HOLLYWOOD, Fla. — A fierce religious turf battle exploded in South Florida last month, as a Christian missionary blitz drew fierce opposition from Jewish groups.
As part of its “Behold Your God” campaign, several dozen Jews for Jesus activists spent two weeks in mid-December attempting to win over members of the 225,000-person Jewish community in Palm Beach County. The missionary group held rallies, speeches and religious concerts at churches throughout the county, as well as an event at Florida Atlantic University. They also used direct mail and phone calls to reach Jews with their message: “Jesus Christ, the messiah, has come.”
Rabbis responded with sermons warning their followers of the missionary efforts. Under pressure from Jewish groups, local newspapers refused to publish the advertisements from the missionary group, but agreed to run a warning from the Jewish Federation about the campaign.
With an annual budget of $14 million, Jews for Jesus plans to hit about 65 areas with 25,000 or more Jews during the next two years. But the theological tug-of-war in South Florida represented a fight over a region considered an important stronghold by both communities.
“West Palm Beach has over 225,000 Jewish people,” said Stan Meyer, an organizer of the South Florida campaign, in a statement on the Jews for Jesus Web site. “Many people think that these are all retirees, but that is far from the case. In fact, West Palm and Broward are two of the fastest-growing counties in Florida.”
Jewish groups, which monitor the messianic organization’s Web site, learned four months ago that Palm Beach County was to be the target of a conversion campaign and sprang into action. Ten days before the campaign began, the Jewish Community Relations Council of the Jewish Federation of the Palm Beaches purchased two sets of ads in local and Jewish newspapers — spending $25,000 — in an effort to head off the missionary efforts.
“The message of the ads was, ‘They’re coming — you need to know who they are,’” said Bill Gralnick, southeast regional director of the American Jewish Committee.
The American Jewish Committee also called on rabbis at every synagogue in Palm Beach County to speak about the upcoming blitz on the Friday night before it began. Local groups did not appeal to any national Jewish organizations for help, Gralnick said.
“We viewed this as a local incursion,” he explained.
Jewish groups claim that the missionary group has about 250,000 followers across the world, but a Jews for Jesus spokesman says the figure is closer to 75,000.
Activists on each side argued that their side had prevailed in the recent skirmish.
“I feel that one of our main goals was to raise the level of conversation about Jesus, which we did,” said missionary spokeswoman Susan Perlman.
Still, Perlman complained about the refusal of local newspapers to publish her group’s advertisements. She also criticized Jewish groups over what she described as their “lack of tolerance for positions other than their own,” and argued that they should have been at the forefront of protesting when newspapers “deprived us of our rights.”
Gralnick offered no apologies, boasting that Jewish groups had successfully fended off the missionary efforts.
“We rattled them and that was our design,” Gralnick said.
Gralnick said that messianic Jewish groups are still a threat and accused them of utilizing stealth tactics to infiltrate Jewish organizations. He said a prominent board member of one Palm Beach County Jewish organization recently revealed she had become a Jews for Jesus devotee and that her husband is now divorcing her. Gralnick declined to share any other specifics.
“Between intermarriage and divorce and the low birth rate and these messianic groups, we are seeing increasing threats to Jewish communal life,” Gralnick said. “We take these groups very seriously.”