Scott Hillman was in the lobby of a Virginia Beach hotel that was hosting a convention for messianic Jews when a woman approached him. “You’re a nice Jewish boy; don’t you know Yeshua HaMashiach [Jesus the Messiah] was predicted in the Tanakh?” she said in a thick Israeli accent.
Hillman — executive director of the countermissionary group Jews for Judaism, started in 1985 in response to Jews for Jesus — was prepared. He asked the woman which verse, exactly, anticipated Jesus. The woman produced an English-language Bible and pointed to Isaiah 7:14, where it said that a virgin will conceive and bear a son.
Hillman asked the woman if she could read Hebrew. “Of course,” she said. He then pulled out a Bible of his own and pointed to the same verse in Hebrew. The woman shouted, “Mah Pitom!” (“What gives!”) The Hebrew word used was “ha-almah”; it means “young woman,” not “virgin.”
And thus another Jew began the journey back to Judaism, thanks to the dedication of Jews for Judaism.
Hillman can often be found lurking around hotels or convention centers — or any locale where Jews for Jesus, the Union of Messianic Jewish Congregations, the Chosen People Ministries or other Hebrew Christian groups is having a convention.
“At these conventions [Hebrew Christians] normally check into a hotel,” Hillman told the Forward over a Diet Coke. “We check into the same hotel and make ourselves available. But we don’t approach.”
Jews for Judaism officials usually just stand around the hotel lobby. They don’t preach or raise their voices. “You’re not going to get anyone back by screaming,” Hillman said. Many Hebrew Christians feel responsible for “educating” their “misguided” brethren, and so Hillman and his ilk are almost always approached.
There are roughly 900 evangelical organizations that pour money into missionary work aimed at Jews. Jews for Jesus, for example, has a $10 million budget for a 66-city, five-year plan called “Behold Your God.” The goal: To convince as many Jews as possible that Jesus is the messiah.
More than 275,000 Jews worldwide over the past 25 years have been converted by Hebrew Christian missionaries, according to Jews for Judaism’s Web site. But, as Hillman pointed out, this is a sketchy figure; estimates range from 50,000 to 1 million, depending on the source.
Jews for Judaism is far smaller than its messianic rivals, with only 15 full-time staffers spread between its Baltimore, Los Angeles and Toronto offices; their countermissionary efforts are supplemented by volunteers from the Jewish Community Relations Councils.
Not all of the volunteers have Hillman’s restraint, according to David Brickner, national executive director of Jews for Jesus. “Some of them are real nice, real friendly [but] one woman… started cursing me out.”
Hillman does not condone screaming. “We won’t do anything we can’t sign our names to,” Hillman said. And in its quiet way, Jews for Judaism — which dispatches a squad of counter-leafleters whenever it catches wind of a Jews for Jesus session — has earned a prominent place on the radar screens of messianic organizations.
Hillman says that conference organizers have gone so far as to make attendees take an oath not to speak to him and to assign security guards to monitor him.
The edgy war between Jews for Judaism and the Hebrew Christian movement is as strong as ever, with Israel as its controversial new battleground. Asked why members of Jews for Jesus consider themselves Jews even as they view Jesus as the messiah, Brickner said, “We don’t want to stop our Jewishness: We value our heritage; we support Israel.”
“When I became a follower of Jesus,” Brickner added, “I didn’t stop eating corned beef sandwiches.”
This summer, the Union of Messianic Jewish Congregations organized a solidarity mission with Messianic Believers in Israel, which rented out space for the conference on Kibbutz Ramat Rachel, just outside Jerusalem. The kibbutz residents were unaware of the messianic group’s agenda. It was the first time the messianic union held a convention in the Holy Land. Hillman, of course, had flown there to greet them — with a crack squad from Jews for Judaism in tow.
“We spoke to over 1,000 people over the course of the 10 days, and we got 5,000 copies of [our literature] out in Hebrew,” Hillman said. Jews for Judaism met with 16 Israelis for “counseling.” The idea of opening a Jews for Judaism office in the Jewish state was raised.
In Israel there are well over 100 Hebrew Christian congregations, organizations and seminaries with roughly 7,000 followers, according to Hillman. There are more Hebrew Christian institutions than Reform or Conservative ones combined. The Union of Messianic Jewish Congregations seems to be most successful with Jews from the former Soviet Union, who are often unfamiliar with the laws and practices of Judaism.
“Any time there’s any vulnerability, they take aim,” said Larry Levey, who from 1985 to 1989 served as the president of Jews for Judaism and is himself a former Jew for Jesus.
“It’s an interesting group that gets involved” in messianic Judaism, Levey said. He said he agrees with one of his friends — another countermissionary — who once said that it was very different dealing with converts to Christianity compared with Jews who became Buddhists or Hare Krishnas. “They’re a different breed… laid-back, sweet…. These fundamentalist groups are not! They’re mean, deceptive, hostile!”
The hostility some Jews feel for Christian missionaries can be attributed in part to two millennia of Christian persecution. Buddhists and Hare Krishnas don’t tend to inspire the same heated emotions.
Levey grew up in a Conservative home in Rockland County, N.Y. After graduating from Antioch Law School, he went to work at a Washington law firm. “I had everything that was supposed to make me happy, yet somehow I felt empty,” Levey said. In 1980 one of his clients, an Evangelical Christian, began speaking to him about Jesus. “They said that by believing in Jesus, I wouldn’t give up Judaism — I would just be a fulfilled Jew.”
Indeed, Congregation Beth Messiah — the Hebrew Christian congregation in Rockville, Md., that Levey joined — had a distinctly Jewish feel, with its yarmulke-wearing congregants and chasidic-sounding hymns. There were no crosses, and no mention was made of “Jesus” or the “Virgin Mary,” only “Yeshua” and “Miriam.” Newcomers were not “baptized”; they were dunked in a “mikvah.”
Levey convinced his brother and sister to join Jews for Jesus and then quit his job so that he could spend his days proselytizing on college campuses. But this “became very tiresome,” he said. He disliked the way his fellow believers shunned both people who left the movement and countermissionary literature.
After meetings with Jews for Judaism in 1982, Levey returned to Judaism. He himself became a counselor for the countermissionary group, drawing upon his own experiences.
Brickner of Jews for Jesus dismisses Levey’s claim that his organization targets the vulnerable. “We target everybody — anyone who’s been willing to talk to us,” Brickner said. And that includes Christians as well as Jews.
Like Levey, many revert back to Judaism, although no one in the countermissionary movement can say just how many. Jews for Judaism, along with a handful of other countermissionary groups, has brought hundreds — perhaps thousands — back into the fold.
Rabbi Tovia Singer is the founder of Outreach Judaism, an international countermissionary organization. Singer, who hosts a Tuesday night radio show on 98.7 FM, estimates that he brings back between one and two Jews per week. “It usually takes about nine hours of counseling,” he said, “but the success rate is very high.”
Singer tries to address their spiritual concerns with seriousness; his reasonability often spawns trust. For those who don’t meet with him one-to-one, Outreach Judaism sells Singer’s lectures on tape.
An evangelical pastor in Palestine, Texas, ordered the tapes so that he could better counter the countermissionaries. To his own surprise, he was so moved that he decided to convert to Judaism. He now lives in the chasidic Brooklyn neighborhood of Crown Heights.
The former pastor, Singer said, “is an anomaly.”