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Among Evangelicals, A Kinship With Jews

The Rev. Lamarr Mooneyham's church has raised funds for Israeli causes.
The Rev. Lamarr Mooneyham's church has raised funds for Israeli causes. (By Martin Tucker For The Washington Post)

"Both are Semitisms: That is, both install the Jews at the center of history. One regards this centrality positively, the other regards it negatively. But both are forms of obsession about the Jews," said Leon Wieseltier, a Jewish scholar and literary editor of the New Republic.

The Southern Baptist Convention, to which the Tabernacle belongs, passed a resolution in 1867 calling on its members to convert Jews and renewed that call as recently as 1996. Its former president, Bailey Smith, declared in 1980 that "God Almighty does not hear the prayer of a Jew," and it currently supports about 15 congregations of messianic Jews, who are popularly associated with the organization Jews for Jesus.

So Mooneyham has a ready answer for Jews who doubt his motives: "I think they have a right to be suspicious of just about everybody, given the history."

He also has a personal story. The pivotal moment of Mooneyham's childhood came at age 7 when his parents, in the middle of a divorce, took him and his three sisters to a church parking lot in Burlington, N.C., and parceled them out to relatives for a few weeks. Those few weeks turned into years. The family never came together again.

Nearly 45 years later, the pastor was watching television before a Sunday morning church service when he came upon an infomercial by Rabbi Yechiel Z. Eckstein, founder of a group called the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews. Eckstein was standing in Israel with an elderly woman from Russia who said she was finally home.

"She started crying, he started crying, and I started crying," Mooneyham said. "Then I said, 'Lord, help me, because I'm really going to throw my congregation a curveball today. We're going to help Jews -- we're not going to witness to them, we're just going to help them. Because I know what home means.' "

Since that day five years ago, according to Eckstein, the Tabernacle has sent more than $175,000 to the fellowship, which has a donor base of 400,000 Christians and has contributed more than $100 million to Israeli causes.

"I can only say that what we've done should speak for itself, because we've given and we've asked nothing in return," Mooneyham said. "And that's the way it will stay."

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