For the past 21/2 years, our hearts and the hearts of all lovers of Zion have been heavy with concern. The perpetual reign of brutal terror that has taken hundreds of lives, crippled thousands and devastated our spiritual homeland impacts all of us. Against this horrific backdrop of physical violence, we tend to overlook the insidious spiritual threat posed by Christian missionaries. In addition, there is a widely held misconception that missionary activity is illegal in Israel, and therefore not a serious problem. The sad truth is that thousands of Christian proselytizers are directing a tremendous amount of money, time and energy to capture vulnerable Israeli souls and convert them to Christianity.
Here are some startling facts. Israel is now home to over 7,000 Jewish converts to Christianity who have established more than 100 Hebrew Christian congregations serving as missionary centres. Numerous North American missionary groups also operate in Israel. Thousands of susceptible Israelis, Russians and Ethiopian Jews have fallen prey to those who proselytize on Tel Aviv street corners, Jerusalem malls, through direct mail, radio programs and even on army bases. Jews for Jesus has developed a special Hebrew language website targeting Israel's technology oriented youth. Jews for Jesus has also just hired six full-time missionaries, all Israeli citizens, to plow the mission field. An article in the latest newsletter published by Chosen People Ministries rejoices in the 15 Israeli Jews about to get baptized who were reached through their aggressive Tel Aviv branch. Chosen People Ministries has also started a congregation in the West Bank town of Ariel and hopes to develop another in Jerusalem very soon.
So, what is Jews for Judaism doing to save Jewish souls in the Holy Land? To express solidarity with our brethren in Israel, and to counter the disturbing growth of missionary activity, Jews for Judaism's international staff from Toronto, Baltimore, Los Angeles and Johannesburg have joined forces to organize a special mission to Israel this year, from June 18-28. The impetus for this ambitious mission was learning that the annual international conference of the Union of Messianic Jewish Congregations (UMJC) would be taking place in Jerusalem in June 2003.
For the past 15 years, our Jews for Judaism staff has monitored this annual, week-long event that attracts over 1,000 and is usually held in a different American city each summer. Our activities included checking into the hotel where the conference was held, and spending the entire week missionizing the missionaries. This year's UMJC conference, geared to advancing its evangelistic agenda in Israel, will bring hundreds of missionaries to Israel for two weeks of intense meetings and touring. For the first time, Jews for Judaism will do in Israel, what we have been doing in North America for years. We will monitor this conference, acquire updated information on their future plans, reach out to those Jews in attendance and expose them to the truths of authentic Judaism, something they have never been presented or explored.
As soon as our international staff made the decision to travel to Israel, we resolved to make the most of our over 100 years of combined experience in the counter-missionary field. We retained Ms. Shani Falik, a skilled programming consultant based in Jerusalem, to assist us in promoting our counter-missionary educational programming to English and Hebrew speaking audiences throughout Israel. To date, we are addressing synagogues and institutions in Jerusalem, Karmiel, Raanana, Netanya and Tzefat, and the list grows daily as our departure date approaches.
One of the most effective counter-missionary resources we've developed is The Jewish Response to Missionaries handbook, written by Rabbi Bentzion Kravitz, director of our Los Angeles branch. To date, we have distributed over 150,000 copies of this concise, comprehensive publication that has received enthusiastic endorsements from rabbis and educators. Recognizing the vital need for Russian language counter-missionary material, our Toronto office published a Russian version of Rabbi Kravitz's handbook, and to date, over 15,000 have been distributed. Our upcoming mission to Israel became the catalyst to also produce a Hebrew version. We will distribute these invaluable booklets, free of charge, in English, Hebrew and Russian at all of our programs in Israel and make them available to Jewish institutions across the land.
People throughout North America who receive our materials or attend our programs always inquire if we have a branch in Israel. Our usual and regretful response is, "Not yet." However, that answer is about to change. We strongly believe that we have a unique Jews for Judaism counter-missionary approach that would be extremely effective in Israel, and now is the time to be there!
One of the goals of our upcoming mission is to establish a Jews for Judaism centre in Israel. Our launch strategy includes placing ads in the Jerusalem Post, marshaling our Israeli contacts and using our Internet website to connect with counter-missionary activists and others who would be interested in setting up a branch organization. We may begin with a Task Force of dedicated volunteers, but ultimately we want to have a totally funded, full-time Jews for Judaism office with professional staff.
Our additional goals for this mission to Israel are just as significant and exciting. Our annual International Conference of Jews for Judaism will be held in Jerusalem, with many of our meetings focused on new directions, new initiatives and the launch of our newly redesigned website. In Jerusalem, there is a vast network of brilliant scholars, and we plan to meet with those who can offer us special insights to the thorny biblical and theological issues we regularly encounter when dealing with missionaries. We also plan to meet with rabbinic leaders and government officials to brief them on missionary developments in Israel, alert them to fraudulent conversions by missionaries seeking to make Aliyah, and discuss other major issues.
As well, Jews for Judaism constantly receives inquiries about numerous groups and individuals operating in Israel, including specific Christian advocacy and relief organizations that deny having a missionary agenda, yet nevertheless remain under a well-deserved cloud of suspicion. Being in Israel allows us to conduct a first-hand investigation into their operations. Through our public presentations and other networking, we will also make ourselves available to provide counseling to families and individuals who have been affected by missionaries. Shani Falik has already received a frantic call from one family with a heartbreaking story about their son who has renounced Judaism and embraced Christianity. Our many interviews in newspapers and on radio and television will magnify awareness about the serious missionary threat in Israel and our many activities to counter it.
Just as Jerusalem is the heart of Israel, Israel is the heart of the Jewish people. Missionaries have recognized this critical reality by pouring tremendous resources into spreading their conversionary net throughout the Holy Land. Jews for Judaism is committed to meeting this vital challenge, and our upcoming mission will be our opening salvo. We look forward to the words of Moshe Arens ringing true, Jews for Judaism's success is a success for all Jews.