George W. Bush Ducks Spotlight at Jews for Jesus Gala

Messianic Jews Keep Lid on Controversial Speech

getty images

By Ron Kampeas

Published November 19, 2013.
  • Print
  • Share Share
  • Multi Page

(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.”

Rabbi David Wolpe of Sinai Temple in Los Angeles said it was “laughable” to suggest that American Jews are not regularly exposed to the claims of Jesus.

“It is dishonest, deliberately or inadvertently,to say that one can live in a Jewish faith community and accept another scripture or accept a different God,” Wolpe told JTA. “It’s striking that for thousands of years the definition of being Christian was believing in Jesus, and all of a sudden they’ve discovered, no, you can do that and be Jewish.

“It is, whether they realize it or not, a marketing tool, not a discovery.”

It’s not clear if Bush initially understood what an appearance at a Messianic Jewish event would signify. Sources close to the former president said that an aide recommended accepting the engagement without understanding Jewish sensitivities. Bush went ahead, the sources said, not because he favored the movement’s mission of proselytizing but because he thought backing out would be bad form.

“Someone looking at this in the American context, who is not well versed in Jewish history, does not look at this and say that is a nuclear issue,” said Tevi Troy, a former deputy health secretary and top liaison to the Jewish community under Bush. Troy emphasized that his boss has always been sensitive to Jewish concerns.

Resnik estimates there are some 20,000 Jews affiliated with Messianic congregations, but he estimates the number of Jewish believers in Jesus could be much higher. The recent Pew Research Center survey, which caused such angst among American Jewish leaders, actually was heartening to Messianic Jews with reporting that 34 percent of respondents believed it was possible to believe in Jesus and be Jewish. Many Jews understood the finding to reflect the view that beliefs have no bearing on a person’s Jewish status.

“No one could ignore the Pew survey that came about,” said Mitch Glaser, the director of Chosen People Ministries. “Thirty-four percent of the aggregate community believes you can be Jewish and believe in Jesus. It’s almost undeniable now in the Jewish community. We’re a vital community and we are attracting President Bush and others who want to speak to us.”

Despite their rejection by mainstream Jewry, Messianic Jews are not entirely outside the tent. Resnik says members of his congregation donate to local federations and are accepted to a degree as volunteers, making fundraising calls, visiting the Jewish elderly and teaching English to Jewish immigrants from the former Soviet Union.

Jewish security professionals also reach out to Messianic congregations in cases of perceived security threats against the Jewish community, according to the Secure Community Network, the security arm of national Jewish groups.

Yaakov Ariel, a professor of religious studies at the University of North Carolina, says there are signs that Jewish groups have grown more accepting of Messianic Jews in recent years. Ariel notes that a recent call by a British Reform rabbi to be more accepting of the movement stirred little outcry. The World Congress of Jewish Studies, which takes place every four years in Jerusalem, featured a panel on Messianic Jews this year – something Ariel has been seeking for decades.

“It is to be expected,” Ariel said. “There are hundreds of Messianic congregations in America. They have been on the scene for years.”

The major stumbling block remains the Messianic doctrine of proselytizing. Resnik says Messianic groups try to keep a low profile in mainstream Jewish settings, but proselytizing remains a core principle. Especially irksome are bids to convert what are seen as vulnerable populations, Russian and Ethiopian Jews in particular. The Dallas group Bush addressed touts its efforts in that regard prominently on its website.

Mainstream Jewish concerns about conversion inhibit what could be a useful relationship with a movement that over the decades has accrued a good deal of credibility within the Christian world, according to Messianic Jews.

“We’re loyal Jews who have an interest in Israel,” Glaser said. “We should be viewed as allies and not opponents.”

Resnik says proselytizing should not be the determining factor for mainstream Jews in considering a relationship with Messianic Jews. The Jewish establishment also should take into account the longing for Jewish connection and community among Messianic Jews, he said.

“We feel there’s a lot we can do and a lot of engagement we can have with the wider Jewish community other than propagating our Messianic faith,” he said.


The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.





Find us on Facebook!
  • The sign reads: “Dogs are allowed in this establishment but Zionists are not under any circumstances.”
  • Is Twitter Israel's new worst enemy?
  • More than 50 former Israeli soldiers have refused to serve in the current ground operation in #Gaza.
  • "My wife and I are both half-Jewish. Both of us very much felt and feel American first and Jewish second. We are currently debating whether we should send our daughter to a Jewish pre-K and kindergarten program or to a public one. Pros? Give her a Jewish community and identity that she could build on throughout her life. Cons? Costs a lot of money; She will enter school with the idea that being Jewish makes her different somehow instead of something that you do after or in addition to regular school. Maybe a Shabbat sing-along would be enough?"
  • Undeterred by the conflict, 24 Jews participated in the first ever Jewish National Fund— JDate singles trip to Israel. Translation: Jews age 30 to 45 travelled to Israel to get it on in the sun, with a side of hummus.
  • "It pains and shocks me to say this, but here goes: My father was right all along. He always told me, as I spouted liberal talking points at the Shabbos table and challenged his hawkish views on Israel and the Palestinians to his unending chagrin, that I would one day change my tune." Have you had a similar experience?
  • "'What’s this, mommy?' she asked, while pulling at the purple sleeve to unwrap this mysterious little gift mom keeps hidden in the inside pocket of her bag. Oh boy, how do I answer?"
  • "I fear that we are witnessing the end of politics in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I see no possibility for resolution right now. I look into the future and see only a void." What do you think?
  • Not a gazillionaire? Take the "poor door."
  • "We will do what we must to protect our people. We have that right. We are not less deserving of life and quiet than anyone else. No more apologies."
  • "Woody Allen should have quit while he was ahead." Ezra Glinter's review of "Magic in the Moonlight": http://jd.fo/f4Q1Q
  • Jon Stewart responds to his critics: “Look, obviously there are many strong opinions on this. But just merely mentioning Israel or questioning in any way the effectiveness or humanity of Israel’s policies is not the same thing as being pro-Hamas.”
  • "My bat mitzvah party took place in our living room. There were only a few Jewish kids there, and only one from my Sunday school class. She sat in the corner, wearing the right clothes, asking her mom when they could go." The latest in our Promised Lands series — what state should we visit next?
  • Former Israeli National Security Advisor Yaakov Amidror: “A cease-fire will mean that anytime Hamas wants to fight it can. Occupation of Gaza will bring longer-term quiet, but the price will be very high.” What do you think?
  • Should couples sign a pre-pregnancy contract, outlining how caring for the infant will be equally divided between the two parties involved? Just think of it as a ketubah for expectant parents:
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.