Christians Celebrate The High Holidays, Too — But Are They Welcome At Synagogue?

Paula White, the charismatic megachurch leader and spiritual adviser to Donald Trump, fasts on Yom Kippur and urges her millions of followers to do the same. They’re also supposed to reflect on “the atoning blood of Jesus.”

“The Day of Atonement, or Yom Kippur, is God’s biblical holy day that He established on Israel’s calendar as a covenant of repentance,” White said on her website in a special holiday message. “Make it a priority to honor God — we are to pray, fast and give an offering!”

Yom Kippur, the holiday during which Jews atone for sins through prayer and repentance, is popular in some Christian circles, where it meshes with their belief that Jesus Christ died for the sins of man. Some are so moved by idea that during the High Holidays they venture beyond their communities into Jewish spaces. Jews have a range of reactions. Some view Christian guests as unwelcome interlopers, while others sound downright happy to have them.

“I’m not going to bar people from the shul,” said Rabbi David Ingber, spiritual leader of Romemu, a popular Jewish Renewal synagogue in Manhattan. “As long as they want to come do Judaism with us, anyone is welcome.”

Most Christian observances of the High Holidays are clearly grounded in a separate theology and typically take place in their own distinct, Christian world.

Members of the Living Church of God, an American denomination of some 10,000 members, headquartered in North Carolina, will gather in churches across the country, for example. Like White, they will fast, reflecting on “the awesome sacrifice of the Lamb of God.”

But some Jesus believers hope to worship alongside Jews — and are finding some surprising inroads to the Jewish community.

Evangelical Christian interest in Jewish ritual is not new, but has grown over the past decades. Some Jews are offended by the trend, viewing it as unwelcome religious appropriation. But others may point out that the evangelical affinity for Judaism is often coupled with firm support for the State of Israel.

“I’ve always been curious to visit Jewish communities,” said Joe Miterko, a Connecticut-raised graduate of the Charles L. Feinberg Center for Messianic Jewish Studies, in Brooklyn. “It’s really fun. We can learn things from the Jewish community.”

In the Messianic Jewish community, rabbinic Jewish observance melds with the belief in Jesus. There are some 400 self-identified Messianic congregations in North America, with about as many overseas. Non-ethnic Jews may also join Messianic churches and similarly take on Jewish practices, like observing holidays, donning ritual garb and calling themselves Messianics.

Miterko, who grew up attending a Messianic Jewish congregation in Connecticut, visited as many as two synagogues a month during his two-and-a-half year divinity program with Chosen People Ministries, a Messianic organization headquartered in New York. The school requires that students visit synagogues for the Sabbath or holidays so that they might get a better feel of how mainstream Jews worship, leaders say.

Messianics aren’t always welcome. They have mostly been seen as interlopers or soul-snatching missionaries.

All major Jewish denominations have officially rejected Messianic Judaism as a form of Judaism. Some anti-missionary groups have mounted educational campaigns against the community, viewing groups like Jews for Jesus as manipulative for even calling themselves Jewish.

The idea of Messianics showing up for High Holidays services, then — the holiest time of the year for Jews — strikes some as deeply offensive.

“We don’t want them in our synagogues,” said Lawrence Schiffman, a professor of Jewish studies at New York University who addressed the phenomenon in a paper commissioned by the Jewish Community Relations Council of New York, titled “Meeting the Challenge: Hebrew Christians and the Jewish Community.”

Schiffman said he didn’t advocate for a “witch hunt” to determine whether anyone was a Messianic or believed in Jesus, but he did think it was within the rights of religious communities to police their theological borders.

“If they’re coming and getting into conversations at the Kiddush about how they believe in Jesus,” Schiffman said, “we can indicate that they’re not welcome.”

In his influential paper written in 1993, Schiffman advised that the Jewish community “must stand firm in asserting that this other faith is not Judaism and that its adherents have forfeited their privileges as Jews.”

Despite the prevalence of such attitudes, some Jesus-believing Messianics are still looking for access to Jewish spaces.

Miterko says he and other Messianics visit popular liberal New York synagogues like B’nai Jeshurun, Central Synagogue and Union Temple of Brooklyn.

At Romemu, the high-profile Renewal synagogue on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, Messianics are receiving the most dramatic welcoming. Renewal is the youngest Jewish denomination and grew out of the spiritual counterculture of the 1960s. Ingber said Messianics worship and study at Romemu, a congregation that prides itself on its inclusivity.

“If people believe in Jesus they can still come to Romemu,” Ingber said.

The booming world of Jewish resources — like Chabad.org, MyJewishLearning and the popular animated series BimBam — provides access points for non-Jews who want to learn Hebrew or how to observe Jewish holidays.

The High Holidays season is the busiest time of the year at BimBam, said Sarah Lefton, the founding director. While there is no data about the number of Jesus believers who frequent the site, Lefton says sees she sees many comments from Messianics and Christians.

It’s such a trend that she’s created an alert that will let her know if comments on her YouTube page include certain words, like “Yeshua,” a Hebrew rendering of Jesus’ name popular with Messianics. Sometimes, the comment section devolves into combative missionizing, and Lefton will step in to delete comments, but most of the time she just takes note.

“I’ve seen more engagement from self-described Messianics,” Lefton said. “They’re posting and maybe saying that a particular idea or video is helpful in their religious growth.”

Lefton said she didn’t know what to make of the fact that her site — which aims to serve Jewish families — is so popular with a separate religious group.

“It’s a curiosity,” she said. “It’s an awkward situation. I’m not opposed to helping them learn about Judaism, but it’s not our mandate. As a Jewish educator, is this part of my job? Educating Messianic Jews? Are these my students or not?”

The importance of evangelizing to the Jewish community is, for sure, a central plank of Messianic theology, as Messianics believe that Jesus is the Messiah. But they push back at the idea that they are seeking communion with Jews at synagogue simply to convert them.

“We don’t want to walk in and steal someone else’s crowds that they’ve worked hard to gather,” said Mitch Glaser, president of Chosen People Ministries, who frequently visits Jewish synagogues in Manhattan.

“It’s not about evangelizing at all,” Miterko said. “If they ask about Messianic Judaism I would tell them, but I would never evangelize on other people’s property.”

As Jews gather to fast for Yom Kippur, thousands of non-Jews will be doing the same. Most likely, they’ll be in their own Jesus-worshipping or Messianic congregations, where they wouldn’t be ruffling feathers and the holiday has its own Christian meaning. But the broader interest in Jewish rituals and holidays is only growing — and religious borders can feel porous.

Patricia Power, a professor of religious studies at Arizona State University and the author of “Blurring the Boundaries: American Messianic Jews and Gentiles,” said the popularity of Jewish rituals among Jesus believers is part of the “commodification of Judaism.” Resources about Jewish life are more easy to come by, and communities may self-style their own religious practice, she said.

“It may be harder today for established Jewish groups to enforce boundaries,” Power said. “It’s an issue of borders.”

Contact Sam Kestenbaum at kestenbaum@forward.com and follow him on Twitter, @skestenbaum

Author

Sam Kestenbaum

Sam Kestenbaum

Sam Kestenbaum is a staff writer for the Forward. Before this, he worked for The New York Times and newsrooms in Sana, Ramallah and Beijing. Contact him at kestenbaum@forward.com and follow him on Twitter at @skestenbaum and on Instagram at @skestenbaum.

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Christians Celebrate The High Holidays, Too — But Are They Welcome At Synagogue?

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