's campus. He reported that some weeks ago, Hillel's staffers had a retreat where they discussed various tactics for approaching Jews for Jesus, and became familiar with their own literature that they plan to distribute.
"We see it as an opportunity for us to have Jewish conversations with Jewish students who might otherwise not enter into those conversations with us," said Alpert. "We've spoken with Hillel professionals at cities across the country, and they report it has not precipitated a crisis among Jewish students. It has peaked their curiosity in some cases - not about Christianity, but about Judaism."
The rabbi added that he was scheduled to have a meeting with JCRC and ADL representatives, along with a representative from the American Jewish Committee, on Wednesday.
"Hillel knows we're not alone on this," he said. "So we're working with our partners."
Turning back to his expectations, Alpert, who also oversees Hillel's work at Swarthmore College, Bryn Mawr College, Haverford College, Drexel University and Temple University, predicted that "the Jewish response will be a big yawn."
"In the cases it does raise questions, we see these as opportunities to have conversations," he went on. "It could begin in many different ways: It might be initiated by students; more likely it'll be initiated by our staff. But our staff will talk about Judaism and why Judaism does not believe in the need for Jesus as the messiah."
Katz said he's ready for conversations of his own.
"We've seen 10 Jewish people acknowledge Jesus as their messiah in Baltimore," he said. "We're not going for the edges of the Jewish community. We're going right into the religious communities."
But at a time when many might be inclined to point their fingers at Jews for Jesus, Rabbi Levi Kaplan, a Chabad Lubavitch rabbi in Baltimore, said that if the group is successful at all, the blame would fall squarely on the shoulders of the Jewish community.
"The Gemara says the mouth is not the thief, the hole is the thief," he said. "The only reason they have an opening is because we haven't educated the Jewish community."
Kaplan said that the emphasis should be on strengthening Jewish identity not only during a Jews for Jesus campaign, but throughout the entire year.
"The fighting and the creating of this whole alarm is not the answer or the solution," he continued. "The education we have today is weaker. The culture we have is weaker. Unless we confront it, all the yelling in the world won't help. We should point the finger at us." u