Jews for Jesus will begin a 2 1/2-week project in the Valley next weekend to reach out with their message that “you can be Jewish and believe in Jesus.”
What’s called Operation Behold Your God has been taken, since 2001, to about 60 metropolitan areas worldwide.
The Valley is one of the last, said Rob Wertheim, who will lead about 30 Jews for Jesus volunteers in the effort here. The Valley has nearly 100,000 Jews.
Founded in 1973 by Martin “Moishe” Rosen, a convert from Judaism who became an ordained Baptist minister, Jews for Jesus is an evangelical organization to reach out to Jews with its evidence that Christ was the messiah and that he fulfilled the prophecy.
Jews do not accept that Jesus Christ was the messiah prophesied in the Hebrew Bible.
The Jewish Federation of Greater Phoenix, working with rabbis and congregations, is calling on Jews to come together with stronger Jewish identity through better communications and a knowledge of what the Jews for Jesus group is seeking. They also will take advantage of the watchdog group, Jews for Judaism, whose purpose is to undergird that identity among Jews and “build a response” to the messianic Jewish movement.
The federation held a series of meetings in early February with rabbis. “I was approached by Jews for Judaism, who advised me that the Jews for Jesus was going to be having a large, highly funded and aggressive effort targeting Phoenix in March,” said the federation’s executive vice president, Adam Schwartz, in a memo about the meetings. In other communities, he said, Jews for Judaism has helped “respond to a wide variety of issues confronted by the Jewish community when Jews for Jesus have been in that community.”
The Jewish Federation is creating a task force that will “work to support the community, including working with interfaith communities who want to, within their own religious communities and affiliations, strengthen who they are so they feel more secure” in their Judaism, said Jane Wabnik, federation communications director. While some regard Jews for Jesus as a “great threat,” she said that by developing programs to strengthen Jewish identity in congregations, their impact can be countered.
The Jews for Jesus effort will be Feb. 25 to March 13 across the Valley, said Wertheim, 47, who was raised in a Conservative Jewish home in New York City.
“We are made up of people who believe Jesus is the messiah, and we are reaching the Jewish people with the Gospel that Jesus is the messiah,” he said. Volunteers will be distributing printed materials primarily at events or hightraffic areas, including Cactus League games, Arizona State University, Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport, the Scottsdale Arabian Horse Show and the Ostrich Festival in Chandler, he said.
“When we hand out literature, we hand it out to everyone” and not just people believed to be Jewish, he said. “Everybody needs to hear about Jesus,” Wertheim said. “Our materials are directed to Jewish people, but is impossible to know who is Jewish and who is not Jewish, and we don’t ask them.”
“What a waste of trees,” said Rabbi Barton Lee, who has directed the Hillel Jewish Student Center at ASU since 1972. “Jews for Jesus is a fraudulent conversionary attempt, and they try to tell you that you can have Christianity without Christian freedom and Jewish law without the Jewish system of repentance — and substitute Christ. That is simply twisting, beyond recognition, both Judaism and Christianity.”
He noted that Jews for Jesus “make an appearance now and then” in the Valley. “They are an annoyance — very flamboyant, loud and annoying.”
Rabbi Bonnie Koppell, who has served several Valley congregations since 1987, said Jews for Jesus are outside the boundary of “anything that could be called normal Jewish thinking.” She lauded the united effort of Jewish organizations and congregations to sharpen identity and focus on Jewish texts with congregants.
“How do Jews view those texts?” she asked. “Not through a Christian lens, but through a Jewish lens.”
“The rabbis, in particular, are very interested in meeting with young people, with high school students and informing them,” she said. She said a common evangelical method employed is to “prey on human weakness and those who are confused, depressed or alone.”
Wertheim said it is unfair to say Jews for Jesus is “targeting” Jews. He calls it a negative term.
“We love our people. I love my Jewish people, and I want to see my people know their messiah. That is between them and God, and I have no control over that,” he said.
“We are an information agency, so what we can do is give information to people, but it is really up to them if they want to make a decision or they don’t.”
Wertheim said Jews misunderstand the term “convert.”
“For a Jewish person, ‘convert’ means to give up their Jewish identity and become basically a Christian or a gentile,” but that is not the goal, Wertheim said. Jewish identity does not have to be surrendered, he said. Instead, his outreach organization seeks “to help them recognize who their messiah is. And it is up to them whether they want to believe it or not.”
Wertheim said his older brother “came to believe in Jesus 30 years ago” while in his early 20s. “We felt that he was a traitor, because as Jews, we always equated anti-Semitism with Christianity,” Wertheim said. His brother challenged the family to “read the Jewish Bible and begin to think about Jesus as the messiah.”
“I came to the conclusion after a time that my brother . . . was really right, and so I came to a faith in Jesus also,” he said. “My parents who had endured the Holocaust came to a faith in Jesus as well.”