With Presbyterian and Jewish communal leaders preparing for a high-level meeting to address the church’s recent vote to divest from Israel, an unlikely candidate is offering his services as a mediator: Andrew Sparks, a messianic minister accused by critics of using deceptive tactics to attract Jews to his congregation.
The religious leader of Congregation Avodat Yisrael in Philadelphia, Sparks told the Forward that his unique position as a Presbyterian minister and a Jew makes him the perfect bridge between the two battling faith groups at a scheduled September 28 session in New York. He said that the Jewish community needs his help because Palestinians already have inside influence at the Presbyterian Church (USA).
“There are a number of Palestinians who are part of the Presbyterian Church,” said Sparks, whose congregation was launched almost a year ago. “Even though the Jewish community may not see us as their representative, we see our role as a positive force for Jewish values.”
Sparks’s offer, strongly rejected by Jewish and Presbyterian leaders, comes as hundreds of Jewish leaders from around the country are expected to participate in a national conference call next week to discuss how to fight the church’s new position, marking what is believed to be the first time a major American Protestant church has adopted a divestment policy against Israel. The conference call will also address three other controversial anti-Israel resolutions approved by the church’s General Assembly, as well as its refusal to cut off funding to Sparks’ congregation.
Reform and Conservative Jewish leaders plan to meet with Presbyterian officials on September 28 in an attempt to resolve bitter feelings on both sides resulting from the resolutions and the ensuing wave of criticism against the church.
In a rare show of unscripted unanimity, Presbyterian and Jewish officials immediately and strongly rejected Sparks’ offer in separate interviews with the Forward.
“I think [Sparks] doesn’t seem to understand that his presenting himself as both a Christian and a Jew is problematic for both Jews and Presbyterians,” said Jay Rock, the church’s director of interfaith relations. “He doesn’t pay attention, or he doesn’t care that this is very abrasive and unhelpful to both communities.”
Rock, a veteran Christian interfaith official, has been fielding angry reactions from Jewish officials since the controversial resolutions were approved in early July. The church rejected a measure to halt funding to messianic churches that target Jews, came out against “Christian Zionism” and bashed Israel’s security fence, saying Israel’s policies regarding the Palestinians are the root of evil in the Middle East.
Jewish leaders are concerned that the decision by the church, the ninth largest in the nation with about 2.4 million members, could trigger a domino effect among other mainline Protestant groups. The church’s divestment resolution launched a process in which the church will examine its $7 billion portfolio and seek to withdraw its investments in selected companies it determines “directly or indirectly” cause “harm or suffering to innocent people, Palestinian or Israeli.”
Asked about Sparks’ offer, Rock remarked: “How do you think this would go over with the Jewish community, having the messianic minister of a messianic congregation that makes the Jewish community’s hair stand on end be the mediator? I don’t think it would fly.”
Jewish officials confirmed this view. “His very presence there would be offensive to us,” declared Rabbi Eric Yoffie, president of the Union for Reform Judaism. “What he is doing is trying to live two traditions, which is inherently impossible, and luring Jews through counterfeit notions. The inability for Presbyterians to understand this is what is so deeply offensive.”
At the meeting later this month, Yoffie; Rabbi Jerome Epstein, executive vice president of the Conservative movement’s congregational arm; and Rabbi Gil Rosenthal, director of the National Council of Synagogues, are expected to meet with Clifton Kirkpatrick, the Presbyterian church’s top official. They plan to discuss the serious breech between the two faiths that in recent weeks has led Jewish activists to write angry editorials, sign petitions against the church and call for the end to interfaith dialogue until the resolutions are amended.
“The purpose of the meeting is to talk about the resolutions that are so distressing to us,” said Mark Pelavin, associate director of the Religious Action Center in Washington, an arm of the Reform movement. “At the same time, we discuss how we can strengthen the dialogue at the local level.”
The Anti-Defamation League and the American Jewish Committee were also supposed to be part of the meeting, but church officials rejected their participation.
“We made the decision to accept an invitation from the Reform and Conservative communities because they are our closest parallel to the kind of congregationally-based religious body we are,” said Rock.
The ADL’s interfaith director, Rabbi Gary Bretton-Granatoor, said the decision to keep out the national Jewish defense organization demonstrates that church has a “fundamental misunderstanding of the Jewish community. We are not organized like the Christian world. Whereas there might be social justice and civil rights organizations that exist outside of the church bodies, within the Jewish community the religious and the civic have always worked in tandem.”
Regional representatives of the ADL, AJCommittee and Jewish Council for Public Affairs Committee are expected to take part in the conference call. One objective will be to encourage local Presbyterian leaders to pressure the church’s national leadership.
Bretton-Granatoor said a growing number of Presbyterians are criticizing the divestment resolution as not reflecting the people in the pews, according to correspondence he has received.
For example, a group calling itself Presbyterians Concerned for Jewish Christian Relations issued a statement reproving the church.
“We are deeply distressed by any suggestion that divestment policies of the church relating to Israel should uniquely target that country in ways that do not apply to every other country, including Palestine,” said the group.
The divestment resolution was also panned by Sparks, despite the decision by delegates to the church’s recent General Assembly to reject a resolution calling for an end to the funding of messianic congregations like his.
Sparks’ church, which mixes Jewish symbols with Christian concepts, has received about $260,000 from regional and local Presbyterian coffers. But after a Jewish newspaper revealed in November that the church’s headquarters also contributed to the funding, some Jewish and Presbyterian communal leaders joined together in an unsuccessful effort to stop the funding.
Sparks maintains that Avodat Yisrael does not proselytize and instead offers a welcoming place for other Jews who believe Jesus is the Messiah foretold in the Hebrew Bible.
“As the only messianic Jewish community in relationship with the Presbyterian Church (USA), Congregation Avodat Yisrael does not agree with the Presbyterian church’s actions to censure Israel,” Sparks said.
The Presbyterian church, like other Protestant denominations, maintains close ties with the Arab world through its missionary work and medical and educational institutions, including the American universities in Beirut and Cairo. At the church’s July national conference, Reverend Mitri Raheb, a Lutheran pastor from Bethlehem, lobbied the General Assembly to pass the divestment resolution.
Kirkpatrick, in a statement, denied that the General Assembly has equated Israel’s treatment of Palestinians with South Africa’s treatment of blacks during apartheid. He also said the church is committed to Israel’s existence “within legitimate and secure borders” and advocated Palestinians right-of-return “to their homeland.”
William Somplatsky-Jarman, a church staffer who works with a committee that monitors corporate behavior, told the Washington Post last month that the church is following the same divestment procedure it has used on numerous occasions.