Jews at Risk: An Interview with Jews For Judaism Baltimore Executive Director, Ruth Guggenheim
By Margie Pensak
Appeared in the Where, What, When- December 2010
I first encountered missionaries in the mid-70s, when I was a student living in Manhattan. I used to see Jews for Jesus members sporting bright yellow T-shirts that proudly advertised their affiliation targeting their prime proselytizing prospects (Jews, of course) in front of Macy’s. During that same period, I also saw hundreds of couples lined up outside Madison Square Garden just prior to their being married in a mass marriage ceremony by the infamous Reverend Sun Myung Moon. Back in 1976, it was estimated that close to 30 percent of these “Moonies” were young Jewish men and women who had been enticed into joining Reverend Moon’s Unification Church. My third missionary “experience” occurred in Brussels, Belgium during a brief stopover on my way home from Israel, in 1978. I had barely stepped off the shuttle bus, when I was solicited by a missionary.
Thirty-two years later, the ever-increasing number of missionaries – as well as the Jews who have been sucked in by their propaganda – is staggering. Even more frightening is the fact that missionaries are now savvy enough to walk-the-walk and talk-the-talk. Unlike the crude missionaries of yesteryear, today’s missionaries are not overtly identifiable as such. Disguised in “frum” dress, like black hats, tzitzis, kipa sruga, tallis and tefilin, they daven in their “synagogues” out of adulterated Hebrew/English siddurim [prayer books], and lain [read] from sifrei [scrolls] Torah that resemble the ones found in bona fide shuls. Plus, their charismatic “rabbis” wax eloquent about the parsha, albeit much distorted, thanks to English translations like ArtScroll. In fact, today’s missionaries are true kiruv experts!
The Messianic Mindset
Missionaries are out to ensnare each and every Jewish neshama [soul], because they believe that their messiah, whom they call Yeshua (aka Jesus) will not return until a majority of Jews convert and the Jews are in possession of Eretz Yisrael. While they have always used newspaper ads, billboards, leaflets, telemarketing-style phone campaigns, and door-to-door canvassing to reach their Jewish victims, they have now added viral YouTube videos and social networking on Facebook, MySpace, and Twitter.
Jews for Jesus, started in the 1970s, was the founding organization for what is called today “messianic Judaism.” It has evolved into a highly sophisticated targeting organization, and its missionaries are trained in engaging Jews on a one-on-one basis, referred to as friendship evangelism, along with offering a personal relationship with G-d that they claim you cannot have in today’s Judaism, which is “manmade” by the rabbis.
It could never happen to me, you might say, or to my children, who have a yeshiva background. Surely we, who are fortunate to have the authentic Torah as our guide, are immune and cannot be duped.
Not at all, according to Jews for Judaism executive director, Ruth Guggenheim: “This problem is very much with us and is growing like an insidious cancer,” says Ms. Guggenheim, “and we are in Stage 4 of that cancer. The missionaries are succeeding because they make Judaism comfortable,” she explains. “They engage in peer-to-peer evangelism, and they engage so beautifully, with ‘unconditional love.’ There is no one in this world who does not seek unconditional love. Each one of us is vulnerable, as we go through life. We have to face issues like death, divorce, illness, unemployment, and risky behavior, whether we are 18 or 80. And we are all looking for a connection, a relationship with Hashem to fulfill our spiritual needs. When a highly charismatic and passionate missionary comes along, our rabbis –who may be less charismatic and passionate – may not be able to compete!”
Ms. Guggenheim shared with me a true case in point. A chasidishe [chasidic] teenage boy, the middle child in a fairly large family, was raised in the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn. Denigrated from an early age for asking questions, he was ultimately expelled from yeshiva. His father, a rebbi, was so embarrassed by this, and so afraid that his other children’s shidduchim [match for marriage] would be compromised, that he refused to speak to him. This young man left Yiddishkeit and ended up hanging out with a fundamentalist born-again Christian, who took him to church. He was uncomfortable going to church, so his friend introduced him to a messianic “rabbi,” with whom he felt quite comfortable. After being involved with the messianic movement for six months, he decided to contact Jews for Judaism, in hopes of making peace with his father. He then admitted that he had never felt such unconditional love as when he was associated with the Hebrew-Christian congregation, and that if his own community had reached out to him the way the messianics did, he would never have left Yiddishkeit in the first place.
