As messianic faith grows in Israel, so does the opposition

The Philadelphia Inquirer/December 26, 1997
By Barbara Demick

RESHON LEZION, Israel—It was time for Mira Hudesman to come out of the closet. Years of sneaking I around and lying had to end. Hudesman was dreading the moment, but she could wait no longer to divulge a secret she knew would shock her traditional Israeli parents.

She tried to explain tactfully: You see, I'm still Jewish. I'm still your daughter. But it happens that I also believe that Jesus of Nazareth was the Messiah. 

Hudesman's father was outraged. He's a Polish Jew whose uncles grandparents and other relatives had been murdered by the Nazis. What about the Holocaust?, he demanded of his daughter. What about the Spanish Inquisition when so many Jews perished for their refusal to convert? 

Mira Hudesman, 24, counts herself among what might be Israel's loneliest minority. She and her fellow believers usually call themselves Messianic Jews, not Christians, pointedly holding on to their Jewishness even though they believe in Jesus, Yeshua [actually Hebrew word for salvation] as they call him in Hebrew [(note--this is a seemingly deliberate attempt to confuse the name of Jesus in Hebrew i.e. Yeshu, Yoshua, Yoshkah with a similar souunding word found in the Hebrew Scriptures commonly called the Old Testament)]. 

In Israel, there are 53 congregations of Messianic Jews [essentially "born-again" Evangelical Christians] with perhaps 5,000 members. But their numbers are growing rapidly—critics would say alarmingly—with the influx of Russian immigrants. 

A native-born Israeli, who grew up in a traditional and strictly kosher home, Hudesman discovered the messianic movement at age 18. She was an Israeli army medic and was 

given a leaflet at a mission house in Jaffa. Soon after, she began secretly reading the New Testament. She lives now with her parents in suburban Tel Aviv, caught between the tradition of her ancestors and her own faith. She still lights candles on Friday night for Shabbat. Saturdays, she goes to church. 

"It is OK now. They're not happy about it. My mother feels like I am not Jewish anymore. My father and I argue about religion all the time," Hudesman said as she gift-wrapped presents at a Hanukkah party Tuesday night for her congregation. "But they know there is no stopping me, and so they've made their peace."

In Rishon Lezion, the Messianic Jews meet in a discreet office tucked behind a bakery in an industrial park. They call it the Congregation of Grace and Truth, but it bears little resemblance to what most people would identify as a church. 

There is nary a crucifix or cross in sight; most Messianic Jews reject traditional Christianity and its symbols. There is no Christmas tree, no Christmas lights. Instead, there is a large menorah burning a single candle for the first night of Hanukkah and children playing with dredels, the spinning tops that are traditional gifts for the Jewish holiday. Some congregants wear Stars of David. The walls are plastered with quotes from the Old Testament in Hebrew, English and Russian.

"Of course, we are Jewish," laughs Baruch Maoz, the American born pastor of the Rishon Lezion congregation. Their belief is simply that Jesus is the Messiah whose coming was-prophesied in the Old Testament. They say this is no more outlandish than, for example, the Lubavitchers, many of whom believe that the late Rabbi Menachem Schneerson was the Messiah [a belief which has drawn sharp criticism from all branches of organized Judaism].

 "If there are Jews who believe that some rabbi from Brooklyn is the Messiah," Maoz asked, "why can't there be Jews who believe that Yeshua is the Messiah?"

 These are fighting words to many, if not most, Israelis. It is a central tenet of Judaism that the Messiah has not arrived. Although not exactly persecuted in Israel, the Messianic Jews are certainly unpopular. -- There have been sporadic incidents of violence directed at them, most recently last month when a congregation near Haifa waas firebombed. A bill pending before the Knesset would restrict the distribution of literature by the Messianic Jews, as well as by Christian evangelists.

 "They say they are Jewish? There is no such thing as a Jew who believes in Jesus. It is against all principles of Judaism," said Shlomo Benizri, a Knesset member from the religious Shas party. "Basically, if they are Christian, they shouldn't be here, and they shouldn't disguise themselves as something else."

 The primary dispute between the Israeli government and the Messianic Jews involves who is a Jew for the purpose of immigrating to Israel. Although Israel's law of return bestows citizenship rights to anyone who is Jewish or has a single Jewish grandparent, the Israeli Supreme Court has ruled twice, in 1989 and 1992, that Messianic Jews need not apply.

 "Through the eyes of the court, these people have chosen to cast themselves out of the Jewish religion and should not come under the law of return," said Malka San a lawyer for the Israeli Ministry of interior, which enforces the law. "Of course, they can come as tourists."

 In August, a couple from the Philadelphia suburbs were told a few days before their scheduled departure for Israel that they were being denied.

