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Conversion Outreach Plan Stirs Outrage

Jews for Jesus Trains 600 for Street Work

By David Cho
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, August 17, 2004; Page B01

The ancient debate over Jesus's claim to be the Jewish Messiah is being renewed in Washington this week as hundreds of evangelists seeking to convert Jews take to Metro stops, parks and college campuses -- along with protesters from the Jewish community.

Jews for Jesus, a San Francisco-based group, said it trained more than 600 local volunteers to evangelize the region's 220,000 Jews as part of a worldwide campaign called "Operation Behold Your God."

Stephen Katz, Washington director of Jews for Jesus, says that starting Saturday, his group will flood Metro stops and other locations with leaflets. It is part of "Operation Behold Your God," a worldwide campaign. (Lucian Perkins -- The Washington Post)

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The Washington outreach, at an estimated cost of $200,000, is scheduled to begin tomorrow with three days of planning. On Saturday, teams clad in "Jews for Jesus" shirts will begin blanketing Metro stops with religious leaflets, Washington director Stephen Katz said.

"We are out there to ask people who they think Jesus is," he said. "We want to lovingly confront our people with the claims of Jesus to be our Messiah. . . . We are not twisting arms for conversations. But if people want to stop and chat with us, that's fine."

The campaign is scheduled to end Sept. 18, a few days after Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year -- and the timing has infuriated Jewish leaders. They have planned town hall meetings this week to warn the Jewish community about what they call the coming "threat," and they said they will dispatch counter-missionary teams, which will seek to discredit the group and its conversion effort.

"It's offensive because Judaism is a long-established faith. Nobody wants to be annoyed by people challenging it," said Ronald Halber, executive director of the Jewish Community Council of Greater Washington. "The Jewish community is not opposed to Christians being able to spread their beliefs. But Jews cannot embrace Jesus and remain Jews. We settled that question 2,000 years ago. . . . I mean, can you be a vegetarian and eat meat?"

Since 2001, Jews for Jesus has brought the Behold Your God campaign to 38 other metropolitan areas worldwide with Jewish populations of 25,000 or more. So far, the effort has persuaded about 1,000 Jews and 2,900 non-Jews to put their faith in Jesus, according to Katz. Plans call for sending missionaries to 28 additional cities and eventually, he said, to Israel.

The 31-year-old Jews for Jesus group has conducted previous campaigns in Washington, Katz said, but he added that this one has drawn more volunteers and more attention.

Katz attributed the increased interest to the support of McLean Bible Church, an affluent evangelical congregation of 10,000 that is contributing money and workers. With the church's help, Jews for Jesus has raised enough funds to advertise on popular secular radio stations and in newspapers, Katz said.

The furor over the campaign illustrates the often uneasy relationship between Jews and evangelical Christians. Several Jewish leaders said the Jewish people have no greater political allies when it comes to supporting Israel. But their support is "a doubled-edged sword," said Scott Hillman, executive director of the counter-missionary group Jews for Judaism, which he founded in Baltimore. He said some Christians also believe that the Jewish people need to be gathered in Israel before Jesus will return.

A core belief of Jews for Jesus and other so-called messianic Jews is that one can remain Jewish and accept Jesus as the messiah. As proof, they and other evangelicals often point to the early church, which was filled almost entirely with Jewish believers in Jesus.

But Jewish leaders call that claim "deceptive" and "deeply offensive."

"What we are asking for is a little truth in advertising," Hillman said. Jews for Jesus is "dressing up fundamental Christianity and saying it's Judaism. . . . "Just because Jews are involved in an enterprise doesn't make it Jewish. Jews worshiped the golden calf -- that didn't make [idolatry] Jewish. It was condemned."

Adding to many Jews' anger are the historical links between "evangelistic crusades and waves of anti-Semitism," Halber said.

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