Messianic Judaism’s new interfaith push in Beverly Hills

Since it opened in 2011, the Interfaith Center of Beverly Hills has been sitting mostly empty.

On the one hand, it occupies a piece of prime real estate on the ground floor of a modern office building on a busy stretch of South Beverly Drive. Actors and agents take meetings at Urth Caffé, less than one block away. Just across the street, machers meet for coffee at Larry King’s Original Brooklyn Water Bagel Co. Although it’s hard to understand exactly what the stark, black letters above the Interfaith Center’s entrance mean, it’s just as hard to miss them.

Yet except for a few classes that take place during the week and a Christian prayer group that sublets the space for Sunday morning services, so few people use the spare storefront at the corner of Gregory Way and South Beverly Drive that the owner of the cafe across the street confessed she hadn’t ever seen anyone go in or out.

“I’d really like to know what goes on there,” said Anahit Hagopian, who owns the BeverLiz Café.

But for one older man who wandered in on a recent Tuesday afternoon — his full beard and long, curled sidelocks looking especially white against the black flat-topped, wide-brimmed hat on his head and his ankle-length black coat — there was little question about what he thought the space’s function was.

“I see a shul, mit seforim …” a synagogue, with scholarly books, he said, speaking a mix of English and Yiddish that would be instantly understandable to any Orthodox yeshiva student.

Despite the mezuzah on its doorframe and the bookshelves lining the back wall, the Interfaith Center isn’t a house of Jewish prayer. It’s the site of a new attempt by Messianic Jews to draw in the mainstream Jewish community.

“It’s not a synagogue,” Stuart Dauermann, a leader in the Messianic Jewish movement, told the old man, who left moments later, a cold can of cola in his hand. “It’s a study center — but not quite a beit midrash either.”

“Not quite this, but also not that,” is a description that might equally apply to Messianic Jews themselves. Some Jewish followers of Jesus — or “Yeshua,” as they call him, using the Christian messiah’s Hebrew name — have no problem calling themselves Christians; others reject that label, and all are, quite simply, not welcome in the mainstream Jewish world.

“Messianic Jewish congregations are not Jewish,” Rabbi Mark Diamond, executive vice president of the Board of Rabbis of Southern California, said. “And speaking of Jesus as ‘Yeshua’ is often an attempt to hide what a group truly believes in. They have every right to practice what they like, but call it what it is.”

Dauermann — who intersperses his speech with Hebrew and Yiddish words, wears tzitzit (the religiously mandated fringed garment) and says he “feels naked” when studying without his kippah — resists being classified as Christian and describes himself as an observant Jew.

In an interview with The Journal, Dauermann said the mission of the Interfaith Center is to promote “increased understanding between Jews and Christians.”

“We may not have agreement, but we can make progress,” Dauermann, the center’s chief visionary officer, said. Asked what would constitute “progress,” he answered vaguely, pointing to the center’s two-word mission statement, “Rethink religion.”

Dauermann, 67, has been rethinking religion for most of his life. Born into a Conservative Jewish family in Brooklyn, he turned to Jesus when he was 19. A noted composer of Messianic Jewish music, Dauermann has also become a leader within the Messianic Jewish community, which counts about 400 congregations and fellowships in the United States that range in size from a few dozen to a few hundred people.

In 2011, Dauermann stepped down from his post as rabbi of one such congregation, Ahavat Zion Messianic Synagogue (AZS), also located on Beverly Drive, where he had served for 20 years.

Dauermann said he stepped down from that post because he realized he was getting older and wanted to be “more focused” on his life’s work, namely, “interpreting the Jewish world to the Christian world and, perhaps, interpreting the Christian world to the Jewish world.”

“I spend a lot of time talking to Christians about Jews,” Dauermann said, “improving Christians’ attitudes and behavior toward Jewish people, toward one of greater respect.”

The Interfaith Center isn’t looking to engage with Muslims, Hindus or anyone other than Christians and Jews. Dauermann sees himself as uniquely placed at the “intersection” of those two religions; he wrote the brochure for the Interfaith Center, which mines that vehicular metaphor rather intensively.

