In today's evangelical crusade for Jewish souls, missionaries have found one particularly vulnerable segment of our community. Unlike Jews in the West, who are usually somewhat resistant to conversion, our brethren who have lived behind the Iron Curtain are much less able to withstand the overtures of Christian missionaries.
Even before the collapse of the Soviet Union, missionaries had set their sights on Russian immigrants at transit centers in Italy and upon arrival in North America and Israel. Offering ESL (English as a Second Language) programs, financial assistance and friendship, evangelical groups found that spiritually starved Russian Jews with little or no Jewish education were easy prey. By 1990, there were already about a half dozen "Hebrew Christian" congregations catering exclusively to Soviet Jews in North America, and several others in Israel.
With the advent of glasnost and the subsequent opening of the Soviet Union, North American missionary organizations realized that they could take their conversionary programs directly to the Jewish people in Russia. The first missions were scheduled to visit the larger Soviet cities during Passover, 1990. Hoping to warn the Jewish communities of the missionary agenda, I traveled with Jews for Judaism representatives Mark Powers and Rabbi Bentzion Kravitz to Moscow, Leningrad and Kiev in the winter of that year. We taught classes and met with Jewish community leaders, teachers and activists, and briefed them on the itineraries and deceptive techniques of the missionaries who were scheduled to arrive.
Since then, there has been a full-scale missionary invasion of the former Soviet Union. Hoping to convert as many Jews as possible before the doors close again, several "Hebrew Christian" organizations have established full-time branches in the major population centers of the former Soviet Union. There is presently at least one "Hebrew Christian" Bible School, training over 100 Russian students to proselytize within Jewish communities. One evangelistic organization from Rochester, New York has been running massive "Hebrew Christian" music and outreach festivals for the past few years, and claims to have converted 17,000 Jews.
Hearing about these dramatic inroads being made by "Hebrew Christian" missionaries, has often left me feeling frustrated and outraged. Consequently, I was very excited when, in November of last year, the Russian branches of Aish HaTorah invited Jews for Judaism to send me to address their first national students' seminar.
Realizing that my schedule left me with some free time, I decided to try to recruit specially qualified students for intensive counter-missionary training. Dozens of trans-Atlantic phone calls late at night to various cities resulted in several possibilities - but no firm candidates - by the time I left for Russia on January 24.
The two-week conference was held in a resort town just outside of St. Petersburg (formerly Leningrad). Over 200 university-aged students from all corners of the former Soviet Union were in attendance. I was greatly impressed by their commitment and enthusiasm. All were highly motivated to absorb as much as possible from the program offered, and to convey their newly acquired knowledge to their respective communities. Many described to me the pervasive influence of Christianity in the former Soviet Union. I was heartened to discover that several of these students had already heard a Russian translation of a tape made by Jews for Judaism entitled "How to Answer the Christian Missionary."
Addressing an attentive audience of about 20 students during my daily seminar, I examined why and how missionaries target Jews for conversion, discussed the Jewish concept of the Messiah, and explained why the New Testament is not part of the Jewish scriptures. Throughout the conference, students peppered me with questions about missionaries and Christianity. To supplement my answers, I brought a suitcase full of Jews for Judaism's booklets and tapes, translated into Russian, which I distributed to as many students as possible.
Shortly after arriving in Russia, I discovered that one of my contacts in St. Petersburg had located someone interested in receiving intensive counter-missionary training. He was ideally qualified, possessing a strong Jewish background, fluency in English, some familiarity with Christianity, and a strong desire to respond to the ever growing missionary threat in his country. Almost miraculously, he was able to take an entire week off from work and to spend ten hours a day with me at the conference site. I had two primary goals for our week of training. The first was to impart sufficient material and understanding to enable my protégé to teach Jews for Judaism's counter-missionary seminar, which we have been conducting with great success in North America. To supplement our discussions, I gave him Jews for Judaism's recently completed 12-tape set of the seminar, and many other materials. I also hoped to succeed in training him to counsel individuals who had been influenced by missionaries. Fortunately, as a practicing therapist, he already possessed many of the skills necessary to deal with these people.
I left Russia feeling quite buoyed by what I had accomplished. These feelings have been borne out by the feedback I have received since returning. One of the more ambitious students in my class, a native of Minsk, spent many hours reviewing our seminar tapes and other materials. Communicating via the Internet, he informs me that he is now teaching the course to thirty university-aged students, and will soon be offering a new series for middle-aged people. He has also arranged to have the seminar given in Moliev and Grodno. Due to the ease of communicating via the Internet, I have been able to immediately answer his steady stream of questions, allowing him to first verify any information he imparts. Because of our ongoing interaction, he no longer feels isolated.
I called my protege from St. Petersburg, and was thrilled to hear that he was already counseling five members of the "Hebrew Christian" congregation in his city. We are now arranging to have him deliver lectures in other locations. We also want to bring him to North America this summer for follow-up training.
Jews for Judaism will nurture the seeds that we have planted in such distant and fertile soil. Your contribution will enable us to bring Sasha here this summer and continue the battle against this silent holocaust.