“When he contacted Jews for Judaism he was looking for a safe place to discuss his religious concerns without being judged and ridiculed. Once he got his answers and felt a sense of personal healing and acceptance, he was ready to return to his family and the Orthodox community. B”H [Thank G-d], on erev Chanukah he went home and made shalom with his father.” Notes Ms. Guggenheim, “It’s a highly toxic and destructive situation when teens and young adults feel that no one in the Jewish community cares about them personally, and that it appears they care more about the ‘external frum trappings’ and conformity than about their child’s pain. If these individuals cannot find acceptance, love, and validation from their own families and schools, they will look elsewhere, and the missionaries are only too happy to oblige!”
The missionaries have training manuals that instruct them exactly how to talk to Jews. They have a great business/marketing plan, which rests on the principle of convincing Jews that their organization is not Christian, but Jewish. Legitimacy is gained because they wrap their package in Judaism, using such Hebrew terms as Yehoshua Hamashiach (Yoshke); etz (tree in Hebrew, for their cross); and av, ben, and ruach hakodesh (father, son, and holy ghost). Their “siddur” bears the title, Siddur L’Yehudim Mishichen, in Hebrew letters, and their 1626-page paperback “Tanach” is titled The Complete Jewish Bible, although it contains both the Hebrew Scriptures and New Testament. In fact, they do not even celebrate Christian holidays such as Xmas and Easter.
“In the last 25 years, the messianic Jews have moved from left to right,” says Ms. Guggenheim, “from fundamentalist or evangelical Christians to Hebrew Christians, and now to messianic Jews. This has been a conscious choice to gain validity and to become an accepted denomination within the Jewish community."
“There are 300,000 to 500,000 messianic Jews today. This number does not even include those North American Jews who have consciously converted to one form or another of Christianity,” says Ms. Guggenheim. “It is hard to get accurate numbers in terms of who is really a halachic Jew and who is taking on the persona of being a messianic Jew. For example, a college student might entice her roommate to attend her messianic ‘shul,’ although she herself might not even be Jewish.”
Indeed, college campuses are especially fertile marketplaces for proselytizing and recruiting young adults, because students are often willing to explore new ideas and philosophies at school. Also, students’ newfound independence and freedom from parents enable them to try new things and question their own values and beliefs.
A good portion of Ms. Guggenheim’s tireless work is spent speaking to Jewish middle and high school students from every Jewish religious denomination. “Even frum kids question what is wrong with accepting messianic Jews,” contends Ms. Guggenheim. “When it comes to refuting claims of missionaries, you have to know Tanach. We have to teach our frum kids the pesukim [sentences]. Isaiah: 53 is one of the most famous chapters for missionaries. In their minds, they are selling us the 100 percent version of Judaism they believe in. The deception is that it is actually 100 percent Christian theology wrapped in Jewish garb.”
Too Close for Comfort in Brooklyn and Israel
The Chosen People Ministry is the oldest Hebrew-Christian group in the country, dating back to the late 1800s. Today, in Brooklyn, the American Board of Missions to the Jews has so evolved that it started a campaign this past summer called “Isaiah 53.” There are posters up throughout Brooklyn advertising it. This church group is also sending out thousands of free propaganda books. (The collective Hebrew-Christian movement raises an estimated $350 million a year, specifically for targeting the Jewish community for conversion.) It can well afford to do that, along with remodeling its recently purchased (for $2.1 million) funeral home into a Jewish “retreat center.” This new facility, the Charles Feinberg Messianic Center, located in the heart of Orthodox Jewish Brooklyn, as its website boasts, will be equipped with a kosher kitchen, Torah study groups, and therapeutic programs for teens at risk. The mere fact that this organization is willing to raise so much money for this project indicates its confidence that its mission will succeed.
The Messianic “epidemic” is spreading throughout the world at a rapid pace. “It is a growing disease, even though you don’t see it or know about it,” says Ms. Guggenheim, “especially in Baltimore, which is a very unique community; it is extremely traditional and relatively isolated from the realities of smaller Jewish communities in the South and Midwest. Thus, we see far less overt proselytizing here than most smaller communities."
“This is one problem that has to be on our radar screen,” she continues. “The intermarriage rate is over 50 percent, and intermarrieds are the perfect target group for missionaries. They are vulnerable, and the missionaries know it. Our teens at risk are another vulnerable group that they target. If you are a thinking individual but don’t feel a sense of confidence and are not steeped in emuna (faith), every time you meet a missionary, a little seed is planted – a doubt – and it grows and grows.”
