Who is Not a Jew?

In the midst of an international crisis over Whois a Jew, with Israeli police stopping Conservative and Reform menand women from praying together at the Western Wall and a smallOrthodox group declaring that liberals are not practicing Judaism,it’s good to know there is, apparently, still one thing that all Jewscan agree upon: Who is not acting as a Jew.

The July 24 issue of the Acorn, a widely-readweekly newspaper in the Conejo Valley, carried the headline,”Synagogue Moving to Agoura Hills.” The group is Beth EmunahMessianic Synagogue and its spiritual leader, identified as RabbiMurray Silberling, was quoted as being “excited about the move” westscheduled for October. “We feel that this area is one that is readyto blossom as far as the Jewish community is concerned,” Silberlingtold the paper. “It is continuing to grow on a daily basis. We feelthat we can get in on the ground floor of the Jewishcommunity.”

Barry Pollock, an emergency physician who moved tothe area with his family in 1991, read the headline with pride at yetone more sign of the vitality of his neighborhood, but the articlewith outrage. Pollock was offended by the article’s loose acceptanceof the words “synagogue” and “rabbi” but also its naive definition of”Jew.” Not until the last paragraph did the article quote Silberlingto the effect that Beth Emuna “differs from traditional Rabbinicsynagogues… in that we believe that ‘Yeshua’ or Jesus is theMessiah for the Jewish people … or anyone else.”

Pollock, who once wrote a medical column for theScripps-Howard newspapers in Ventura County, fired off a letter tothe Acorn, accusing the paper of printing a lie. “As a Jew, Iardently resent those who would use the faith of their parents andgrandparents to proselytize, to use pretense and fraud to convertJews, to Christianity,” he wrote. “‘Apostate’ is a hateful term for aperson who abandons one’s faith,” he wrote. “Mr. Silberling — whohas the gaul to call himself a rabbi, — and his congregants, areapostates. They may be former Jews, but they are not Jews…. Thesepeople choose to call themselves Jews, and I abhor them.”

And with that, the battle was joined. Silberlingresponded that Pollock’s invective illustrated “the problem ofignorance” in the religious world; that his congregants were indeedJews “living Torah-respectful lifestyles.” His proof: “many of ourmembers volunteer in and support Jewish organizations such as thoseaffiliated with the Jewish Federation, the Jewish community centersand the Jewish National Fund.”

Pollock was ready to write again, but his rabbi,Gary Johnson of Temple Beth Chaverim, warned that he was playing intothe hands of his adversary. “Messianic Jews love publicity,” Johnsontold me. “It helps their cause.” The rabbi was not alone in hopingthe issue would die down. Several community leaders told me that theAcorn has been good to the Jewish community, printing its pressreleases and frequent ads. But the matter could not be ignored. Foralthough the Acorn printed other letters from concerned Jews, on Aug.7, in an unsigned editorial, “Living Tolerance,” the Acorn sided withSilberling.

“Theology is not the point here,” the paper wrote,expressing surprise and shock that most letter-writers had been socritical of Beth Emuna. “The sobering point is the amazing amount ofintolerance — even scorn — that has come across my desk this weekaimed at those whose religious beliefs some have judged to bewrong.”

What kind of “tolerance” did the paper expect fromits Jewish readers? The Acorn’s editor, Joanna Tobin, did not respondto my calls. She has refused to meet with the Jewish communityleadership, and told Barbara Creme, of the Valley Alliance of theJewish Federation Council, that she was putting the matter torest.

It’s clear the newspaper has no idea that for Jewstargeted for a disinformation campaign, theology is very much thepoint. Can an editor ask people to live in tolerance if she does notunderstand the basic buttons she’s allowing her paper to push? We maynever know her answer to that.

But instead, we are learning something moreimportant than small-town newspaper politics, that a besieged Jewishcommunity can indeed still get its act together.

“The interesting thing is that it took the ‘J-man’to bring us all together,” one community activist told me. Indeed,the community has found itself in a delightful and unique state ofunanimity. Last Wednesday, rabbis from four local synagogues,including Chabad’s Moshe Brisky, met with Federation and othercommunity leaders including Debbie Pine of the Cult AwarenessNetwork. The leaders took aim at the adversary — Jewish ignorancethat might make messianic Judaism seem like a credible alternative.”The one thing we’re all saying is that Temple Beth Emunah is not asynagogue and their faith is not Judaism,” Rabbi Brisky toldme.

A Sept. 9 community-wide educational forum oncults and missionaries will be held at Temple Beth Haverim in AgouraHills. Conejo Valley rabbis have taken an unprecedented step ofissuing a crisp, clear statement on why belief in Jesus is theantithesis of Jewish belief. “We refrain from worshipping anything oranybody other than God,” the rabbis wrote.

The Acorn should print it.

Marlene Adler Marks is editor at large of theJewish Journal. Beginning Sunday, Sept. 7 she’ll host a monthlyprogram “Morning Conversations” at the Skirball Cultural Center. Herfirst guest is Dr. Laura Schlessinger.

All rights reserved by author.


Read a previous week’s column byMarlene Adler Marks:

August 15, 1997 — A LegendaryFriendship

July 25, 1997 — A Perfect Orange

July 18, 1997 — News of Our Own

July 11, 1997 — Celluloid Heroes

July 4, 1997 — Meet theSeekowitzes

June 27, 1997 — The Facts of Life

June 20, 1997 — Reality Bites

June 13, 1997 — The Family Man