A Church for Jews

Presbyterian project dismays Jewish leaders

Knight Ridder Newspapers/October 25, 2003
By David O'Reilly

Philadelphia -- A bronze baptismal font glowed in the morning light of Congregation Avodat Yisrael's stained-glass window.

But Andrew Sparks, spiritual leader of the fledgling congregation in Plymouth Meeting, Pa., did not want it in his photograph.

"It wouldn't express us," Sparks said as he pulled the font away from the window and out of the picture.

Yet baptism is a part of the picture at Congregation Avodat Yisrael -- along with communion, salvation and Jesus.

So, too, are the Torah, the menorah, Abraham, Moses, and Yom Kippur.

Avodat Yisrael, which opened its doors in September, is a Presbyterian church, the only one of its kind in the country established and funded by the Presbyterian Church (USA).

It calls itself a "Messianic congregation," and its leader, Sparks, an ordained Presbyterian minister, answers to both "Pastor" and "Rabbi."

But Philadelphia's Jewish community leaders, and some Presbyterian clergy, are dismayed that the prominent Protestant denomination is wooing Jews.

"We are not happy about Jews being targets for conversion," Burt Siegel, executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Philadelphia, said in a telephone interview.

Siegel called the denomination's decision to create a Messianic congregation an "error of judgment," adding, "We would hope they would not continue funding it."

The Presbytery of Philadelphia, the church's regional governing body, says it is committed to Avodat Yisrael and has no plans to withdraw support. A meeting recently with Siegel at presbytery offices did not change the plans.

Last year, the presbytery pledged $145,000 to support the congregation for five years, and rejected two efforts by some on the presbytery to overturn that commitment.

The Pennsylvania Synod pledged $75,000, and the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (USA) pledged $125,000.

These days, scholars say, missions to Jews are limited to evangelical Christians, particularly the Southern Baptists and Assemblies of God. A handful of Messianic congregations are active in the Philadelphia area, but they are independent and freestanding.

Avodat Yisrael, Sparks said, is not "going out and trying to get people to leave Judaism." The target audience, he says, is Christian-Jewish couples and secular Jews.

"We're hoping it will be a positive atmosphere for Jewish people to explore Jesus," Sparks, 33, said.

The baptismal font, he explained, belongs to the Church on the Mall, a Presbyterian church that has been in Plymouth Meeting Mall since 1966. His congregation will share the offices and sanctuary, and hold its services on Saturdays.

Modeled on Reform Judaism, services will be conducted mostly in English, with scripture readings from a Torah scroll as well as the New Testament.

Soft-spoken and reserved, Sparks resents the Jewish community's efforts to make Avodat Yisrael go away.

Creating a Messianic congregation "was a dream of mine for many years," he said, and he was delighted by the Philadelphia presbytery's openness when he first presented the idea in 2000.

Sparks was raised a Conservative Jew in Ellenville, N.Y., in the Catskills, but grew interested in the belief that Jesus is the Messiah promised in Jewish scripture when a relative became a Messianic Jew.

Fear of disappearing

Carol Harris-Shapiro, a professor of Jewish studies at Gratz College and author of a 1999 book, "Messianic Judaism," thinks Sparks and others in the Presbyterian community have failed to appreciate that "there is a real fear (among Jews) of proselytization, because there is a fear of our disappearing."

She noted that a major demographic survey released recently showed that nearly half of all American Jews now marry non-Jews, and that the Jewish population in the United States had fallen by about 5 percent during the past decade.

To see more documents/articles regarding this group/organization/subject click here.