The Holy Land is not immune either; quite the opposite. “Torah groups” are being held by these missionaries at the Galilee Conference Center. And on Ben Yehudah Street, in Jerusalem, a Hebrew-Christian group has opened a coffeehouse, where they entice the Jewish student population with free pizza.
“A ‘Jewish package’ that is much more user-friendly is also infiltrating the Israel Defense Force (IDF),” says Ms. Guggenheim, who explains that the soldiers are extremely vulnerable. Aside from the soldiers, there are over 150 Hebrew-Christian synagogues in Israel. Between 2000 and 2001, there was an estimated 2,000 messianic Jews in Israel; now there are 15,000. She thinks that perhaps Israel’s great number of internet users increases Israelis’ susceptibility.
“We have to understand that all the current red flags – all the things that we are struggling with as a community – create fertile territory that missionaries are trained to pick up on,” warns Ms. Guggenheim, adding that the best thing to do if you are confronted by a missionary is not to debate but to disengage as soon as possible and walk away. “Here, in the Baltimore-Washington corridor, Jewish homes were recently targeted by messianic leader Sid Roth and his group Messianic Visions, through a mailing of his book, Ten Amazing Jews: They Thought for Themselves. This single campaign, which hopes to send out at least two million copies of this book to Jewish homes across America, is a part of a multimillion dollar ‘investment’ that the missionaries are willing to invest in our neshamas (souls).”
The Few Against the Many
Jews for Judaism, founded in 1983 by Mrs. Hannah Storch (who is the present-day chairperson of the board), is the watchdog monitoring these proselytizing activities throughout the world. The organization raises awareness, sends out community alerts, and speaks to students, among other activities. “There are not enough of us,” says Ms. Guggenheim, who is only one of two employees in Jews for Judaism’s Baltimore/Washington’s East Coast headquarters. Back in its heyday, between 2002 and 2007, her office employed six full-time and one part-time employee. It was able to raise a half-million dollars, and conduct 70 to 100 educational programs a year, nationally, for federations, clergy, Hillel, USY, NCSY, etc. Unfortunately, the organization is not receiving the funding it once did from sources like the Associated and the Weinberg Foundation. Although its office in Israel was forced to close down for financial reasons, there are still branches in Los Angeles, Toronto, Sydney, and Johannesburg.
Today, there are less than a dozen Jews for Judaism professionals, and a handful of independent counter-missionary experts around the world. Over the past 20 years, Jews for Judaism has worked with hundreds of Jewish communities around the world who were being targeted by various missionary groups. Its educational resource center and materials have helped rabbis and others when missionaries infiltrate their communities.
“Today, because of a lack of funding, we are totally not doing the job that needs to be done,” says Ms. Guggenheim. “We are looking for people willing to learn more about the issues, and we are looking for additional volunteers and board members to strengthen the organization. We must continue to identify and develop partnerships and alliances with other Jewish organizations and professionals. The more we can be a resource and service to the greater Jewish community, the greater chance we have of inoculating vulnerable Jews against this threat.”
The Jews for Judaism website is the largest counter-missionary website in the world, according to Ms. Guggenheim. It comprises hundreds of pages of articles, polemics, and questions and answers. However, it cannot compete with the highly professional websites of the missionaries; due to a lack of funding, Jews for Judaism cannot support an IT person. There are hundreds of Hebrew-Christian websites on the internet, and they have direct links to legitimately Jewish websites, such as Chabad.org. There is even one website, Massah Israel, which mimics the “kosher” MASA Israel website.
The messianic movement and its resources are growing, while Jews for Judaism is struggling financially with its skeleton staff. Ms. Guggenheim says that there are easily over 1,000 messianic churches throughout the world. In the former Soviet Union, thousands of people come to promoted “Jewish festivals.” The relatively ignorant Jews who attend believe that these festivals are truly Jewish. In Argentina and Uruguay, Jews are being targeted, as well, by the Jewish Voice Ministry. Because no one is reaching out to these people the way the missionaries do, they get taken in and are often converted.
Putting this all into perspective, Ms. Guggenheim says, “When Jews for Judaism can’t work at its best, your kid is at risk. Jews for Judaism exists to keep your children and grandchildren Jewish.”
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