jews for jesus 224.88.
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski [file])
"Jesus for Jews," reads the advertisement on the F train speeding through south Brooklyn's subway tracks toward Coney Island. It's a confusing configuration. But then it becomes clear it is simply "Jews for Jesus" inverted and that the change is only the beginning of what is new, stream-lined, and more expansive about the well-known - and to most, highly annoying - Christian missionary group.
It's not the first summer that these missionaries have made their presence felt in New York City. In fact, the sight of Jews for Jesus volunteers distributing hand-drawn pamphlets has become as much a part of the New York summer as the humidity and the overwhelming stench that some say covers Manhattan.
But this year is different. With a budget of $1.5 million and determined to make their month-long New York crusade the grand finale of their five-year global "Behold Your God" campaign, Jews for Jesus has pulled out all the stops.
According to David Brickner, the group's executive director, instead the usual core of 25 volunteers, more than 150 have arrived from Jews for Jesus headquarters around the world, including from Israel Australia and Russia.
Their prime targets are Russian Jews, Israelis and the Orthodox, and to that end materials and a Web site have been translated into Hebrew, Russian and Yiddish. There are concerts and films almost every day, and a hip ad campaign in places like the F train.
The missionaries have expanded beyond well-worn places like Times Square, operating in all five boroughs of the city as well as to the north and in New Jersey.
The first real indication that this year was going to be different came in early June, when 80,000 Orthodox families in places like Crown Heights, Brooklyn, and Lakewood, New Jersey, received a free DVD in the mail. Titled Ymos Hamoshiach (Days of the Messiah) and produced entirely in Yiddish - with a warning label that saying Der DVD ist mamash m'ain m'olam haba (This DVD is literally from the world to come) - it contained a recounting of the life of Jesus.
"The DVD was pretty controversial," admitted Brickner, who was in New York for the campaign. "But never let it be said that we prey on the vulnerable and the weak. That was not an easy community to approach."
Brickner said New York was an obvious culmination for the five-year, $22m. campaign whose objective was to reach every city with more than 25,000 Jews.
For him, the point is clear, and it is not just about getting masses of Jews to accept Christ. "We exist to make the messiahship of Jesus an unavoidable issue for the Jewish public - put out on the table and discussed - so that it is absolutely normal to accept that one can be Jewish and believe in Jesus," Birkner said.
Since the start of the campaign last week, Brickner said that, in addition to having handed out 328,620 tracts, volunteers had gotten 378 Jews to provide their addresses and phone numbers to get more information, and had apparently convinced 30 Jews to "receive Jesus as their savior."
The counterattack is being led by the Jewish Community Relations Council of New York, in particular their Spiritual Deception Prevention Project, in partnership with international counter-missionary organization Jews for Judaism.
Scott Hillman, head of Jews for Judaism's Baltimore office and director of this summer's counter campaign, said rather than debating with Jews for Jesus and thereby lending them credibility, his efforts have focused on giving Jews a reason to remain Jews.
The program, run with the participation of the New York Board of Rabbis, is called "Say Yes to Judaism." It will consist of an ad campaign, as well as plenty of Jews for Judaism's own literature and multimedia material. Volunteers will also be standing by anywhere that the Jews for Jesus missionaries are gathered in order to counter their information.
"Judaism has been around for 3,500 years. Surely we have an answer for any question they could raise," said Hillman. "The reason people are being convinced by them is not theological.
"Everybody we talk to who comes back to Judaism after having been Christian says the reason they were convinced to leave was because someone paid attention to them, called them up, bought them a cup of coffee, visited them at their home. In some ways, we Jews have been neglecting these basic functions of community," he said.
Rabbi Bentzion Kravitz, who founded Jews for Judaism in 1985, said the threat from missionaries had only grown since he founded Jews for Judaism in 1985. During the last few years, rather than directly targeting Jews, Jews for Jesus has been training evangelical Christians to convert their Jewish friends.
"Nineteen out of 20 who come to us these days were converted to Christianity not by some missionary on the street, but by a good friend, a teacher, colleague, who was evangelical Christian and trained in how to recruit Jews," Kravitz said.
He said his group's most important role was to provide services, including a toll-free number, for family members who were looking for help to bring back someone who had become Christian.
"People are looking for a spiritual connection," Kravitz said. "Messianic Judaism offers them a kind of spirituality that we have to find a way to better emphasize in Judaism."
When asked how great a danger Jews for Jesus poses, Kravitz answered, "If anyone has lost someone they love to this, they would know exactly what a threat it actually is."