Washington — (JTA) — George W. Bush granted Messianic Jews a brief shining moment in the spotlight last week – and then just as quickly sent them back into the shadows.
The Messianic Jewish Bible Institute in Dallas had advertised Bush as the keynote speaker at its annual fundraiser on Nov. 14, prominently featuring the former president’s appearance on its website alongside pages describing the group’s mission to bring “Jewish people into a personal relationship of faith with Yeshua the Messiah.”
But after a reporter for Mother Jones wrote about the fundraiser, any mention of the dinner disappeared from the institute’s site. Otherwise solicitous staff refused comment. Bush went ahead with the speech behind closed doors.
The turn of events is emblematic of what Messianic Jews have faced since their emergence in the 1960s: a tantalizing taste of acceptance followed by a pronounced repudiation by the mainstream Jewish community.
“I think there’s a distinction between the gatekeepers and the general community within the wider Jewish community,” said Rabbi Russ Resnik, the director of the Union of Messianic Jewish Congregations, an association of some 70 Messianic synagogues around the country. “The gatekeepers have to be vigilant and at times overdo the vigilance. But the wider community is receiving and friendly.”
Messianic Jews embrace Jesus as the messiah but hew to Jewish traditions, observing Jewish holidays and reciting Hebrew prayers in services. Many, but by no means all, are born Jews who have come to accept Jesus and see their practices as legitimate expressions of Judaism.
Mainstream Jewish groups generally have rejected Messianic Jews, seeing them as luring Jews into Christianity under the pretense that they can maintain their Judaism even while accepting belief in Jesus.
Messianic Jewish Bible Institute officials declined several JTA requests for comment. But in a statement Monday, Jonathan Bernis, the institute’s chairman, said criticism of his group reflected an intolerance of its beliefs.
“The idea seems to be that it is somehow ‘intolerant’ for Jewish believers in Jesus to share their convictions with other Jews,” Bernis said. “The real intolerance is coming from those who apparently think that no Jewish person should ever be exposed to the claims of the most famous Jew who ever lived.”