Messianic Jews Find Fertile Ground in the Bible Belt

By Jennifer Siegel

Published June 13, 2007, issue of June 15, 2007.
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Oxford, N.C. — Ellen and Tim Pitts say they aren’t the kind of Jews who go around preaching about Jesus Christ. Although they are self-described “messianic Jews” — the term of art preferred by those who accept Christian theology and assert a Jewish identity — the couple, who live with their three young children in an 18th-century farmhouse 40 miles northeast of North Carolina’s Chapel Hill, keep mostly to themselves, growing vegetables and raising chickens and goats. It is an inward-focused existence that seems aptly summed up by the name they’ve given to their homestead: HaTeva, or “the Ark.”

Still, in the past several months the Pittses have quietly launched a unique religious experiment in a deeply Southern community, where the Jefferson Davis Memorial Highway is the main road and Baptist theology dominates. Using the Internet, they have offered themselves up as informal tour guides in the hope of attracting other messianic Jewish families to the area and building a small community that, like them, celebrates a Saturday Sabbath and prays in Hebrew.

In its own small way, the family is on the leading edge of the new face of messianic Judaism. With roots in both Christianity and Judaism — Tim, 37, was raised in a mainline Christian church, while Ellen, 32, was raised in a minimally observant Jewish family before converting to Christianity — the Pittess are among a growing number of so-called “interfaith” couples that have found a home in the messianic movement. Unlike many of their messianic compatriots, who view proselytizing to Jews as a central purpose of their faith, the Pittses and families like them have embraced the movement primarily to satisfy their own, admittedly unconventional, religious needs.

“There really is a debate, and a very lively one, within the messianic world about the fundamental nature of messianic Judaism,” said Richard Nichol, who has led Congregation Ruach Israel in Needham, Mass., for a quarter-century and is a board member of Hashivenu (“Return Us”), a group founded around the year 2000 to promote greater “Jewishness” in the messianic movement.

This might have once been tossed off as a curious development in a fringe group, had it not been for a larger trend at work. According to several movement leaders and scholars of religion, messianic Judaism is expanding rapidly in communities across the American South, a growing region of the country that is attracting new Jewish residents more generally. (The movement is also flourishing in such Northern cities as Philadelphia, where it first sprang up in the late 1960s and early ’70s.) Although exact numbers are hard to come by, one Philadelphia-based umbrella group, the Messianic Jewish Alliance of America, estimates that there is currently a total of roughly 300 self-described Jewish messianic congregations in the United States, with upward of 30,000 adherents. According to religious leaders contacted by the Forward, the Atlanta area has six messianic congregations, up from one a decade ago, while Tampa, Fla., which had none 12 years ago, now has three.

It is a trend alarming to Jewish communal leaders.

“There is a pragmatic, serious interest in that part of Christianity that continues to believe in proselytizing to promote messianic Judaism,” said Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League. “So they’ve come up with this gimmick: If you can establish that you can be both [Christian and Jewish], then why not accept Jesus and be Jewish?”

“You can’t be both,” Foxman added. “That’s nonsense.”

Rabbi Bentzion Kravitz, founder of a counter-missionary group called Jews for Judaism, said that in his experience, the messianic movement includes many Jews who are sincere, but leaders and Christian organizations that have a missionary agenda nonetheless support it.

Although various Christian denominations promoted the formation of “Hebrew Christian” churches during the 19th and 20th centuries, the modern messianic Jewish movement stems from evangelical Christian efforts that bloomed during the 1960s, Kravitz said, after the founding of the modern Jewish state and Israel’s capture of East Jerusalem in 1967.

But four decades later, some members of the messianic movement are arguing that it has grown beyond its original focus on the conversion of Jews and is a distinct religious community in its own right.

In recent years, some of the movement’s religious leaders have argued that messianic Jews should not engage in Christian “outreach” to the Jewish community at large and should strive for a greater inward focus on their own religious development as part of the larger Jewish community. A touchstone for the group has become a book, “Postmissionary Messianic Judaism: Redefining Christian Engagement With the Jewish People,” authored by Mark Kinzer in 2005. Kinzer has been considerably less well received in such overtly Christian missionizing quarters as the Lausanne Consultation on Jewish Evangelism, which was founded by Christian evangelical leaders in 1980.

“We really feel that in order for messianic Judaism to be legitimate… we have to be deeply connected with the Jewish world and to see other forms of Judaism as having their value in the overall scheme of God’s purposes for the world,” Nichol said. He added, “That’s a little different than some people who would call themselves messianic Jews, who really view themselves as principally connected to the world of the church and somewhat more incidentally view themselves as somewhat Jewish.”

Whatever the politics over the future direction of messianic Judaism may be, movement leaders say that the American South is particularly fertile ground for expansion.

“In the Bible belt, you have many Christians who love Israel, so we attract more gentiles [to our services], plus there are a lot more intermarried couples down here than there would be in the Northeast,” said Derek Leman, religious leader of Atlanta’s Tikvat David Messianic Synagogue. A Web site for the Messianic Alliance of Metro Atlanta includes a page of information for “interfaith” couples that advises, “A Messianic Jewish Synagogue provides a bridge for a Jewish and Gentile couple.”

Forty minutes from the Pitts’s farmhouse, at Congregation Shaare Shalom in Cary, N.C., there are several couples with spouses who have mixed upbringings. “I never understood how Jewish I was until I married a gentile,” Ellen Pitts explained. “You just don’t realize, even if you don’t spend your life in synagogue… just how many [Jewish] things get into your being until you’re sort of sucked out of it to a different culture.”

On a recent Saturday morning, those with Jewish roots mixed easily with those from Christian backgrounds, and Jewish “flavor” was added to the proceedings: A scattering of men wore yarmulkes, the service included renditions of such familiar Hebrew prayers like the Shema and Jesus went by the name “Yeshua.” Nevertheless, the theological framework was Christian and evangelical.

“Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, the children of Israel,” one speaker explained, “were standing on earth to represent Yeshua. They were holding his spot until he could come.”

Afterward, congregants milled around tables heaped with potato chips, brownies — and bagels.

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