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."
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.
Some of that alarm was apparent among the 200 people who attended last night's town hall meeting at the Jewish Community Center of Northern Virginia in Fairfax. Similar meetings are scheduled for today in Rockville and tomorrow in the District.
Debbie Levi, 53, of Centreville attended because two close relatives joined Jews for Jesus in New York City. She said she heard good advice last night about keeping the lines of communication open with them and letting them know "there's a place for them to come back."
Asked about the Jews for Jesus outreach in Washington, she said she didn't feel "threatened, more concerned. I'm concerned that it might get a foothold."
The issue is divisive within Christendom as well.
The Rev. Clark Lobenstine, a Presbyterian minister and executive director of the InterFaith Conference of Metropolitan Washington, said his group condemns Jews for Jesus and other messianic Jewish groups by name because of "proselytizing efforts" that "go beyond the bounds of appropriate and ethically based religious outreach."
A conference statement refers to the practice of many messianic Jews who say they go to synagogue instead of church or refer to their pastors as rabbis to draw Jews to their gatherings. Lobenstine said that local Jewish leaders, offended at those tactics, had a large say in crafting that passage.
But other Christian groups have pledged their support for Jews for Jesus, with some calling it a duty to evangelize the Jewish people. Ten Christian congregations in the area are actively helping the Behold Your God campaign.
The Rev. Lon Solomon, senior pastor of McLean Bible Church, was born Jewish and became a born-again Christian in the 1970s. He explains his support for Jews for Jesus in part by pointing to the book of Romans, in which the Apostle Paul wrote that the Christian Gospel was "first for the Jew, then for the Gentile."
"To be honest with you, there are a lot of churches that don't have the courage to stand up and take the heat and criticism that the Jewish community is going to generate," Solomon said. "And we just figured some church is going to have to do that, and why not us."
Katz said he feels that Jewish leaders are not allowing members of their own community to engage in an honest discussion about the claims of Jesus. Over the years, he said, he has been spit on and hit by Jews who wanted him to stop his evangelistic campaigns.
"Tolerance has become one of America's top cultural values," he said. "In that sense, I think it's a shame that there are people who seek to oppress views and oppose open discussion. . . . If something can stand up to an honest investigation, let it stand. If it falls, let it fall."