NEW YORK — A mezuzah hangs on the doorframe of a certain three-story gray building in Midwood, a heavily Orthodox section of Brooklyn.
The structure is neither a synagogue, nor a traditional Jewish center. This mezuzah is affixed to the newly opened headquarters of the Chosen People’s Ministry, a missionary organization that persuades Jews to accept Jesus Christ as the Messiah.
Chosen People purchased and renovated a former Jewish funeral home and renamed it the Brooklyn Messianic Center and the Charles Feinberg Center for Messianic Jewish studies. The recently opened 14,000-square foot, $5 million center has classrooms, a library and offices. Those who train here will become missionaries and proselytize in the Jewish community.
And therein lies the rub for Rabbi Yitzchok Fingerer, director of the Brooklyn Jewish Experience, BJX, a local kiruv organization whose mission is to bring Jews back to Judaism.
“They want to deceive and trick as many people as possible. They tell people it’s possible to be Jewish and still believe in Jesus. They are trying to cut people off from their heritage and that’s painful,” Fingerer said.
About one in four residents in Brooklyn identify as Jewish, according to the UJA-Federation New York. More than half of those living in neighborhoods such as Borough Park, Williamsburg and Flatbush are Jewish.
This demographic has attracted both Chosen People and BJX.
Chosen People was founded by Leopold Cohn, a Hungarian rabbi, in Brooklyn in 1894. It’s one of the oldest Messianic Jewish organizations.
“It is the perfect location for Jewish evangelism,” according to the Chosen People website. “There are almost one million Jewish people in Brooklyn, and less than a half of one percent of them believes in Jesus. There are more religious Jewish people in Brooklyn than anywhere else in the world outside of Israel. Brooklyn is ‘Orthodox Central.’”
BJX, on the other hand, was founded by Rabbi Yitzchok Fingerer in 2005. Its new, brightly lit two-room center in Flatbush has a 5-year lease, and is located across from the Kings Highway subway station. The space will hold social gatherings, Shabbat services and, for young Jewish professionals, it offers classes on Jewish philosophy and law.
Fingerer works closely with his brother Moshe Fingerer and other staff to reach secular Jews or those who “left the fold for different reasons and abandoned their heritage,” Moshe Fingerer said. “We want everybody to have a positive Jewish experience, to have a cozy warm feeling.”
Lurking danger in Brooklyn?
The concentration of Jews isn’t the only reason Chosen People picked the Coney Island Avenue location, said Dr. Mitch Glaser, Chosen People’s president.
“For anyone saying we are targeting the Orthodox Jews, I hate to burst their bubble. We found a great property at a great price,” Glaser said.
Born in East Flatbush, Brooklyn to a Modern Orthodox family, Glaser grew up in Queens. He and his family returned to Brooklyn several years ago. That’s also why he chose the borough for the new center.
Chosen People received a fair amount of criticism when it first decided to open its doors, Glaser said.
“I’m a Messianic Jew and I have been for 40 years. I’m well aware of how my fellow Jews feel about me and Jesus,” Glaser said. “I understand the criticism and where they’re coming from.”
Glaser said he sent a letter to BJX asking for a chance to meet, but no one responded.
For its part, BJX said they decided not to meet with representatives from Chosen People or with Glaser. Instead it produced a video, “Danger Lurking in Brooklyn” and posted it on Vimeo. The five-minute film set to sinister music warns viewers to be wary of Chosen People’s attempts to use Jewish symbols and tradition to evangelize unaffiliated and vulnerable Jews.
The video’s narrator tells viewers they can challenge Chosen People by getting involved in BJX, which seeks to reconnect those Jews who felt abandoned by Judaism growing up, or who aren’t very observant, Fingerer said.
Rabbi Yossef Blau, spiritual advisor at Yeshiva University, said it’s difficult to measure the true impact of a group such as Chosen People. However, he said missionary groups do threaten Judaism.
“They are selling Christianity as a form of Judaism and in that sense it’s deceptive,” Blau said. “They are going after people with limited Jewish knowledge, trying to sell them on the notion that they can still be Jewish if they accept Jesus. They are telling them they can be a part of American society which is a Christian world – and that is appealing to some.”
In its own way BJX is also a missionary group, trying to make Jews more Jewish
On the other hand, Blau said in its own way BJX is also a missionary group, trying to make Jews more Jewish. Through special dinners, social events and services they reach out to Jews with little knowledge of the religion, or those who are disillusioned with the religion.
“He [Fingerer] does outreach and is anti-Footsteps, an organization that helps people from the Chasidic world who want to get out. He is trying to preserve people who are Orthodox stay in that world,” Blau said.
The difference between the two groups is that BJX is actively seeking to spread knowledge about Judaism to Jews, Blau said. Chosen People is telling Jews they don’t have to renounce Judaism to believe in Jesus.
Glaser said he understands why some criticize his ministry, however he takes issue with the idea that he or the ministry is trying to deceive people.
“Are we guilty as charged? Of course not,” Glaser said. “There always needs to be truth in advertising, otherwise it is unethical. So we bend over backwards not to be deceptive.”
Indeed, the ministry’s website clearly states it’s intention to actively proselytize in Orthodox communities because “religious Jewish people rarely travel outside of their communities, so it would be impossible to reach them without living and ministering among them.”
Nevertheless, the presence of missionaries on the streets of his Flatbush neighborhood upsets Phillip Ort, a real estate developer.
“There are always missionaries in the area, but it’s more aggressive with this group and they seem highly active and they’ve got much more money,” Ort said.
For now BJX plans to use its video to make its point.
“Awareness is building,” Fingerer said of the video, which has had some 27,000 views on Vimeo. “My problem with these people is they are intent on misleading others. People are free to do what they want, but don’t deceive. Don’t prey upon those who are vulnerable. Leave the Jewish community alone. There are enough gentiles who need outreach.”