Messianic Jewish groups claim rapid growth
About 200 congregants filled the stain glassed-windowed sanctuary on a Shabbat morning this spring, praying, singing and welcoming new members. Among the newly welcomed members was a young Israeli man, named Yoav. Not really extraordinary news, except Congregation Beth Hallel in a northern suburb of Atlanta is not a typical synagogue. Indeed, it is a member of the International Alliance of Messianic Congregations and Synagogues (IAMCS), the largest ordaining body in the messianic Jewish movement.
Beth Hallel is only one of a number of messianic Jewish congregations in the Atlanta area – and one of some 800 messianic Jewish congregations in the world, according to Joel Chernoff, CEO of Messianic Jewish Alliance of America (MJAA), up from zero in 1967. “Messianic Judaism is the fastest growing stream of religious Jewish life since 1967,” said Chernoff, who said he grew up in a messianic Jewish family. Sharing his extrapolated and complicated arithmetic, Chernoff credited the Council of Jewish Federation’s 1990 National Jewish Population Survey for his belief that there are now more than one million messianic Jews. “Jews are becoming believers in Yehoshuah,” he says, referring to Jesus.
How can one be Jewish and accept Jesus?
Of course, mainstream Jewish leaders argue that messianic Judaism is not Judaism at all. How can one be Jewish and accept Jesus as the Messiah? Messianic Judaism, says Rabbi Eric Yoffie, president emeritus of the Union of Reform Judaism, is “built on a lie. They are lying about us and lying about themselves; they distort both.”
The rabbi of the Reform congregation not far from Beth Hallel says he rarely sees any of the messianic congregation’s members—“except those who want to see what a normative Jewish experience looks like,” says Rabbi Fred Greene of Temple Beth Tikvah. Greene expresses more concern about a local Baptist mega-church whose members approach Jewish teens and challenge them: “if you don’t find Jesus, you’ll go to hell.” Area high schools host rallies sponsored by the Fellowship for Christian Athletes. Other rabbis in the Atlanta area, even those who gladly share stages for pro-Israel rallies with evangelical groups, draw the line with messianic Jewish leaders, who also call themselves rabbis.
Still, while that line between evangelicals and messianic Jews may be distinct in the United States, in Israel, it has become fuzzier as the country reaches out for political support wherever it can get it.
Beth Hallel’s Rabbi Robert Solomon says his congregation is the oldest and largest messianic Jewish synagogue in Georgia and one of the largest messianic congregations in the world. “The congregation comes from many different backgrounds, including all branches of traditional Judaism as well as many denominations. While the majority of our member families come from a Jewish background, we have a strong minority of non-Jewish members as well.”
How many messianics are Jews?
Al Lopez, the leader of the Olive Tree Messianic Congregation in the Atlanta area, who, in contrast to Rabbi Solomon says he was ordained as a pastor, says most of his congregants are non-Jewish. Both messianic Jewish leaders say congregants come to them through word of mouth, through friends who spread the word. They claim they do not go into the Jewish community looking for new members.
They say, that in many cases, intermarried couples find their way to messianic congregations. In other cases, they assert, Jews who feel alienated from their heritage and traditional Jewish synagogues are attracted to messianic Judaism. Atlanta’s Beth Ha’Mashiach calls itself a congregation of Jews and Gentiles “together worshipping Adonai in a unique blend of church and synagogue.”
At Beth Hallel, beyond the Israeli new member, congregants were comprised of many nationalities and races, oftentimes couples with small children, all raising their hands to the Lord as they sang along with words provided on an overhead screen. Some messianic Jewish leaders acknowledge that, not only is the combination of religious practices confusing for potential new members, but it is a real problem for the movement.
According to Needham, Massachusetts-based messianic Rabbi Richard Nichol, this underlines a “foundational weakness in messianic Judaism. If there are a significant majority of non-Jews, this trivializes the enterprise. This is a problem for us. We must be consciously aware of who joins our synagogues and make it clear that this is a home for Jewish people. It needs to be Jewish space.”
Jewish space? While some some traditional Jewish prayers are recited on Shabbat and tallit, kipot and tefillin are worn by some, the Beth Hallel congregants also praise Jesus as the Messiah and are asked to place money in envelopes that were then collected at the end of the aisles.
Jan Jaben-Eilon is a long-time journalist who has written for The New York Times, Business Week, the International Herald Tribune, the Jerusalem Report and Womenetics. She was a founding reporter for the Atlanta Business Chronicle and was international editor for Advertising Age before she fulfilled a lifelong dream of moving to Israel. Jan and her Jerusalem-born husband have an apartment in that city, but live in Atlanta.