By Michael OrbachIssue of July 23, 2010/ 12 Av 5770
The book looks like an inspirational bestseller. The cover claims that over a million copies are in print. It neglects to mention if they were sold, given away, used for kindling or mailed at no charge to unsuspecting, disinterested Jewish families in the Five Towns and Brooklyn. The book is the work of Sid Roth, a self-proclaimed Messianic Jew and television and radio host. Titled "Ten Amazing Jews: They Thought for Themselves," it contains brief memoirs of Jews - including a Holocaust survivor, a convict and Roth himself - who converted to Christianity. Roth also hosts a television show, "It's Supernatural," where he interviews ordinary folk - a hairdresser in one episode - who have miraculously been "visited" by Jesus.
"Welcome to my world," Roth intones at the beginning of every episode, "Where it's naturally supernatural."
While Roth's is probably the saddest and most unintentionally funny attempt at missionary work, a high profile effort is currently underway in the New York area by Chosen People Ministries, the oldest Messianic Jewish Christian organization in the country. The campaign includes billboards, posters, and advertisements, including full pages in The New York Times, about chapter 53 in the Book of Isaiah. It is the brainchild of Dr. Mitch Glaser, president of Chosen People Ministries.
"We're saying that Isaiah 53 needs a new look by the traditional Jewish community and needs to be taken seriously," Glaser said.
The chapter, according to the translation in The Times, speaks of a singular "suffering servant," which Glaser maintains is a reference to Jesus.
Isaiah 53 is a standard polemic text that missionaries use, said Rabbi Tovia Singer of Outreach Judaism.
"Isaiah 53 is the fourth Servant Song which began in Isaiah 41," Rabbi Singer explained. "In the first three Servant Songs it identifies the servant who suffers at the hands of the nations as Israel. Isaiah introduces the servant of G-d, both in the singular and plural, who endured tremendous pains, but who is ultimately vindicated in the Messianic days... The chapter [is] molested, ripped out of context and mistranslated and presented to Jewish people who know nothing about the faith that they are being asked to abandon."
A full two-part rebuttal of the Isaiah 53 Project is available on his website, Rabbi Singer said.
Glaser had his bar mitzvah at the Young Israel of Kew Gardens Hills, he said, though his family kept neither Shabbos nor kashrus. While working in California after high school, Glaser said he discovered Jesus.
"I was doing drugs, that stopped the next day, but more importantly, that intimacy and that personal relationship with G-d was what I found," he said. "When it came to being a Jew nothing seemed to change. Lo and behold, I became even more religious."
Today, Glaser claims to follow Jewish custom and practice.
"We've created a very Jewish life," he maintained. "We are shomer Shabbos and my home is, I would say, traif-less. It's not necessarily kosher. We celebrate the holidays and yet Yeshuah is at the center of it."
Glaser refers to Jesus as Yeshuah in conversation and maintains there is no inherent conflict between being a practicing Jew and believing in Jesus. According to Ruth Guggenheim of the Baltimore branch of Jews for Judaism, a Jewish anti-missionary organization, this makes organizations like Chosen People Ministries all the more dangerous.
"They're not your Bubbie's missionary," Guggenheim explained. "They don't ride on horses with crosses."
At least Jews for Jesus, the missionary cult that is active in the summer months, Guggenheim says, is obvious about what they're doing.
"Chosen People [Ministries] and [Sid Roth's] Messianic Visions are the more deceptive," Guggenheim asserted. "Their marketing strategies are deceptive. They will wear kippot and tzitzis and engage in peer-to-peer evangelism - kiruv. They slowly bring people into the fold and many times they dress it up in Jewish terminology."
The Isaiah 53 campaign is targeting secular Jews. Similar billboards in Hebrew will target secular Israelis, and Glaser's church plans to target Orthodox Jews through advertisements and literature in Yiddish.
"What they seek to do is blur the distinction between Judaism and Christianity to lure Jews who would otherwise resist a straightforward Christian message," echoed Rabbi Singer of Outreach Judaism.
The campaign to convert Jews is nothing new, though these days it has added pressure, he said.
"These missionaries are convinced that we're living in the end times - the period immediately before Armageddon, and they embrace the theology of Pre-Millennium Dispensation," Rabbi Singer explained, referring to a Protestant Evangelical tradition. "In order for Jesus to make the Second Coming, a large mass of Jews have to accept the cross. It's an imperative now, a ticking clock with the advent of the State of Israel and with Iran threatening the Jewish State."
Moshe Shulman of Judaism is the Answer, another anti-missionary group, said that funding for anti-missionary efforts have stalled in the Jewish community because of the faltering economy, while missionaries activities targeting Jews are well-funded by Evangelical organizations. He said that most missionary efforts target Jews unfamiliar with the basic tenets of the faith, though that too is changing.
"They try to convert Russian Jews in Brighton Beach," he said. "They're trying to figure out how to reach each of the Jewish communities. Jews for Jesus tried a CD that flopped horribly so they're beginning to make more materials to target Orthodox Jews."
Lately, anti-missionaries inside the Jewish community are working together and sharing information. They are working to set up a counter-site to the Chosen People Ministry site, called Jewish Isaiah 53. They're also planning the first-ever Jewish anti-missionary convention.
The situation is further complicated by Evangelical support for Israel.
"What's challenging if they're very pro-Israel," Rabbi Singer said. "Israeli people are scared and very open and receptive to Evangelical Christians."
Glaser maintains that his campaign is a result of what he perceives to be a search for meaning inside the Jewish community.
"The Messianic fervor among the Lubavitch is a symptom of the yearning of our Jewish souls for a closer more intimate relationship to Hashem," he explained. "I don't think you can miss it. We're responding to what we see as a great deal of searching... I believe that many would turn to Yeshuah if they saw him in a more Jewish light."
Just one of the verses of Isaiah 53, with some minor tweaking, can be read in three different ways, said Dr. David Berger, dean of the Bernard Revel Graduate School of Jewish Studies at Yeshiva University.
"It can be interpreted as pierced, which is how the Jewish Messianists use it, as 'profaned,' the way Sabbateans used it, and 'illness' which is the way the Lubavitch movement used it when the Lubavitcher Rebbe had a stroke," Berger said.
Berger, who has famously combated Messianic theology in the Lubavitch movement, co-wrote an anti-missionary booklet in the 1970s called "Jews and 'Jewish Christianity,'" that was recently reprinted by the Canadian branch of Jews for Judaism. Over the years, the booklet has sold over 10,000 copies.
"I was told that this is the publication that missionaries are most scared of," Berger said, adding that there was no way of verifying that, but if it was true, "It would make me happy."
Sid Roth and Chosen People Ministries make odd bedfellows, Rabbi Singer noted. Roth is a Pentecostal Christian and the Chosen People Ministries are Baptists - two Christian factions that have little to do with one another.
"It's like watching the Sunnis and the Shiites unite because they have a common enemy," he said.