“How many conversations or relationships between Christians and Jews you know have ended up as collisions? How many intermarried families do you know that are having their share of relational fender-benders?” reads the text of “Interfaith Intersections,” which can be downloaded from the center’s Web site. “We’re familiar with the intersection, and we’re here to help.”

The identity of the center’s parent organization — the Messianic Jewish Theological Institute (MJTI) — isn’t hidden, per se, but neither is it trumpeted, only appearing in very small print on the brochure’s last panel. Similarly, while mainstream Jewish synagogues often plaster the names of their donors on walls, doors and all manner of other surfaces, the Interfaith Center offers no clear indication of its patronage, and Dauermann declined to identify any of the individuals who support the nonprofit MJTI.

“People like to preserve their privacy,” Dauermann said, “and I believe in derekh eretz [appropriate conduct].”

Nor would Dauermann specify exactly what leasing the space (which was most recently occupied by the high-end clothing retailer Lisa Kline) is costing the center each month. The most recent form filed with the IRS by the nonprofit MJTI covers a period before the opening of the Interfaith Center. That year, which ended on Sept. 30, 2010, MJTI ran a $1.17 million deficit, declaring $178,000 in revenues against $1.35 million in expenses. Most of that money — $773,000 — was devoted to employee salaries and benefits.

Dauermann did dispute the belief held by many neighbors that the center sits empty more often than it is in use, however.

“Daytime activities are not our forte, because most people are not free during the daytime,” he said, “and that’s part of the reason for that perception.”

The center could be more heavily utilized in the near future, Dauermann said, especially once Andrew Sparks, a messianic rabbi who was Dauermann’s partner in developing the Interfaith Center, returns to his duties as the person directly responsible for programming at the center. Sparks was seriously injured in June when he was hit by a car while crossing a street near Beverly Hills. Sparks was not available for comment; Dauermann said he is recovering. 

Although many often equate Messianic Jews with the Jews for Jesus organization, Joshua Brumbach, who took over for Dauermann as rabbi of AZS, said the two are different.

“Jews for Jesus is a Christian missionary organization; they exist to get Jews to convert to Christianity,” Brumbach said. “They attend churches, and they don’t believe that the mitzvot [Jewish religious commandments] are obligatory anymore.”

Messianic Jews, by contrast, want Jews “to be better Jews, instead of less so,” Brumbach said.

Brumbach, 35, said he was born into a Messianic Jewish family and that he studied in a yeshiva in Europe (which he declined to name). He represents a new generation of Messianic Jewish leaders, who are coming to the fore of a movement that has undergone some significant changes in recent years, according to Benzion Kravitz, an Orthodox rabbi who founded the Los Angeles-based counter-missionary organization Jews for Judaism in 1975.

“[It] has evolved from originally just being a ploy to Jews with the goal of getting people through it into the church,” Kravitz said, “to developing into its own movement separate from the church, which is what Stuart Dauermann wants.”

Brumbach would appear to share this goal. He said he is working to update services at AZS, making them “much more participatory, bringing in Carlebach-style melodies to make the davening [prayer] more engaging for young people.”

Kravitz said he tends to ignore Messianic synagogues unless he hears reports about them evangelizing to Jews, and that he hasn’t heard any such complaints about the Interfaith Center. But as a place that explicitly invites Jews to join in conversation with Messianic Jews, Kravitz said that the Interfaith Center is, in his view, “treif,” or unkosher.

“Their mishmash of Judaism and Christianity, in their minds, is the true way to practice Judaism,” he said, “which invalidates Reform, Conservative and Orthodox [Judaism], anything rabbinic.”

Dauermann, for his part, said he understands why many Jews oppose Messianic Jews like him.

“I encourage Jews to live as Jews,” Dauermann said, “and my preference is that they should live as Jews.”

But given that he believes that living as a Jew and believing in Jesus are not incompatible, doesn’t Dauermann want other Jews to accept Jesus as he has?

“I have great respect for the fact that people live their own lives and make their own decisions,” Dauermann said.

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.

Joel Chernoff, CEO of the Messianic Jewish Alliance of America.

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.

Messianic group paid Santorum for speaking gig

Republican presidential candidate and former Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.) accepted a paid speaking engagement from a Messianic Judaism group. 

