LONDON — A missionary group’s exploitation of a planning loophole may well be stymied after a complaint to the local London council.

Jews for Jesus began work last month on a large double-fronted shop premises in the heart of north-west London’s Jewish community, Hendon Central. The premises were formerly occupied by a betting shop.

Jews for Jesus, whose projected and provocative arrival in Hendon has been greeted with consternation and dismay by the Jewish community, has not sought planning permission from Barnet Council for change of use of the retail premises to what it says is an educational resource centre.

But there may be a clue in the temporary fascia now above the as-yet-unopened center: Jews for Jesus Book and Gifts, says the sign.

‘Jews for Jesus is unwelcome in Hendon – or anywhere else’

“Even political parties, close to election time, can take over retail premises and put a mug or a t-shirt in the window, saying they are for sale, and thus won’t need planning permission,” one gloomy Barnet councillor told the Times of Israel.

Nevertheless, a spokesman for Barnet Council confirmed this week that the council had received a complaint about “a possible unlawful change of use” and was currently in the process of investigating the complaint.

Barnet, like several other London councils, does not have a good reputation for enforcing its own planning regulations, but this time it may well have to act. Complainants are understood to have referred to the supposed retail nature of the operation as “a device and a ruse,” urging Barnet to drill down and see what Jews for Jesus is really doing in Hendon.

“Any group that targets Jews for missionary activity is totally rejected by the Jewish community. Jews for Jesus is unwelcome in Hendon – or anywhere else. They should pack up shop and leave,” said Jonathan Arkush, vice-president of the Board of Deputies.

‘Jews for Jesus is a cult, nothing less, with a clear tendency to brainwashing people into false beliefs’

Jews for Jesus’s branch leader, Julia Pascoe, and her fellow missionaries, Barry and Alison Barnett, have belied their organization’s belief in outreach by avoiding speaking to the Times of Israel about their aims in coming to the heartland of the Jewish community.

Pascoe made an initial comment several weeks ago, saying that the group was “excited” to be back in the area (they have spent several years in other parts of north London with far less Jewish population). Describing the group as “good neighbors,” she added: “We are hoping to serve the local community by providing high quality Judaica items, books of a spiritual nature and a place to have a good conversation if desired. Our signage clearly states who we are and what we believe, which provides an ethical framework for engaging further.”

But despite repeated attempts to speak to Pascoe over the last two weeks, she has not made herself available to answer questions about the group’s arrival in Hendon. Simon and Alison Barnett, her fellow missionaries, actually ran away from this reporter, hurrying off down the street away from the center’s premises. (The couple met at a Jews for Jesus conference and married in 2007.)

So how dangerous are Jews for Jesus? How bad is it if local Jews wander into their bright and shiny premises, looking to buy a menorah or a dreidel when the center opens around Hanukkah?

Canadian-born Rabbi Yitzchak Schochet, rabbi to the Orthodox Mill Hill Synagogue, a few miles from Hendon (Jenni Frazer/The Times of Israel)

Canadian-born Rabbi Yitzchak Schochet, rabbi to the Orthodox Mill Hill Synagogue, a few miles from Hendon (Jenni Frazer/The Times of Israel)

One man in a position to know is Canadian-born Rabbi Yitzchak Schochet, rabbi to the Orthodox Mill Hill Synagogue, a few miles from Hendon. The rabbi’s late father, Immanuel Schochet, based in Toronto, was the scourge of missionary societies and was frequently called on to “de-program” vulnerable young Jews who had been caught up in the coils of Jews for Jesus and other such groups. He had, declared his son, a “100 percent success rate” in rescuing Jews from missionary groups.

Speaking to the Times of Israel this week, Rabbi Schochet said: “Whenever society as a whole seems on a bit of a downer, it’s a climate where Jews are more susceptible. Jews for Jesus is a cult, nothing less, with a clear tendency to brainwashing people into false beliefs. And they also tend to target the most vulnerable, which is why they need to be smacked down.”

‘When people are looking for a virtual or a literal hug, there are Jews for Jesus’

People do not, Schochet said, “appreciate the enormity of the threat. They spend fortunes to lure one Jewish soul. They are offering emotional warmth and when people are looking for a virtual or a literal hug, there are Jews for Jesus.”

Schochet called for “a continuing campaign” against the presence of the group in Hendon.

But there is real concern about how best to deal with Jews for Jesus. Some religious leaders felt that attacking the group publicly might, to use the famous phrase of Margaret Thatcher, give them “the oxygen of publicity,” drawing attention to them and allowing them to portray themselves as nice people who were being traduced by the ignorant. Others would be ready to back a much more vocal and aggressive response, such as pavement demonstrations outside the center.

Nevertheless, Schochet is also a realist. People only walk into the arms of missionaries, he acknowledged, if they are not getting the real thing from their own community.

Rabbis and Jewish leaders need to step up their game, he felt, so that young people could hear the authentic voice of Judaism, and would not need to be attracted by Jews for Jesus. Certainly, ignoring them is no longer an option.