New Lakeland Congregation Made Up of Jews Who Accept Jesus as Messiah

The Ledger/March 20, 2004
By Cary McMullen

At first glance, it appears like the service at a traditional Jewish synagogue.

Men are wearing kippas and tallits -- skullcaps and vests with long fringes -- and soon after the start of the service, a Torah with a colorful embroidered cover is taken from the cabinet known as an ark and paraded around the room. Men take a corner of their tallits, touch the Torah as it passes then touch their lips in a traditional gesture of respect.

You begin to get the idea something is different when the traditional Jewish Sabbath prayer includes the words, "Blessed are you for you have sanctified us by thy word and given us Yeshua the Messiah . . ."

Welcome to Shoresh David, a Messianic Jewish congregation that recently began meeting in Lakeland. A fairly recent phenomenon on the religious scene, Messianic Judaism consists of Jews who have accepted Jesus -- whom they call by the Hebrew name of Yeshua -- as Messiah yet still want to preserve their Jewish traditions.

It is a movement that has drawn passionate resistance from Jews, who consider it apostasy, and it does not have universal acceptance from Christians. Yet Messianic Jews say they are practicing an authentic faith that takes the best of both worlds.

"When I came to faith, I remember I didn't want to give up my Jewishness. I was born and raised and will die a Jew, but that doesn't prevent me from believing in Yeshua," said Frank Poley, who has been appointed rabbi of Shoresh David. "I'm able to maintain everything I had growing up, with every bit of the same feeling. I haven't given up anything, and I've gained so much."

Shoresh David (the name means "root of David" in Hebrew) is a branch of a Tampa congregation of the same name. The Lakeland branch held its first worship service on March 5, meeting in the youth center of Southside Assembly of God. Like traditional Jewish congregations, it observes the Sabbath from Friday evening to Saturday evening.

A recent Friday evening service drew about 60 people, some dressed in suits and dresses, others casually in jeans and polo shirts. A dozen students from Southeastern College, the Assemblies of God school, were present. Typically, about 50 percent of those who attend are Christians, Poley said, either the spouses of Jews or simply Christians who are interested in probing the Jewish roots of the faith. The remainder are Jews who are either committed to Messianic Judaism or curious about it. Although mostly patterned after the traditional Jewish prayer service, there are elements borrowed from Christian worship. A young woman offers an extemporaneous prayer, beginning with "Heavenly Father" and ending "in Yeshua's name." An extended set of praise and worship songs are sung in Hebrew and English as worshipers raise their hands in Pentecostal fashion. Dancers circle in the manner of Israeli folk dance. There are readings from the Torah and from the New Testament.

One of the families present was Dean and Cynthia Spitzer of Lakeland. Each was raised in a traditional Jewish home but began attending churches as young adults.

"I became quite Gentile. That's usually what happens. When you become Christian, you give up your Jewishness. I knew church wasn't the place for a Jewish person. Most Jewish believers right now have been assimilated," said Dean Spitzer, 56, a consultant for IBM.

The Spitzers tried attending Temple Emanuel, the Conservative Jewish synagogue in Lakeland, hiding their identities as Messianic Jews from all but a few close friends, but they were dissatisfied with that also. They began attending Messianic Jewish congregations in Orlando and Tampa. It is a way of maintaining their Jewish identity, Spitzer said.

Messianic Judaism emerged in the 1970s in the wake of the Jesus movement, said Steve Weiler, rabbi of Shoresh David in Tampa. The most famous Messianic Jewish group, Jews for Jesus, began in 1973 and the Messianic Jewish Alliance of America, with which Shoresh David is affiliated, started the following year. There are about 250 to 300 Messianic Jewish congregations in the country now, Weiler said.

Weiler has been rabbi of the Tampa congregation for five years. It was his idea to start the Lakeland branch and chose Poley to lead it.

Poley, 62, was raised by his grandparents, who were observant Orthodox Jews. Later, he moved to Conservative Judaism but began attending churches after he married a Methodist and accepted Christ. The Poleys attended a Methodist church in Plant City, but Frank Poley still struggled with how to reconcile his upbringing with his beliefs. He learned about Shoresh David in Tampa and attended.

"I was back where I belonged. From that day, I had new life and new acceptance," he said.

Messianic Jews have to walk a fine line between Jewish and Christian traditions. The Spitzers practice as observant Jews, celebrating Passover but not Christmas or Easter, holidays that Spitzer terms "pagan" in origin.

"We celebrate the resurrection of the Lord and the birth of the Lord but not the holidays with all the trappings of the church," he said.

Such views do not please some Christians, Weiler said.

"They say, `Why are you starting something new when we have all these churches? It's raising a wall of partition.' We've chosen to believe Yeshua is the Messiah, but we don't feel God wants us to assimilate," Weiler said.

Assimilation is not the problem, it's apostasy, said Scott Hillman, director of the Baltimore office of Jews for Judaism, a nationwide organization that educates Jews about their traditions, in part to combat Messianic Jewish groups.

"Don't call them Jewish. For the last 2,000 years, anyone who accepted Jesus is a Christian. . . . One issue the entire Jewish community agrees on is that they have joined another faith system. They've taken Protestant evangelical Christianity and dressed it up in Jewish clothes," Hillman said.

Proselytizing is a sensitive issue for Hillman and other observant Jews. Poley freely acknowledges that he hopes to persuade Jews in Polk County to believe as he does.

Rabbi Eddie Fox of Temple Emanuel said Messianic Jewish groups use deception to attract Jews who may not be very observant.

"They're very clever. They invite Jews to their services, and they have typical Jewish food and music, but they are definitely going to stress you don't have to give up being Jewish and you get a plus -- Christianity. It's like being a little bit pregnant," he said.

Like Hillman, Fox said that Jews need to be better educated.

"These organizations would not be around if there were no reason. Our brothers and sisters are just not knowledgeable. (But) we can't let our people be trod on. We have to have an answer," he said.

So rancorous are relations between Messianic and traditional Jews, Weiler and Poley said, they are regularly called traitors to their faith.

"Usually, we're asked, `How can you be Jewish and believe in Jesus?' My response is, `How can you not be?' " Weiler said. "We believe the scriptures are pretty clear about who Yeshua is."

At Shoresh David, the worship proceeds, with traditional Jewish affirmations like the Shema followed later by a collection, something done in churches but not synagogues. Weiler said Messianic Judaism is recovering the situation of the first-century followers of Jesus.

"Two thousand years ago, that was the question -- do we let Gentiles in?" Weiler said. "It's ironic the question is now asked the other way."

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