The couple, professionals in their 40s who agreed to be interviewed on the condition that their names not be used, said they had gathered proof of their Jewish ancestry for the Jewish agency, which handles immigration, and had been approved. They had sold their house in Overbrook Park, and they had quit their jobs. They were booked on a flight to Tel Aviv and about to pick up their visas when they were told. by the Jewish Agency: "We know who you are, and you are not Welcome in Israel under the law of return," according to the wife. "It was a terrible shock. We had been waiting and praying for years," the woman said. "We are fundamentally Zionistic, and we feel the Lord Himself wants us to return to Israel."

 The Messianic Jewish Alliance of America has its headquarters in Philadelphia, home to a large number of [so-called] Messianic Jews. Joel Chernoff; general secretary for the alliance said many Messianic Jews have been rejected for immigration. Israel is supposed to be a democratic country that espouses freedom of religion," Chernoff said. But until there is a fundamental change in Israel, the Messianic Jews feel they have to slink in as the refuseniks of modern-day Israel."

Paul Liberman, 51, a businessman who moved to Israel from San Diego six years ago, said that since the Likkud government was elected last year, the situation has gotten more difficult for [born-again Christians who consider themselves] Messianic Jews. "The screws are tightening month by month, year by year. The Minister of Interior has come to recognize that there are only about 3,000 Americans moving here a year. Usually they are Orthodox, or one of the family is Israeli. But if you are not wearing a beard or a kippot," Liberman said, "then they wonder if you're a Messianic Jew." 

"What is so crazy is that you can move to this country as a Jew if you believe in an [sic] Asian religion. There is no problem if you practice yoga [the practice of yoga is not always associated with a specific religious group or practice]. Nobody asks if you believe in God, but if you believe in Jesus," Liberman said. 

Despite official antipathy, the ranks of the Messianic Jews are swelling, mostly with Russians. Critics say newcomers are susceptible because they know so little about Judaism after 70 years of state-sponsored atheism. In addition, many of the Russian immigrants are from mixed Christian-Jewish marriages and find [so-called] Messianic Judaism a comfortable middle ground.

The congregation in Rishon Lezion is a melting pot of modern Israel: Ukrainians, Russians, Ethiopians, Americans, Israeli yuppies. There are several non-Jewish spouses of Jewish Israelis and even a few Christian Arabs, including one nurse who says she speaks better Hebrew than Arabic. "I'm a Palestinian. But also an Israeli citizen," said Nagowa Monyyer, 40. "Where else can I find a church with services in Hebrew?" 

Exact practices and terminology vary widely among congregations, even within Israel. Some observe kosher dietary rules; others don't. Although "Messianic Jew" is the most popular name, some people prefer Hebrew Christians or Jewish Christians. (They blanch at "Jews for Jesus," a California-based group known for its confrontational, missionary approach.) Some call their house of worship a "church"; others say "synagogue." Services are on Fridays or Saturdays, never on Sunday. The Jewish holidays described in the Scriptures are observed, rarely the Christian.

The homes of Messianic Jews look more or less the same as any other in Israel. In Gan Yavneh, south of Tel Aviv, Eitan and Orit Kashtan have a mezzuzah on the front door frame, two menorahs on the living room piano. Even as they host weekly readings of the Old and New Testaments in their home, they are preparing to bar mitzvah their oldest son.

"We are Christians because that is what be believe," said Eitan, 37, a computer programmer, "but we are Jewish because that is what we are born." Eitan was born in Jerusalem into a secular household, the child of atheists. Orit, 35, a sixth-generation Israeli and a jeweler, also grew up among atheists. The Kashtans adopted Messianic Judaism after Orit's father, a retired Israeli army general, developed an interest and moved to a missionary school in North Carolina.

"Growing up in Israel, people just listened to what the rabbis said. We didn't actually read the Bible or think for ourselves," Orit said. "But look how many Israelis are completely secular. They don't believe in God, and yet nobody questions that they are Jewish. It is in their blood, just like for us." [This raises the issue of racial stereotyping i.e. "Jewish blood"--actually Jews are from many racial backgrounds. Also--Jews are from many nationalities e.g. American Jews, Russian Jews etc.. Being Jewish is a religious belief-system. One can have a "Jewish background" and not necessarily be Jewish.]


The essential issue or argument with so-called "Messianic Jews" is their abuse of Jewish identity, which is historically without precedent. Certainly people with a Jewish background have the right to convert to the tenants of Evangelical Christianity. However, only recognized Jewish authorities have the right to determine the parameters of Jewish identity. Though there is some debate amongst Jewish denominations regarding the question--"Who is a Jew?" There is no debate concerning who a Jew is not. A Jew is not a convert to another specifically recognized thheological belief-system.  

The often organized efforts of fundamentalist and evangelical Christian groups to support not only the targeting of Jews for proselytizing, but also the redefining of Jewish identity through such groups as "Messianic Jews"--is often perceived as expression of ethnocentric religious intolerance and cryptic anti-Semitism.

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