Jewish communities in unexpected forms

I remember receiving those Jews-for-Jesus tracts as a teenager and being at first amused, then shocked, and finally furious.

By
September 17, 2018 22:32
Jewish communities in unexpected forms

Baruch Hashem Messianic Synagogue in Dallas, Texas. (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)

 
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Recently, I received a strange invitation to be an outside observer at a conference of Jews in Dallas, Texas, who gathered to talk about Jewish issues. That admittedly does not, in and of itself, sound all that strange. These, however, were not exactly run-of-the-mill Jews. They were Jewish Christians.

Because of my work in Jewish-Christian relations, my research on Messianic Jews, my book project on Jewish-Catholics, and thanks to my long-time academic friendships with some of the leaders of this meeting, I was invited as a trusted outsider.

I grew up in a committed Conservative Jewish family in Toronto. I remember receiving those Jews-for-Jesus tracts as a teenager and being at first amused, then shocked, and finally furious. My own life path brought me to increased Jewish observance, aliyah and a vibrant committed life of Torah and mitzvot. I am, as I’ve said elsewhere, a Jewish Jew for Judaism. But a doctorate in religious studies, a passionate ongoing interest, day-to-day work in Jewish-Christian relations and a general sense of adventure have taken me to some fascinating and perhaps unorthodox places on the Jewish-Christian border that I’ve been investigating and writing about in one way or another for over a decade.

Thus I found myself sitting in on the deliberations of about 50 men and women with only two things in common: They were all Jews and all were ardent, serious, passionate Christians from across the denominational spectrum. They included Messianic Jews, Anglican Jews, Catholic Jews, Presbyterian Jews, Eastern Orthodox Jews – but all Jews. These were Christians who would under normal circumstances find it extremely challenging if not impossible to pray, speak, study and consult together. There were kippot and bare heads. There was a nun in habit and priests in collar. Vegetarian food was served so no one would have to eat non-kosher meat. There was plenty of Yiddish and Hebrew. They came from Canada, from Russia, from Israel, from France and from America. They celebrated a Catholic mass in Hebrew each morning and a Messianic Jewish mincha-maariv prayers in the early evening.
Unsurprisingly, most Jews are pretty uncomfortable with the idea of Jews who believe in Jesus. Yet I found myself wondering if there was anything in this gathering for us in the mainstream Jewish community, beyond the obvious and understandable responses of loss, harm, threat and anxiety. Was there anything here for us to learn?

They came together as Jewish Christians from across the globe to ask one core question, shockingly unexceptional from this rather exceptional group – a question that was completely ordinary and non-distinct, notwithstanding the assuredly unordinary nature of the gathering. They gathered to ask precisely the same question that tops the agenda of every Diaspora Jewish communal organization today. They came together as Jewish priests, Jewish pastors, Jewish theologians and Jewish ministers to ask the same seemingly banal question: How to ensure Jewish survival?

Three days of conversation centered on how to make sure that despite their active and committed Christian lives, their Jewishness – their own and that of others – does not disappear; how to make sure they have Jewish grandchildren; how to be more actively Jewish; how to keep Jews – even Jewish-Christians – Jewish.

UNDOUBTEDLY THESE are pretty out-of-the-ordinary Jews. But they are most certainly Jews: Jews whose lives would in fact be much easier if they were to assimilate; Jews who have suffered for their Judaism. Some were Christians whose Jewishness is still not public knowledge, who hide their Jewishness and yet are desperately eager to live more authentic Jewish lives. There were Jews whose active Jewish identities are perceived as threatening to their churches. Many there were Jews who faced rejection from their Jewish families and were not welcomed by the mainstream Jewish community. Yet they came together absolutely committed to their Jewishness in order to be together with other Jews, and to invest in and commit to Jewish survival in their own corner of the Jewish people.


In some ways, one test of their commitment lay in how I was understood, how I was treated by this group as an outsider. There’s no question I was a bit of a curiosity, this clearly Orthodox Jewish woman in a head covering and long skirt. Sure, someone was concerned that I might be a spy from an anti-missionary organization. (I’m not.)

Many people wanted to know what I was doing there. When a group of us went out to dinner before the conference officially began, I was a little embarrassed to be the Jew who insisted on “a salad please, just cold fresh vegetables, no croutons, no dressing, yes really JUST vegetables.”

So, “Yes, I keep kosher,” I explained, a little awkwardly in this context. “Good!” boomed a Jewish priest next to me. “May you always do so!” No one evangelized me. No one offended me or tried to change me. But they did make sure that I ate kosher and they brought in special food just for me without my asking. They made sure that I felt welcome. My Jewishness, no matter how distinctive from theirs, was respected, accepted and encouraged.

Jews might not like the idea of Jewish Christians. We might find them threatening, impossible or disingenuous. Fair enough. But at a time when the mainstream Jewish community finds it so challenging to get Jews to live active and committed Jewish lives, this gathering was an unexpected inspiration. We should take note of these people with no need to stay Jewish, who gain no friends, who have no advantage by insisting on their Jewishness, for whom it would have been so much easier to ignore, forget, hide and walk away from their identities. Despite all that, something in them insists on who they are. They are Jews. And we need them, as we need every Jewish soul.

And so – perhaps strangely – it was there, in an overly air-conditioned room in Dallas in August, surrounded by practicing Christians, people who used big Christian words like “transubstantiation” and “supersessionism” that this Orthodox Jew understood as never before that truly and mysteriously, Am Yisrael chai – the people of Israel live.

The writer is the director for the Israel Center for Jewish-Christian Relations and senior fellow at the Philos Project. She also holds a research fellowship at the Center for the Study of Religions at Tel Hai College in Israel and can be contacted at faydra@philosproject.com.

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