According to Politico, Santorum received $6,000 in 2010 from the Messianic Jewish Alliance of America to speak at its annual conference, which was reported in the release of Santorum’s personal financial disclosure statement on Wednesday.

The alliance embraces Messianic Judaism, one of several sects that have come under fire for proselytizing among Jews, in part by claiming that belief in Jesus does not obviate Jewish tenets.

Santorum is currently 300 delegates behind front-runner former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney in the race for the Republican presidential nomination.

Calif. Messianic pastor’s home vandalized with swastika

The home of a Messianic pastor in California was vandalized with a swastika.

A swastika and the word “Jew” were painted on the Hemet, Calif., home that Pastor Michael Rose shares with his wife and children, The Press-Enterprise newspaper reported.

Police are investigating the vandalism as a hate crime. Rose, pastor at the Light of Love Chapel, discovered the vandalism on Thursday morning.

Self-identified Messianic Jews embrace Christian theology and adopt some Jewish practices. Some are of Jewish ancestry, though many are not. Jewish groups have objected to the movement’s use of terms such as “Messianic Judaism” as misleading.

Report: Respect for Religious Freedom Downl in Israel; Grandfather, Mother Charged in Girl’s Murd

Report: Respect for Religious Freedom Fell in Israel

Respect for religious freedom in Israel has declined, according to a new U.S. State Department report.

An increase in “societal abuses and discrimination” against “some evangelical Christian groups as well as Messianic Jews” has contributed to a “slight decline in respect for religious freedom” in Israel, according to the State Department’s Annual Report on International Religious Freedom.

The report also stated that “relations among religious and ethnic groups” were “often strained during the reporting period, which was “due primarily to the continuing Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the Government’s unequal treatment of non-Orthodox Jews, including the Government’s recognition of only Orthodox Jewish religious authorities in personal and some civil status matters concerning Jews.”

The report covered the period from July 1, 2007 through June 30, 2008.

The report also states that Iran has seen “a rise in officially sanctioned anti-Semitic propaganda involving official statements, media outlets, publications, and books.” In addition, “the Government’s anti-Semitic rhetoric, along with a perception among radical Muslims that all Jewish citizens of the country support Zionism and the state of Israel, continued to create a hostile atmosphere for Jews. The rhetorical attacks also further blurred the line between Zionism, Judaism, and Israel, and contributed to increased concerns about the future security of the Jewish community.”

Venezuela also was named as a state sponsor of anti-Semitism in the document “because of statements by the president, other government officials, and government-affiliated media outlets.” It added that “the local Jewish community expressed strong concerns that such statements and publications fostered a climate permissive of anti-Semitic actions, creating an atmosphere of fear and distrust of the community.”

Grandfather, Mother Charged in Girl’s Murder

The grandfather and mother of a 4-year-old girl whose remains were found in a Tel Aviv river were charged with murder.

Ronny Ron and Marie Pizem were charged Monday with killing Rose Pizem and dumping her body in a red suitcase into the Yarkon River.

Rose was buried Monday in the town of Montesson, west of Paris.

An autopsy performed last week at The Institute of Forensic Medicine in Tel Aviv could not determine the cause of death.

Ron confessed to police during his arrest more than a month ago that he accidentally killed Rose by hitting her when she bothered him while he was driving. He told police to search the Yarkon River for a red suitcase carrying her remains.

Ron later recanted his confession.

Jewish community leaders, and a representative from Israel’s police force attended Rose’s funeral, which was conducted in “religious Christian” tradition, according to the CRIF Jewish umbrella organization vice president, Meier Habib, who participated, reported the French Press Agency.

Briefs courtesy of Jewish Telegraphic Agency.

World Briefs

Olympics Ban Wanted

Jewish groups called on the International Olympic Committee to impose penalties after an Iranian athlete refused to compete against an Israeli. The Simon Wiesenthal Center and the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) called for action after Iranian judokan Arash Miresmaeili refused to fight Israel’s Ehud Vaks on Aug. 13.

Miresmaeili said he took his stance to protest Israeli treatment of the Palestinians, drawing praise from Iranian President Mohammed Khatami. The ADL said the entire Iranian Olympic team should be banned, while the Wiesenthal Center said that “all those who supported and took part in the decision” should be penalized. Iran refuses to recognize the Jewish state.

