Jewish Leaders Question New Church's Jewish Slant

Associated Press/October 4, 2003
By Michael Rubinkam

Plymouth Meeting, Pa. -- A new congregation with a cantor and readings from the Torah opened in this Philadelphia suburb for the High Holy Days -- but it was a church for Messianic Jews established by the Presbyterian Church (USA), and it has Jewish leaders upset.

The congregation is the first of its kind to be set up by the Presbyterians, and experts say it is a highly unusual step these days for a mainline Protestant denomination. Jewish groups see the church as an attempt to evangelize them.

Congregation Avodat Yisrael held its first worship service last Saturday on Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, combining Jewish worship and Jewish cultural traditions with faith in Jesus. It drew about 110 worshipers. The congregation is preparing for Yom Kippur services tomorrow and Monday.

"We would hope to recognize the ancient Jewish heritage, going back to Moses and Abraham," said Andrew Sparks, the congregation's spiritual leader.

Sparks, 33, an ordained Presbyterian minister who was raised Jewish, said he came to discover Messianic Judaism in his late teens and twenties and wanted to start a congregation in the Philadelphia area, home to one of the nation's largest Jewish populations.

The Presbytery of Philadelphia has pledged $145,000 to support Congregation Avodat Yisrael for five years, while the Pennsylvania Synod kicked in $75,000 and the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (USA) promised $125,000.

The Rev. Joe Smalls, director of the Office of Theology and Worship for the denomination, the largest and generally most liberal of the Presbyterian churches, said it refrains from direct evangelization of Jews. At the same time, he said, "it's not unreasonable to say that Jews who come to Christian faith would want to have a congregation in which their Jewishness would continue to be a full part of their Christian life."

Philadelphia area Jewish leaders are disgruntled about the congregation and the Presbyterians' financial support, expressing their concern at a recent meeting with church officials.

"The Jewish community is never happy when there are evangelical efforts that target the Jewish community, but when it is done in such a way that creates the myth that a believer in Jesus Christ can be Jewish, it's deceptive," said Burt Siegel, executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Philadelphia.

Yaakov Ariel, a University of North Carolina religion professor, called Congregation Avodat Yisrael a "new development" because Presbyterians have been reluctant to target Jews for conversion.

Most Christian denominations, including Presbyterians, abandoned direct proselytizing of Jews in the 1960s in favor of interfaith dialogue, Ariel said, although evangelical Christians such as the Assemblies of God and Southern Baptists continue to do so.

"Jews have traditionally seen attempts to evangelize them as disrespectful toward their individuality, their right to choose and maintain their tradition," said Ariel, author of "Evangelizing the Chosen People: Missions to the Jews in America, 1880-2000."

Congregation Avodat Yisrael, he said, "shows a change or break from the very reconciliatory atmosphere that prevailed" in the Presbyterian Church.

Sparks said the congregation does not intend to evangelize but to provide a welcoming place for Jews who have already accepted Jesus as their savior and for those who are curious. Also expected, he said, are couples in which one spouse is Jewish and the other Christian.

"We're not engaged in conversionary tactics or proselytization," he said. "We seek to exist as a community like any other religious community, raise our children, worship God."

Congregation Avodat Yisrael shares office and sanctuary space with the Church on the Mall, a Presbyterian congregation housed inside the Plymouth Meeting Mall. But Avodat Yisrael's services are held Saturday, the Jewish Sabbath, and have a distinctly Jewish flavor.

For instance, there is a cantor; readings from the Torah and New Testament, in Hebrew and in English; an ark to hold the Torah scroll; and Jewish choral music.

The Church on the Mall's baptismal font is put away during worship services because baptismal fonts have historically been associated with the forced conversion of Jews to Christianity, Sparks said. Likewise, the cross will not be part of Congregation Avodat Yisrael, he said.

But there's no getting around the fact that the service isn't Jewish, and its children -- at a time of declining Jewish numbers in the United States -- won't be brought up in the faith, Siegel said.

"How is the Presbyterian church going to provide an authentic Jewish education?" Siegel asked. It's not possible "any more than I could claim to provide an authentic Christian education."

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