I have proudly attended Jewish/Israeli Festivals in Los Angeles for almost 30 years.
What I witnessed this year was unprecedented.
Dozens of missionaries descended on – or invaded – the Celebrate Israel Festival in ways that I never thought possible.
Based on the number of complaints I received, three major groups disrupted the event for many of the attendees and their children.
The first group, Jews for Jesus, distributed literature at the park. They also broadcast their deceptive message—that you can be Jewish and believe in Jesus—with ten missionaries canvasing the park with provocative t-shirts. The shirts had messages in Hebrew and English with sayings like, “Jesus loves you” and “Jesus made me Kosher.”
The second group consisted of burly and intimidating men who looked like bikers or ex-cons who have accepted Jesus. Their t-shirts were more inflammatory with statements that you must accept Jesus or go to hell. I was especially upset to see these missionaries arguing with and touching minors.
Third, Beth Emunah messianic congregation, which professes the belief in Jesus as Messiah and God, officially had a booth at the festival. I believe there presence violates Jewish law and a long-standing understanding of the Jewish Federation and Board of Rabbis banning their inclusion in Jewish events.
I also believe this group misled the Celebrate Israeli Festival staff by intentionally avoiding describing themselves as believers in Jesus.
When I questioned a Beth Emunah representative if they had identified themselves as believers in Jesus she responded that they told the Festival staff that they “believe in the Jewish Messiah.” This statement intentionally avoids Jesus’ name and their belief in his divinity.
This misleading statement is a red flag to anyone familiar with these groups. Deception and ambiguous statements are both very common tactics used by the messianic community that numbers in the hundreds-of-thousands.
Had I been consulted about this group I would have immediately raised my concerns.
In reviewing Beth Emunah’s literature it is clear that they are more than just “believers in the Jewish Messiah.” Their leader, Messianic “Rabbi” Steve Stern, is a former missionary for Jews for Jesus. In another flyer they profess their belief that Jesus is God. This is something all denominations of Judaism reject. They also reiterate something I have been saying for many years; Messianic Judaism, with its mix of Christian theology and Jewish symbolism, is an attractive alternative for intermarried couples
I also witnessed several elderly Jews unknowingly engage in conversations with the missionaries at the Beth Emunah booth.
This is a very serious issue and it should concern every parent, rabbi and Jewish leader.
I recommend that a Task Force be set up to issue strict guidelines. These could include a questionnaire to be sent to groups who want to participate in a Jewish event. I helped develop a similar model for the Jewish Agency after they identified a growing trend of missionaries lying on their Aliyah application.
Additionally, groups should submit their mission statement and literature for closer scrutiny by a committee.
Contrary to what some people say, the threat of missionaries targeting Jews for conversion has not disappeared. In fact, it is more prevalent than ever. The internet is inundated with missionary activity and Israel has become a bastion of missionary activity with Jews for Jesus leading the way. Their office in Tel Aviv is staffed by several Israeli’s who have become believers in Jesus. It is no surprise that Israel Channel 2 recently reported that there are more than 20,000 messianic believers in Jesus in Israel.
The best response to missionaries is awareness and education combined with a message that Judaism is a beautiful, meaningful and spiritual path available for all those who desire to explore it.