Arafat: Mistakes Were Made

Yasser Arafat admitted members of the Palestinian leadership had “misused” their positions. In a rare admission, the Palestinian Authority president told Palestinian lawmakers Wednesday that “nobody is immune from mistakes, starting from me on down.”

But Arafat did not say what specific action would be taken. It’s widely acknowledged that many Palestinian officials, including Arafat, profited from their positions atop the Palestinian Authority.

U.S. Forces in Israel?

The United States denied a report its forces were undergoing counter-insurgency training in Israel. The Jerusalem Post reported Wednesday that Iraq-bound U.S. commandos were being trained at Adam Special Forces base outside Jerusalem, but did not give details. In response, the U.S. Embassy in Tel Aviv said no U.S. forces were currently undergoing training in Israel, though it didn’t deny that there might have been such cooperation in the past. According to Israeli security sources, in designing tactics for Iraq, many U.S. officials have drawn on lessons Israel learned in its sweeps for Palestinian terrorists.

Tourism to Israel Up

Tourism to Israel was up 58 percent in the first half of 2004 compared to the same time period in 2003. Nearly 822,000 tourists visited Israel in the fist six months of the year, according to statistics released by Israel’s Central Bureau of Statistics and the Tourism Ministry. An estimated 1.4 million tourists are expected to visit Israel this year.

‘Messianic Jew’ Can Distribute Pamphlets On

The University of New Orleans will allow a Messianic Jew to distribute literature on campus. The school settled a lawsuit recently with a female student who had taken the school to court after being blocked from distributing several pamphlets, including one that proclaimed, “Jews should believe in Jesus.” Religious literature previously had to be screened by the school. The American Center for Law and Justice, a civil rights group that filed the suit on the student’s behalf, said the policy is now consistent with the First Amendment.

A Site of Their Own

A section of the Western Wall in Jerusalem set aside for women’s and mixed prayer services was officially inaugurated. The site, located on a section of the wall next to Robinson’s Arch, now home to an archeological garden, will be used starting Wednesday for all-women’s prayer services conducted by the Women of the Wall group. The site also will be used for mixed services held by Israel’s Conservative movement, which has been using the site unofficially for the past five years. The area has a separate entrance that will keep women away from direct contact with other worshipers, some of whom oppose some types of women’s public prayer in the Wall’s main prayer area.

Eugenics Proponent Running for Congress

A Republican candidate for Congress advocates incorporating eugenics into public policy. James Hart of Tennessee promises to use eugenics, the pseudo-science that was a precursor to the Holocaust, as the basis for policy proposals if elected. “Favored Races,” his political manifesto available on his campaign Web site, mentions Jews but doesn’t say which demographic groups would suffer under his proposals. Discussion boards on the site overflow with rejections of eugenics, which encourages selective breeding. Tennessee’s state GOP has denounced Hart’s platform and distanced itself from the candidate after failing to place its preferred Republican on the November ballot. Democrat John Tanner, an eight-term incumbent from the state’s Eighth District, is expected to prevail easily.

Nobel Prize-Winning Poet Dies

Nobel prize-winning Polish poet Czeslaw Milosz, died Aug. 14 at age 93. He was close to Jews and Jewish causes from an early age, and some of his most eloquent and disturbing works dealt with the Holocaust, Holocaust memory and the complex relations between Jews and Catholic Poles. One of his most famous poems, “Campo dei Fiori,” written in 1943, described how Poles outside the Warsaw Ghetto were oblivious to the fate of the Jews as the Nazis destroyed the ghetto. This and another Milosz poem about Polish indifference to the destruction of the ghetto sparked one of Poland’s first important public debates on the issue of Holocaust guilt and memory, which was carried out in a series of essays and articles in the late 1980s. In his Nobel acceptance speech in 1980, Milosz described how memory of the Holocaust was fading and becoming distorted, and how the complexities and nuances of history were becoming forgotten.

“We are surrounded today by fictions about the past, contrary to common sense and to an elementary perception of good and evil,” he said.

Briefs courtesy Jewish Telegraphic Agency.